Follow TV Tropes


The Seven Western Plots

Go To
When we trope into the wild, wild West
Clockwise, starting from top 
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 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; 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.


    open/close all folders 

    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 (1903) 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.
    • Django also follows this plot, although Django's personal grudge against one of the villains makes it a revenge story as well.
  • 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.
  • Black 47, while actually set in Potato Famine-era Ireland, is very much structured and paced as a western with a revenge storyline. An Irish soldier returns home to Connemara to find that his mother has starved to death and his brother has been hanged. After trying and failing to save his surviving relatives, the soldier wages a one-man war against the local colonial government. There's also a marshal story in the form of a Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist on his trail.
  • 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 is a long enough movie that it ends up sampling most of the western plots. It follows the enigmatic Man With The Harmonica, teams up with the good-hearted outlaw Cheyenne to help a woman named Jill McBain hold onto the ranch she inherited from her late husband. The ostensible Big Bad is a Railroad Baron named Mr. Morton, trying to force Jill off the land, which is on an ideal spot to build a train station. Jill eventually realizes that her husband knew the value of the property and had his own plans to build a station, and her arc is a fusion of Ranch, Union Pacific, and Empire stories as she works to develop the land. Cheyenne's motivation is revenge, since Morton used him as a scapegoat for the murders of Mr. McBain and his children, a crime that was actually perpetrated by Morton's brutal henchman Frank. Harmonica's motivation is much more mysterious, though it's very clear that it's something to do with Frank as well, though even Frank has no idea who he is or what he wants. Only in the climactic duel between the two of them do we learn Harmonica's real motivation, which is, of course, revenge, for the murder of Harmonica's brother.
  • 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, mixed with a Pacific Railroad story, as Doc and Marty's main goal is to figure out a way to get a steam train to run fast enough to activate the time machine and send them home.
  • 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 (1960) 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 wronged 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 (2021) 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.
  • Go West (1940) qualifies as a variation of the Union Pacific plot, the conflict revolving around the deed to Dead Man's Gulch, a plot of land that, while bereft of gold for the Gold Rush, is sought after for a new railroad.
  • Evil Roy Slade and The Villain are two comedy Outlaw films, which both happen to have (presumably) unrelated protagonists named Slade.
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology that samples a few of these plot structures.
    • The first story, which is also called "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs", is a comedic outlaw story, as is the second story, "Near Algodones".
    • "Meal Ticket", the third segment, could be called a very small-scale empire story, about the cutthroat nature of show biz in the old west carnival circuit.
    • "All Gold Canyon" follows the structure of a ranch story, but instead of a ranch it's a Prospector's gold claim, which he must defend from a greedy rival out in the lawless wilderness.
    • "The Gal Who Got Rattled" and "The Mortal Remains" are both Union Pacific Stories, being about, respectively, a wagon train and a stagecoach.
  • Take A Hard Ride, a Blaxploitation Spaghetti Western, is a ranch story away from the ranch, with outlaw antagonists. A wealthy Cattle Baron unexpectedly falls sick and dies while on a bank run in town, leaving his African-American right-hand man to bring the next month's payroll back to the ranch. When word gets out among the racist locals that a black man is carrying a lot of money through the wilderness, every gunslinger for miles around - from outlaws to the sheriff himself - is on his tail.
  • Day Of Anger is an outlaw story about a garbageman who becomes the protege of a notorious gunslinger.
  • Track Of The Cat is a ranch story, where two brothers go out hunting a panther that has been preying on the family cattle, and which one of them believes to be a supernatural creature. However, like any good Animal Nemesis, the panther is mostly important for the stubborn monomania it brings out in the human characters, and the real threat to the ranch is mainly internal - the personal insecurities and private resentments of the ranching family, both among the two brothers who went out hunting and with the rest of the family back at the ranch house. An unusually character-driven, almost Eugene O'Neill-esque example.
  • Ravenous (1999) is a Weird West mix of the marshal story and a deconstructed cavalry story. In the early days of Manifest Destiny, soldiers stationed at a Bleak Border Base in the Sierra Nevadas are called to rescue the survivors of a wagon train that has gotten stuck in the snowy mountains and had to resort to cannibalism to survive. The "taming" of the west is shown as a far more brutal and monstrous thing than the alleged "savagery" it is eliminating, and westward expansion is presented as a metaphorical act of mass cannibalism.
  • Old Henry has the title character, a rancher, taking in a wounded marshal, who is being pursued by outlaws. The outlaws lay siege to the ranch, unaware that Henry is more than he seems.
  • The Nightingale is a revenge story with the cavalry as villains. An Irishwoman in colonial Tasmania hires an Aborigine tracker to help her hunt down and kill the soldiers who raped her and murdered her family. The movie also deals with the tracker's own plight, as the British colonial presence are in the process of completely wiping out the native Tasmanian people.
  • Johnny Guitar is mainly a blend of Union Pacific and Empire, with the heroine, Vienna, trying to expand her saloon to meet the demand that the new railroad will bring into town. She faces opposition from a posse including a reluctantly crooked marshal, and further complications from a band of outlaws.

  • 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. Also a Weird West story, as all the villains are supernatural beings.

    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.
    • The epilogue of the game gives two ranch stories, the first one a more straightforward example with John getting a job as a hired hand, and helping his employers fend off an attack from a local Cattle Baron and his goons. In the second, John starts his own ranch, trying to win back his family, and must adapt to quiet agrarian life - though once again he is forced to violence to defend his land. It ends with a revenge story as John and a few other former members of the gang track down the man responsible for selling them out to the Pinkertons.
  • Red Dead Revolver was the spiritual prequel to Red Dead Redemption and is more of a straightforward revenge story. You play as Red Harlow, who is violently orphaned as a young boy by marauders attacking the family homestead. Red grows into a bounty hunter modeled after the Man With No Name archetype bringing in various outlaws for the money until he has a chance encounter that finally reveals the men who were responsible for his parents murders culminating in a massive gunfight to finally avenge his parents by killing everyone responsible.
  • 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.


    Web Original 

    Western Animation