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The Seven Western Plots

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Western variety.

The Western has many tropes and traditions that make it unique amongst adventure story genres, and has developed many different conventions. Just as many character archetypes developed just for the Wild West, so too did archetypal plots. Author and screenwriter Frank Gruber codified seven such basic plots for The Western:

  1. Union Pacific story - the plot concerns either the construction of a railroad, a telegraph line, or some other type of modern technology or transportation, or follows an event happening at a pre-existing railroad. Wagon train stories fall into this category.
  2. Ranch story - the plot follows a ranch and the people working on it, and often concerns threats to the ranch from rustlers or large landowners attempting to force out the proper owners. It often stars a Determined Homesteader and/or his wife and children and features a Cattle Baron or a Railroad Baron as antagonists. The hero is usually The Drifter or some other outsider.
  3. Empire story - the plot involves building a ranch empire or an oil empire from scratch, a classic Rags to Riches plot. This is the kind of story where a Railroad Baron, Cattle Baron, etc., is an Honest Corporate Executive rather than a corrupt one, if this character isn’t an Anti-Hero or a Villain Protagonist.
  4. Revenge story - the plot often involves an elaborate chase and pursuit of a villain by an individual he wronged, but it may also include elements of the classic mystery story.
  5. Cavalry and Indian story - the plot revolves around "taming" the wilderness for white settlers. In its classic form, a Discredited Trope nowadays due to the obvious Unfortunate Implications, so modern versions will typically be more sympathetic to the Native people.
  6. Outlaw story - outlaw gangs dominate the action, either as Lovable Rogues, Villain Protagonists, or the bad guys.
  7. Marshal story - the lawman, his deputies, and the challenges they face drive the plot. The above outlaws are the natural antagonists in this kind of story, so expect a lot of overlap.

See also Western Characters for another important Western trope, The Magnificent Seven Samurai and A Fistful of Rehashes for other common Western plots, and The Seven Basic Plots for seven basic plots that aren't restricted to Westerns.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Trigun is a revenge story as Vash the Stampede hunts down his brother Millions Knives who sabotaged humanity's space colonizing ships and killed their mother surrogate Rem Sabrem.

    Comic Books 
  • The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is an empire story chronicling Scrooge McDuck's rise to becoming the richest duck in the world, and much of the early story is actually set in the old west where Scrooge works on a riverboat in Louisville, as a cowboy in Montana, and in copper mining when the cattle boom ends.
  • Varmints is a revenge story chronicling the misadventures of young kids Opie and Ned trying to find the man who shot their mother.
  • Crow Jane is a revenge story, focusing on a Native American girl with a Healing Factor who is gunned down by her fiance and after shooting him seeks revenge against the guy who put him up to it.
  • The Jonah Hex (2005) series was largely composed of done-in-ones so by it's nature it covered quite a few of these plots, sometimes repeatedly. Issues #13 - 15 for example are mainly a revenge story of Hex tracking down some corrupt ex-Union officers who crucified him during the American Civil War.

    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Great Train Robbery and Stagecoach, the respective Ur-Example and the Trope Codifier of the modern Western, are both railroad stories, making that particular story the oldest of the Western plots.
  • The Iron Horse chronicles the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, making it a railroad story.
  • 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is a hybrid of the Ranch story and Marshal story. Rancher Dan Evans is struggling financially due to a three-year drought. So when the local sheriff offers a $200 reward to anyone who'll help transport the recently arrested outlaw Ben Wade to the prison train, Evans jumps at the opportunity. The 2007 remake also mixes in the Outlaw story, as it gives increased screen time to Ben Wade, as well as his gang's attempts to free him.
  • High Noon is a hybrid marshal/outlaw/revenge story, where the marshal has to face a band of outlaws who want revenge on him for arresting them previously.
  • ‘’Rio Bravo’’ is also a hybrid marshal/outlaw/revenge story, only it’s more of Take That! to High Noon above.
  • A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing, both adaptations of Yojimbo focus on two gangs terrorizing a town and one lone badass who plays both sides in order to save the few innocents caught in the middle of it, making both movies and the entire A Fistful of Rehashes plot an outlaw story. However, A Fistful of Dollars takes place in the actual old west while Last Man Standing updates the setting to The Roaring '20s.
  • For a Few Dollars More: Colonel Mortimer's character arc is a revenge story, as he's hunting down El Indio for killing his brother-in-law and raping his sister who killed herself in remorse. In their climactic duel, Indio taunts him by playing his sister's musical pocketwatch and daring him to draw his weapon by the time the music ends, and Manco plays Mortimer's own musical pocketwatch and throws him his gunbelt, allowing Mortimer to finish Indio off.
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Despite the film being a deconstruction of the genre, the film itself is largely a mixture of a revenge and outlaw story, following Blondie (the Good), Angel Eyes (the Bad), and Tuco (the Ugly), as they pursue a chest of Confederate gold while constantly betraying and trying to kill each other along the way.
  • The Wild Bunch is a Deconstructed outlaw story, starring a gang of aging outlaws in the Twilight of the Old West getting caught up in the Mexican Revolution.
  • Once Upon a Time in the West follows the enigmatic Harmonica, who, after repeated attempts to meet with Frank failed, decides to aid Jill McBain alongside notorious outlaw Cheyenne in keeping Jill as the land owner of a ranch the local railroad company, owned by Mr. Morton (whom Frank works for), seeks to purchase from; ownership of the land itself is dictated based on if McBain's late husband (and any living inheritors like herself) could build a station by the time the railroad reaches them. While McBain and Cheyenne have their own agendas with Mr. Morton, the former desiring to honor her late husband's wishes by building a new town on their land while the latter was a scapegoat for the deaths of McBain's husband and children, Harmonica's motivations are much more mysterious, and more focused on Frank, who, for most of the film, can't quite remember who Harmonica is and why they know each other. It isn't until the final duel between Harmonica and Frank that it's revealed that Harmonica has a deeply personal vendetta against Frank, who is revealed in a flashback to have killed Harmonica's brother many years before. Frank only finally remembers who Harmonica is just before succumbing to his gunshot wound (having drawn too slow against Harmonica), revealing that film was truly a revenge story the entire time.
  • Blazing Saddles is an Affectionate Parody Western that combines Union Pacific and Marshall stories with a satire on racism. Unscrupulous railroad baron Hedley Lamarr wants to build his railway through the town of Rock Ridge and plots to run the townsfolk out, first by sending his goons to terrorize them, then by making African-American Bart their new sheriff, hoping the racist populace will leave in disgust. Bart catches on to his plan and after winning the people over, plots to defeat Lamarr.
  • Silverado combines the Outlaw and Ranch plots as a group of implied Retired Outlaws fight to save the titular town's honest homesteaders from a wealthy, corrupt rancher and a sheriff who was once an outlaw himself.
  • The Warriors and Streets of Fire, both directed by Walter Hill, bring the outlaw story to the modern day. The former deals with the Coney Island Warriors chased by every other street gang in New York, while the latter is about war veteran Tom Cody rescuing his ex-girlfriend from violent street gang the Bombers.
  • Wild West Days is a 1937 Universal serial that offers a pure example of #2, the "Ranch" plot. A brave cowboy fights to save his old buddy's ranch from the villainous speculators who want to buy up all the land on that stretch of the border with Mexico. Things get more complicated when platinum deposits are found on the ranch.
  • The B Western The Beast of Hollow Mountain starts out as a standard ranch story about a rancher's business and romantic rivalry with the less scrupulous owner of a neighboring ranch. Then a dinosaur walks into the plot for some reason.
  • Being something of a Western pastiche, Back to the Future Part III works in elements of different Western plots for the sake of allusion. For example, Marty's arrival in 1885 has him seeing a Cavalry and Indian story playing out, but it's never brought up again after that. Ultimately, however, the majority of the film is an Outlaw story, with Buford Tannen and his gang serving as the primary antagonists.
  • Shane is an archetypal ranch story, where the title character - a mysterious hired hand - helps his Determined Homesteader employers fight off a hostile takeover by a larger landowner and his goons.
  • Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is a post-apocalyptic take on the ranch story, with Max wandering into a small desert community under siege from bandits.
  • The Magnificent Seven and the many stories that follow in its footsteps are fusions of the outlaw story and the ranch story, with heroic gunslingers helping the townsfolk fight off bandits.
  • The Proposition is an Australian western that blends a few of the subcategories. Charlie's arc is an outlaw story that is structured like a revenge story (although his target hasn't wrong him, and is, indeed, someone he loves), while Captain Stanley's arc blends the marshal story and a deconstruction of the Cavalry vs. native people story.
  • Tombstone is a pretty straightforward marshal vs. outlaws movie.
  • There Will Be Blood is an empire story with a Villain Protagonist oil baron.
  • The Harder They Fall is a rootin' tootin' revenge story, with the hero gathering up a posse to bring down the bandit who killed his parents. There's also a marshal character who reluctantly joins up with the hero, but he's fairly secondary.

  • Blood Riders by Michael Spradlin is a mixture of revenge and marshal story with the protagonist being recruited by the US government to hunt down a bunch of vampires. The Ragtag Band of Misfits includes a mixed black/Native American/Chinese man, Doctor Van Helsing, a vampire, Mr. Winchester, and Mr. Pinkerton.
  • Cthulhu Armageddon by C.T. Phipps is a revenge story about how the protagonist is on a mission to find out who massacred his Ranger squad. The sequel is a Magnificent Seven Samurai plot with seven gunslingers recruited to stop a Great Old One's rise with Word of God even saying he was inspired by the movies.
  • Dead Of Winter by Lee Collins is a oddball Cavalry and Indian story mixed with a marshal story in that it is about Cora and her husband Ben as they set out to hunt down a Wendigo. It is subverted in that all of the villains are actually Western supernaturals.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Bonanza is the definitive ranch story, following the Cartwright family's running of the Ponderosa, a huge ranch. It would also qualify as an empire story given the sheer amount of land they own except for the fact that Ben refuses to control the local cattle farming industry despite having the resources to.
  • Gunsmoke, likewise, is the definitive marshal story, following the exploits of Marshal Matt Dillon and his deputies as they try to keep the peace in Dodge City, Kansas.
  • Justified is a marshal story set in the modern day, dealing with U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens dealing with his duties as a marshal, his ex-wife, his criminal father, and criminal clans like the Crowder family and the Bennett clan.
  • The Rifleman is a ranch story chronicling Lucas McCain's trials in raising his son Mark on his own and running a ranch in North Fork, New Mexico.

    Video Games 
  • Red Dead Redemption is a Deconstructed revenge story, as John Marston is enlisted to help bring in his former gang that left him for dead. John makes it clear that he wouldn't even go after the Van der Linde gang if Edgar Ross wasn't forcing him to, planning to go back to his family and farm once it's all over. After he succeeds, Ross double-crosses him, leading an army to capture him and successfully kills him. His son Jack swears revenge, which turns him into everything John didn't want him to become: an outlaw with little to live for, and to add insult to injury even though he does kill Ross, ultimately history will remember Ross as a hero who tamed the West and brought criminals to justice and John as an outlaw who couldn't escape justice.
  • Red Dead Redemption II: The prequel, on the other hand, is a deconstructed outlaw story. It chronicles the final days of the Van der Linde gang as Dutch becomes increasingly insane and Arthur becomes increasingly disillusioned with the outlaw life, eventually culminating in him openly defying Dutch and doing everything he can to get John and his family out of the gang before he succumbs to his tuberculosis. There's also a subplot that gives a postcolonial take on the Cavalry vs. Indians story, showing the decline of the Wapiti Tribe at the hands of the U.S. Cavalry as a tragedy and an atrocity, rather than some great triumph.
  • Call of Juarez: Gunslinger takes quite a bit of time to get to its main plot (which is initially deliberately obscured by the protagonist Silas' Tall Tales), but when it does, it turns out to be a classic Revenge story, detailing Silas' pursuit of the three outlaws who murdered his brothers and left him for dead. The last of said outlaws is actually among the audience he tells his story to, and it is up to the player to decide whether Silas kills him, too, or lets go of his past.
  • Fallout: New Vegas wears its western influence on its sleeve by starting with a textbook revenge plot: Tracking down the bastard that robbed the Courier and left them for dead, and returning the favor. As the story progresses, it either concludes or outgrows the revenge plot and turns into a post-apocalyptic Kingmaker Scenario.


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