Let an old Western teach you about good story elements
A couple weeks ago I had the great pleasure of seeing an old favorite from the 1980s: Silverado. In its time, it was not a blockbuster. Nor did it achieve the iconic silver-screen cultural footprint of other contemporary Western productions like Young Guns or Unforgiven. But it did have a long life on the cable movie networks, gaining a substantial amount of audience traction among those who appreciate a good old-fashioned Western feel-good drama. Silverado has an excellent ensemble cast, with numerous faces familiar to anyone who knows the eighties. But more than that, it has great story elements which are instructive for anyone considering how to properly plot and pace their writing.
HOOK BEGINNING. Everyone talks about how the opening of Star Wars hit them. With the Imperial cruiser roaring over the top of the audience, blasting away at the Rebel blockade runner. I think Silverado does a very similar trick. With very little context — other than a slow, silent pan shot across what is clearly rustic cowboy gear in a rustic cowboy shack — we’re plunged directly into the action, as nameless desperados shoot up the shack, attempting to kill our as-yet unnamed protagonist. He gets the best of his opponents, of course. In a feel-good Western, the hero always does. And in the process, we discover that our man is lightning-fast with a revolver, as well as a rifle. He’s got skills. And the canvas for his story is going to be the gorgeous backcountry of the American Southwest. The entire sequence taking less than two minutes. That is how you rope your reader in. Hit ’em quick, show ’em a lot, and given ’em something compelling. Don’t meander into the thing, over chapters and chapters. Put the stakes up front.
ORGANICALLY BUILD YOUR CAST. Just as the opening credits finish, we meet our next hero. A man down on his luck. Left for dead. With very little dialogue, we learn that our gunslinger is also a compassionate man, while the new guy has a sense of humor; even in the face of personal catastrophe. Together they ride. It’s an association of expediency, sure, but we sense quickly that these are decent men. Even if they’ve both become more acquainted with jails than is healthy for honest citizens. It’s discovered that the new guy was the victim of still more desperados, though not the same bunch who targeted our initial protagonist. The two men suddenly have an alliance of interest: who did this to us, and why?
KEEP THE ACTION GOING. Almost immediately upon arriving at their first destination, the new guy spots one of the men who stole the new guy’s horse. It’s a gun fight, with the new guy handily knocking his foe from the saddle, using a single cartridge fired from a battered hand-me-down single-action pistol. Thus we learn that the new guy also has skills. And he has a name, provided by a character emerging from the new guy’s past. The sequence between new guy Paden, and his old riding pal Cobb, tells a lot about them, in very few words. It’s obvious they used to work outside the law. It’s also obvious that whatever Cobb is up to now, it might not necessarily be a good thing. Even if he’s generous in putting some clothes on Paden’s bare back.
COMPLEXIFY THE PREDICAMENT. Yes, I said complexify. At the next stop, our gunslinger — who reveals his name to be Emmett — bumps into a wagon train of homesteaders, who mistakenly take both Emmett and Paden for the hired guides the wagon train needs to reach their eponymous destination. The actual guides arrive, and we’re given some insight into the goodly nature of the homesteaders, as well as their salty-mouthed trail boss, Hobart. Stopping at the town’s tiny hotel, Emmett and Paden settle in for a meal, which is interrupted by a fight between yet another stranger come into town, and the local bullies who seem to share the hotel owner’s bigoted inclinations. The fight gets broken up by the local sheriff — a delightfully-played cameo by John Cleese, of Monty Python fame — who then unfairly sends the victimized stranger packing. And also helps Emmett locate his brother Jake, locked up in the town jail, and due to be unjustly hanged in the morning. Emmett realizes he’s got to rescue his brother, but Paden isn’t fond of partaking in a jailbreak. Except, he himself winds up in jail after gunning down another man who is recognized by Paden, from Paden being robbed and abandoned in the desert. So, suddenly, we have four men, all of whom have been wronged. And two of the four are facing the high jump, unless something can be done about it.
GIVE YOUR VILLAINS DIMENSION. I mentioned before that John Cleese plays the sheriff. An Englishman named Langston. More interested in procedure — and keeping the peace — than actual justice. Technically, he’s an opponent. But Cleese plays his part with such flare, that it’s hard to dislike him. Very few people are terrible through and through. From Langston’s perspective, he doesn’t care about the details. He just wants the citizens in his care, and the strangers constantly moving through his jurisdiction, to behave themselves. Which is a perfectly understandable motivation, if you put yourself in Langston’s shoes. Likewise, Cobb — marvelously played by Brian Dennehy, and whom we catch up with eventually — is a bad guy difficult to hate. His motivations, although not good ones, are consistent with his lifestyle — as someone who’s always been outside the law. Like with Langston, it’s perfectly easy to see Cobb’s motivations, from his point of view. And he’s not the kind of man who hurts people on a whim, though one of his henchmen, Tyree, is. Both Cobb and Tyree have a lot of history with Paden. History that will magnify the emotional impact of the finale of the film.
SHOW YOUR HEROES BEING HEROIC. Eventually, Paden, Emmett, Jake, and their newest comrade — the stranger run out of town by Langston, a former Chicago slaughterhouse worker named Malachi Johnson — team up. And the first thing they discover on the trail, is Hobart’s wagon train. Ground to a halt. And missing its money box, which has been stolen by the guides who promised to help lead the homesteaders to Silverado. Paden, Emmett, Jake, and Mal, concoct a plan to get the homesteaders their money back, despite a distrustful homesteader unwilling to believe the four strangers will aid his cause. Our four heroes are successful in locating and routing the bandits at their hideout, and then must take over — leading the wagon train through rough country, and for no other reason than that somebody’s got to do it. This is archetypal, for almost any good hero you’re writing. There’s a job to be done, it’s a dangerous or thankless or dirty job, and your hero is the one who takes care of business. Because that’s just how the hero is built inside.
YOUR LANDSCAPE IS ALSO A BIG PART OF YOUR STORY. Silverado doesn’t work without the sprawling and desolately majestic vistas of New Mexico. The cinematography throughout the movie is simply terrific. And the different locations used for the various towns lend a tremendous amount of verisimilitude to the entire story. In this way, the surroundings of the story are as important as any character. You don’t have to devote pages and pages to describing your settings in excruciating detail, but it’s worth it to develop a healthy economy of scale, where painting your canvas is concerned; and moving the story along. Even bit characters who might only appear for a few moments, can help give your reader a sense that they have actually been to where you’re describing. They’ve seen it, smelled it, they know the people, and they know the state of mind of those people. As much as writing action and dialogue matters, writing setting matters too.
GIVE YOUR PROTAGONISTS SOMETHING TO CARE ABOUT. Having ultimately arrived at Silverado, we quickly discover what anchors each of our four heroes to this particular town. For Jake and Emmett, it’s their sister, and her family. For Mal Johnson, it’s his parents and his sister. For Paden, it’s both interest in a beautiful woman from the wagon train, and also an older woman who runs the local saloon — saloons being Paden’s favorite places in the world. Stella is her name. The Midnight Star. She’s got history with Cobb, who not only owns her saloon, but seemingly owns the whole town; as its sheriff. Very quickly, we learn that all of these people are under threat. Both from Cobb, and from the son of a very old enemy of Emmett’s. Whom Emmett discovers was behind the ambush which opened the movie. When you — as the author — threaten what your heroes care about, the story not only takes on added emotional depth, it gives the reader a palpable reason to keep rooting for your heroes. Because now the stakes are plain.
THINGS GETS WORSE, AND THEN, THEY GET WORSE SOME MORE. Of course, things always have to go downhill. For Paden, now in the employ of Cobb, it’s watching how Cobb conducts his business. Ruthless. With little regard for right and wrong. For Mal, it’s discovering his mother is dead, his sister is estranged from their father, and his father’s been run off his land by the same rancher who sent killers to take out Emmett. Eventually we learn that Cobb is in the rancher’s pay, while Cobb ransoms Stella’s welfare in order to keep Paden from doing anything about how the rancher — Ethan McKendrick — is going after Emmett and Emmett’s loved ones. Along the way Mal’s father is killed, Hobart’s homesteaders are terrorized by McKendrick’s men, Emmett himself is almost killed, Jake goes missing (presumed dead) and Emmett’s sister and brother-in-law are badly wounded, and their son taken hostage at the McKendrick estate. Mal is tricked into being captured by Cobb, who locks Mal up and brutalizes him, to try to find out where Emmett is hiding. And Mal’s sister is under the thumb of a n’er-do-well gambler who’s hooked up with Cobb. She eventually springs Mal, but is shot and almost killed, while Mal assumes Paden is now on Cobb’s side. It’s the splintering of the Fellowship — for you Lord of the Rings fans. The bad guys seem to be holding all the face cards. The good guys are beaten, bloodied, and beaten some more.
THE FINAL RECKONING. Just about every classic Western film, requires a final reckoning. When the heroes — smashed, battered, and out of options — set the world to rights. In Silverado this reckoning takes the four interweaving journeys of Emmett, Paden, Mal, and Jake, and sees them concluded brilliantly. There aren’t any loose ends. Cobb, Tyree, McKendrick, and McKendrick’s men, all get their comeuppance. As the four heroes risk life and limb both at the McKendrick ranch, and in town. To include a terrific final scene with Paden and Cobb, as the two old friends — made enemies by circumstance, and divergent moral paths — bid their farewells. Only one of them can walk away alive. And neither of them is happy to see everything come down to a pistol draw at the end of Silverado’s main street. With Stella looking on, the fate of her world is decided by which man can pull and shoot more accurately, first. In the process, we learn that Paden is not a bloodthirsty man, though he’s had to do a lot of killing throughout the film. He’s just a guy who likes a stiff drink, a hand of cards, and a piano player tickling the ivories in the corner.
DENOUMENT. So, where are they now? Having endured the reckoning, where does that leave everybody? Unlike life — which often contains plenty of unhappy endings — your successful classic Western will often fade to credits on an up-beat note. Innocents who’ve been harmed, will be shown recovering their lives and their dignity. Heroes who’ve taken it in the teeth, will be shown getting back on their feet. There’s more to the world than showdowns and shoot-outs. In Mal’s case, he takes over for his father, where he and his sister will work their father’s farm, alongside the homesteaders who’re now free to build their lives free from McKendrick’s wrath. Emmett’s sister, her husband, and their boy, are also putting their lives back together, while Emmett and Jake gather themselves for the final push to California — their stated destination. And Paden? The only rootless man of the four? He’s finally found a place he can call home, and which will embrace him right back. As it’s newly-installed — and Stella-approved! — sheriff.
Those who are familiar with the film, already know that Lawrence Kasdan — from Raiders of the Lost Ark — was Silverado’s author, as well as director; along with his brother, Mark. Kasdan’s grasp of the classic Western mythos is richly evident, as is his grasp of storytelling in general. There’s precious little anti-heroism in this movie, though each of the four protagonists has a touch of the scalawag to them. Especially Paden, who has a clear chance to cross over to the side of evil, but elects to throw his chips in with the other three — after Stella reveals that she’s tired of watching good people get hurt, and isn’t afraid to take the risk; if Paden isn’t either. Thus freed of his obligation to protect Stella through inaction, Paden regains his sense of true purpose, and is ultimately the one hero who has the most complete arc. From penniless dead man, to lawman of his own town. Where he (presumably) will protect and defend Stella, Mal and his sister, Hobart and his settlers, and Emmett’s wife, brother-in-law, and nephew.
That’s just a damned good moment right there, when Paden grins and pulls his jacket back, to reveal the silver star — formerly belonging to Cobb — on Paden’s vest.
If you can do that for your readers. If you can have them finish your book with that kind of moment, and that flavor of emotion, you can’t help but win fans.