Tuesday, August 2, 2016

"Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western" by Will Wright

Once in a while a book opens your eyes and makes you look in whole new ways at something you thought you knew and understood.  This is such a book, for me.  I have loved western movies since I was about 2, and I have watched hundreds of them over the past thirty-some years.  I've read western novels and nonfiction books, I've written westerns, I've played cowboys for countless hours.  I thought I pretty much understood what westerns were about.

And then I read this book.

Will Wright posits that westerns are America's version of great myths and legends (which I'd heard/read before), and that America's taste in western storytelling changed because American society changed.  It's a cool theory, and he's pretty well convinced me.  But the sociological implications aren't what interested me the most.  

What interested me were the story structure similarities that he pointed out.  I'm not going to delve too deeply into everything he said, simply because there was so much -- I was underlining and making notes like crazy.   Basically, Wright studied the top-grossing western films from every year beginning in 1930 and running through 1972, when he did his study.  That gave him more than 60 films to study, and while he didn't delve into every single one, he did study them all and looked for patterns in the stories they told.

Wright found that the films fell into four plot categories, which he termed Classical, Vengeance Variation, Transition, and Professional.  And I discovered that nearly all my favorite westerns have the Classical or Professional plots.  There are a few that are Vengeance, but most of my favorites are either Classical or Professional.  And not only that, but my own stories tend to be pretty straight-forwardly Classical.  And I realized that I am not really a fan of Vengeance westerns, for the most part.  There were only a few of the Transition westerns that he discussed, and I hadn't seen most of them, so I can't say much one way or the other on that one.

What does that all mean?  Well, I'll share his breakdown for Classical Plots with you to give an idea, and then I'll give you examples of various famous westerns that typify each of those plot categories.

The Classical Plot goes like this:
1.  The hero enters a social group.
2.  The hero is unknown to the society.
3.  The hero is revealed to have an exceptional ability.
4.  The society recognizes a difference between themselves and the hero; the hero is given a special status.
5.  The society does not completely accept the hero.
6.  There is a conflict of interests between the villains and the society.
7.  The villains are stronger than the society; the society is weak.
8.  There is a strong friendship or respect between the hero and a villain.
9.  The villains threaten the society.
10.  The hero avoids involvement in the conflict.
11.  The villains endanger a friend of the hero.
12.  The hero fights the villains.
13.  The hero defeats the villains.
14.  The society is safe.
15.  The society accepts the hero.
16.  The hero loses or gives up his special status.
So, I don't know -- some of you might read that and go, "Okay, that's nice -- who cares?"  But to me, this was giant lightbulbs going off, flashing lights, sirens, choirs singing the "Hallelujah Chorus," and so on.  Because this kind of story breakdown, and all the great explorations Wright goes into in his book, are exactly what my writing brain needs.  I look at this and go, "Oh my goodness!  Now I can see what my stories have, what they're missing, what beats I've got in the wrong spot, and on and on and on!"  That's what I liked best about this book, how it let me sort of tip movies I know soooo well on their side and peek inside them to see what makes them work.

The other three plot variations have breakdowns like that too, but I can't just share the whole book with you here, though I'd like to.  But in case you're interested, here are some of the more famous films he discussed, based on their plots:

Classical:  Destry Rides Again (1940), Whispering Smith (1949), Shane (1953), Cat Ballou (1965), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

Vengeance:  Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1949), Winchester '73 (1950), The Naked Spur (1952), The Searchers (1956)

Transition:  Broken Arrow (1950), High Noon (1952)

Professional:  Rio Bravo (1959), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), The Professionals (1966), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1970)

(EDIT:  I've linked the titles of some of those to my reviews of those films over on my blogs.)

If you write westerns, study films for fun, or just love lots and lots of westerns, you will probably find this book fascinating.  But if you were bored reading this review, then you're not going to care much for the book either.

I wrote this review especially for Legends of Western Cinema Week, which is a shindig hosted all week long by Emma at A Lantern in Her Hand and Olivia at Meanwhile, in Rivendell....  Please visit their blogs for lots of western fun.  And I'm hosting a giveaway on Hamlette's Soliloquy all week for this event, giving away five great western TV shows on DVD, so check that out if you haven't already.

Particularly Good Bits:  

Violence in a myth is generally concerned with opposing or reconciling principles, while in literature violence truly exists between people and is consequently more convincing and more deeply felt (p. 149).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for non-graphic mentions of violence, rape, and other non-child-friendly themes.


  1. Eeeee... MUST. READ. THIS!!!! Like. ASAP. :D

    1. YES! It is mind-blowing. Find it.

      Also, I got your card on Saturday! I WILL email you later this week -- swamped right now with VBS at church, blog posts, gearing up for an adventure, etc.

  2. Oh, man, this is definitely my new "I NEED TO READ THIS RIGHT NOW" book. Looks like it would be fascinating and insightful from both a writer and a lover of westerns' point of view.

    1. Eva, very much so. Even if you skip the last third of the book where he makes his sociological arguments, the rest is, as you said, fascinating and insightful.

  3. Wow, this sounds rather interesting! :) I have yet to try my hand at a writing a Western, but if I do I'll be sure to try this book.

    1. Natalie, that's a great idea! Even if you just skimmed through it, it would probably give you lots of great inspiration and info.

  4. Wow! It sounds like a fascinating book! I'm going to have to keep my eye out for it!

    1. Annie, because you, like me, will have seen sooooooooooooooo many of the westerns he references, I think you would love it. I've actually started using the titles he discusses as a list of "westerns I need to see yet."

  5. This looks super interesting! I imagine it must be fun to categorize your favorite movies and books based on the plot like this.

    1. Looloolooweez -- yes, that was a great deal of fun. As I read through it, I would notice things that applied to other westerns I love that he didn't talk about, and I loved doing that.


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