How to Write a Western: Definition & Ultimate Writing Guide

Posted on Jun 15, 2023

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Written by P.J McNulty

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Are you intrigued by tales of cowboys and the old West?

If you’ve always dreamed of learning how to write a western story of your own, we’ve got you covered.

Read on to discover everything you need to know about the western genre and how to write your own western fiction.

Saddle up!

What is western fiction?

A Scene From Western Fiction Showing A Cowboy Reading A Novel

Western fiction is a genre dealing with cowboys and tales of the Old West. Let’s explore it in more detail before learning how to write a western story of your own.

Historical Origins and Evolution of the Western Genre

If you’re itching to craft a nail-biting Western story, you’ve got to saddle up and ride back to its roots. The Western genre, much like the Wild West itself, didn’t just appear overnight. It was born in the rough-and-tumble world of the American frontier during the 19th century. It’s rooted in those explosive years of westward expansion, gold rushes, and lawless frontier towns where every sunrise could be a person’s last.

Writers started harnessing this raw, wild energy in dime novels and sensationalized accounts of frontier life. Stories spun around larger-than-life heroes and villains – gun-toting outlaws, stoic lawmen, and tough-as-nails pioneers. They sketched a stark picture of morality, adventure, and survival in an untamed landscape. You can almost hear the echoing gunshots and the lonely whistle of a desert wind, can’t you?

But the Western genre didn’t just stay in the dust of the past. It evolved. By the mid-20th century, Westerns began to challenge and redefine the genre’s tropes. Anti-heroes replaced white-hat lawmen, moral lines blurred, and tales reflected the growing complexities of the changing world. Your book could follow this trend, crafting a narrative that challenges the reader’s expectations of the genre.

Understanding this history is more than just an academic exercise. It’s about learning the language of Westerns. How will your book honor the genre’s traditions? How will it break new ground? Remember, you’re not just writing a story—you’re contributing to a rich and evolving literary tradition.

Iconic Western Stories and Authors for Reference

The best way to learn how to write a gripping Western is to plunge headfirst into the works that defined the genre. Like a cowboy studying the trail, you need to know the landmarks. And, friend, there’s no shortage of them in the world of Western literature.

Start with classics like ‘The Virginian’ by Owen Wister or Zane Grey’s ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’. These works established the archetypal Western hero and setting, painting a vivid portrait of frontier life. They’re like a primer for the Western genre, the base layer you’ll need to understand before you can start painting your own masterpiece.

Next, saddle up with the likes of Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry. They pushed the genre into new territories, introducing more nuanced characters and complex plots. L’Amour’s Sackett series and McMurtry’s ‘Lonesome Dove’ are touchstones of the genre, blending traditional Western elements with a keen eye for character and narrative depth.

Take note of how these authors build tension, establish setting, and reveal character. But don’t just imitate them. Let their work inspire you, challenge you, and spur you on to write your own unique Western story. Your book needs to stand out, not get lost in the crowd.

Key Elements and Themes found in Western Stories

Now, let’s hit the trail and get to the meat of the Western genre: its key elements and themes. If you’re writing a Western, your book will need to tackle some, if not all, of these core issues.

The first element is frontier life. The Western genre thrives on the stark, dangerous beauty of the wild frontier, a landscape teeming with potential stories. Here, nature isn’t just a backdrop—it’s an antagonist, ally, and symbol all rolled into one.

Next is the theme of morality. Westerns are arenas where good clashes with evil, where right wrangles with wrong. They force readers—and characters—to grapple with complex moral questions. What does it mean to be a hero in a lawless land? What price justice, what weight survival? These aren’t just academic questions—they’re the lifeblood of your book.

Finally, there’s the theme of justice. Westerns are filled with outlaws and lawmen, crime and punishment. But Western justice isn’t about courts and legalities—it’s about the individual. It’s personal, immediate, often brutal.

So, think hard about these themes. How will they shape your story? How will they challenge your characters? Remember, your book is more than just an adventure—it’s a journey into the heart of the human condition.

How to create your own western

So how do you begin the process of crafting your own western fiction tale? Begin by immersing yourself in this essential info about the genre.

Inspiration: Real-life Western figures, historical events, or classic Western plots

Let’s get to the chase. How do you find the heart of your Western story? There’s a whole landscape of inspiration out there for you to explore. Real-life Western figures, historical events, and classic Western plots can all serve as your creative fuel.

Think about legendary figures like Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, or Annie Oakley. These characters lived lives that practically beg to be novelized. But you’re not writing a biography here. You can let these real-world figures inspire your characters, shaping them with bits and pieces of truth, then filling in the rest with your own imagination.

Don’t overlook historical events either. From the Gold Rush to the Oklahoma Land Run, the American frontier was a place of seismic events and tumultuous change. These are fertile grounds for your Western story. They offer you a backdrop against which your characters can struggle, strive, and grow.

And of course, there are the classic Western plots. The revenge quest. The homestead under threat. The outlaw on the run. These are tried-and-true narratives that can give your book a solid structure. But don’t just mimic them. Twist them, reinvent them, make them your own.

Deciding on the type of Western story: traditional, contemporary, or a blend

Next up, you’ve got to decide what type of Western story you’re going to write. This isn’t just a matter of picking from a menu. It’s about finding the right vehicle for your narrative, your characters, and your themes.

The traditional Western is an old friend. It’s got all the classic elements we’ve talked about—frontier life, morality, justice—and it sticks close to historical reality. If you’re drawn to the grit and grandeur of the old West, this could be the route for your book.

On the other hand, the contemporary Western updates the genre for the modern age. Maybe it’s set in a small, struggling town in today’s West, grappling with issues like corporate greed or environmental degradation. Or maybe it’s a neo-Western, a story that transplants the Western’s themes and structures into a new setting—like a crime drama in a gritty city. Your book could breathe new life into the Western genre this way.

And then there’s the hybrid approach—a blend of the old and new. This could be a story that takes the traditional Western and twists it with elements of other genres, like fantasy, sci-fi, or horror. Or maybe it’s a story that straddles different time periods. The point is, your book doesn’t have to be boxed in. It can be as expansive and diverse as the West itself.

Importance of the Setting in Western Stories

Finally, don’t forget about the setting. In Western stories, the setting isn’t just a backdrop—it’s a character in its own right. It shapes the story, influences the characters, and sets the mood.

Think about it. The untamed frontier. The dusty town. The lonely ranch. These places are seared into our imagination when we think about Westerns. They’re more than just places—they’re symbols. They represent freedom, struggle, survival. Your book needs to tap into this symbolic power.

But don’t stop at the surface. Dive deeper. Explore the flora and fauna, the weather and seasons, the rhythms of daily life. Make your setting real and vibrant. Make it a place your readers can feel, smell, and hear.

Remember, your book is more than just a plot and characters. It’s a whole world. Make sure your readers can lose themselves in it.

Typical Characters in Western Stories

Hold your horses there, partner! Before you start crafting your characters, you’ve got to know who you’re dealing with. Westerns are filled with iconic roles. From the steely-eyed gunslinger to the gruff sheriff, the ruthless outlaw to the determined pioneer, these characters are at the heart of every Western story.

But don’t mistake these archetypes for cardboard cutouts. They’re the foundation upon which you build complex, dynamic characters. You’ve got to flesh them out, give them depth, make them real. That stoic gunslinger? Maybe he’s haunted by a dark past. The outlaw? Maybe she’s fighting for a cause she believes in.

Think about your own characters. What roles do they play? How do they fit into the world of your book? Remember, your characters are the soul of your story. Make them count.

Developing Character Motivations and Backstories

Let’s get one thing straight: a hat, a horse, and a gun don’t make a Western character. It’s what’s inside that counts. What drives them? What haunts them? What do they yearn for? These are the questions that will shape your characters.

Every character has a backstory, a life before the first page of your book. This is where their motivations, fears, and dreams come from. Maybe your hero is seeking vengeance for a family wronged. Maybe your villain is driven by a twisted sense of justice. Whatever it is, these motivations will fuel your story.

But don’t just tell us your characters’ backstories. Show us. Weave their pasts into the fabric of your narrative. Let their actions, their choices, their words reveal who they are. Your book isn’t a dossier—it’s a living, breathing story. Make sure your characters live and breathe too.

Character Evolution and Growth

Here’s the hard truth: a static character is a boring character. Your characters need to grow, evolve, change. They need to face challenges, make choices, suffer losses, and achieve victories. In short, they need to be human.

Think about your own life. You’re not the same person you were a year ago, or a decade ago. Your experiences have shaped you, for better or worse. The same must be true for your characters. The events of your book should leave a mark on them.

This doesn’t mean that your characters need to have a dramatic transformation. Subtle changes can be just as compelling. Maybe your hero learns to trust again. Maybe your villain realizes the error of their ways.

So, as you’re writing your book, ask yourself: how are my characters changing? What are they learning? How are they growing? Remember, your characters’ journey is the heart of your story. Make it beat.

Western worldbuilding tips

A huge part of the appeal of a western story is offering your readers the chance to be immersed in a world very different to their own. Here’s how it’s done.

Importance of Research in Crafting an Authentic Western Setting

Writing a Western isn’t all gunslinging and horseback riding. It’s also about diving headfirst into the world of the Old West. That means research, and lots of it. Before you put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—you need to know your setting inside and out.

Dive into the history books. Learn about the real people and events of the time. Get a feel for the everyday life, the social norms, the hopes and fears of people living on the frontier. Your book needs to reflect this reality.

But don’t get bogged down in details. Your job isn’t to write a history book. It’s to create an authentic, believable world for your story. So, use your research as a tool, not a crutch. Let it inform your writing, but don’t let it dictate your story.

Role of Natural Elements in the Story

If there’s one thing that defines the Western genre, it’s the raw, untamed beauty of nature. Vast plains, towering mountains, desolate deserts—these are more than just scenery. They’re an integral part of your story.

Think about it. Nature in a Western isn’t just a backdrop—it’s a force to be reckoned with. It can be a source of hope and life, or a harsh, unforgiving adversary. Your characters must navigate this world, survive it, and maybe even learn to love it.

So, don’t forget to bring the natural world to life in your book. Use vivid, sensory language to paint a picture of the setting. Let your readers feel the desert heat, hear the coyotes howl, taste the dust in the air. Make nature a character in your story.

Describing the Setting to Enrich the Story

Last but not least, let’s talk about description. A good Western isn’t just about what happens—it’s about where it happens. The setting isn’t just a place—it’s a vital part of your story.

But describing your setting isn’t just about listing off details. It’s about creating an atmosphere, a mood. It’s about using the setting to heighten the drama, reveal character, and enrich the story.

For example, a lonely saloon at sunset could be a place of respite for a weary hero, or the setting for a tense standoff. A bustling frontier town could symbolize opportunity, or the loss of wilderness.

So, as you write your book, think about how you can use the setting to enhance your story. Use the setting to create tension, reveal character, and drive the plot. Remember, your book is more than just a sequence of events—it’s a world that your readers can lose themselves in. Make it count.

How to plot a western story

So now that you know the type of western world you can create, how do you go about ensuring your story will captivate readers? Follow these tips to make sure your western plot is a success.

Utilizing Common Western Plots: The Revenge Quest, The Redemption Story, The Frontier Struggle

Let’s face it, partner. In the world of Westerns, there are plots as old as the hills, and for a good reason – they work. These are the stories that draw us in, time and again. The revenge quest. The redemption story. The frontier struggle. They’re like the bones of a good Western tale.

But remember, these common plots aren’t a straightjacket – they’re a launchpad. They give your story a shape, a structure. What you do within that structure is up to you. The trick is to take these familiar plots and make them your own.

Take the revenge quest. Maybe in your book, it’s not about avenging a loved one, but righting a personal wrong. Or the redemption story. Perhaps your hero isn’t seeking redemption for past crimes, but for a missed opportunity.

Use these plots as a starting point. Then twist them, bend them, play with them. Your book should be a fresh take on the Western genre, not a carbon copy.

Incorporating Elements of Suspense and Tension

Here’s the truth, friend. A good Western isn’t just about cowboys and shootouts. It’s about suspense and tension. It’s about making your readers’ hearts pound as they turn the pages of your book.

One way to do this is through conflict. The struggle between your hero and villain. The clash of wills. The race against time. These are the battles that will keep your readers on the edge of their seats.

But tension can also come from within. The inner turmoil of your characters. Their fears, their doubts, their secrets. This is the stuff that gives your story depth, that makes your characters real and relatable.

So, as you’re crafting your plot, think about how you can ratchet up the tension. Throw obstacles in your characters’ path. Push them to their limits. Make them fight for every inch of progress. Your book should be a rollercoaster ride, not a leisurely stroll.

Balancing Action and Character Development

Lastly, don’t forget about balance. A good Western is a blend of action and character development. Too much action, and your book becomes a shallow thrill ride. Too much character development, and your story risks becoming a navel-gazing bore.

The key is to weave these two elements together. Let your action scenes reveal character. How does your hero react under pressure? What does your villain do when cornered? These are the moments that will define your characters.

Similarly, use your character development to drive the action. Let your characters’ decisions, their mistakes, their triumphs, shape the course of your plot. Their journey should be the engine of your story.

So, as you’re writing your book, always be thinking about balance. Each scene, each chapter, should serve both the action and the character development. Remember, your book isn’t just about what happens – it’s about who it happens to.

How to write dialogue for a western story

Two Cowboys Sharing Dialogue In A Western Fiction Old West Town Setting

Dialogue can make or break your western tale. Here’s how to get it right and avoid ruining the experience for your readers.

Achieving Authenticity in Dialogue

Alright, partner, let’s talk about talk. When it comes to writing a Western, dialogue can make or break your story. Your characters’ words need to ring true to the time, place, and culture of the Old West.

That means, first and foremost, doing your research. Dive into historical records, diaries, letters, and even other Western novels. Get a feel for the way people spoke back then—their diction, their grammar, their slang.

But remember, authenticity doesn’t mean imitation. You’re not trying to replicate 19th-century speech verbatim—it can be stiff and hard to follow for modern readers. Your goal is to capture the flavor of the time without sacrificing readability.

So, use archaic phrases and slang sparingly. Opt for simpler language over fancy or outdated terms. And above all, keep your dialogue natural and conversational. Your book is a Western, not a history thesis.

Using Dialogue to Reveal Character

Next up: using dialogue to reveal character. The way your characters speak says a lot about who they are. A gruff sheriff might be short and terse. A sly outlaw might speak in riddles and double entendres.

Think about your characters’ backgrounds, their personalities, their secrets. All of these factors should influence their dialogue. A character from the Deep South will speak differently than one from the New England, just as a confident character will speak differently than an insecure one.

But don’t stop at the words. Pay attention to the subtext—the unspoken emotions and thoughts beneath the dialogue. What are your characters really saying? What are they hiding? This is the stuff that will make your dialogue sizzle.

Balancing Dialogue and Narrative

Last but not least, let’s talk about balance. Just like action and character development, dialogue and narrative need to work in harmony. Too much dialogue, and your book becomes a script. Too little, and your story can feel distant and detached.

The key is to use dialogue to move the story forward, reveal character, or add tension. If a conversation doesn’t serve one of these purposes, consider cutting it or condensing it into narrative.

And remember, dialogue isn’t just about talking. It’s also about listening—or in the case of your book, what your characters do between lines of dialogue. Their actions, their expressions, their silences—these can speak volumes.

So, as you’re writing your book, keep an eye on your dialogue. Is it authentic? Does it reveal character? Does it balance with the narrative? If the answer is yes, you’re well on your way to a compelling Western tale.

How to revise your western story

Even the best authors take the time to revise and improve their work. To make your western the best it can be, follow these revision tips.

Importance of Review and Revision

Well, partner, you’ve written your Western story. Give yourself a pat on the back—but don’t rest on your laurels just yet. Writing is rewriting, as the saying goes. It’s now time for the crucial, often challenging, task of revision.

No first draft is perfect, and your story will be no exception. It’s going to have plot holes, awkward sentences, and characters that need more depth. And that’s perfectly fine. The key is not to get discouraged. This is a natural part of the process.

So, take a deep breath, roll up your sleeves, and dig in. Remember, you’re not just looking for typos—you’re looking for ways to make your story stronger, tighter, more engaging. It’s not about fixing mistakes; it’s about refining your vision.

Getting and Incorporating Feedback

Another pair of eyes can be a godsend during the revision process. A fresh perspective can spot the flaws and weaknesses you might have missed. This could be a trusted friend, a writing group, or a professional editor.

When you receive feedback, keep an open mind. Remember, it’s about the work, not you. The goal is to make your book the best it can be, and sometimes, that means hearing hard truths.

But also remember that not all feedback is created equal. Listen to the critiques, but trust your instincts. You know your story better than anyone. If a piece of feedback doesn’t resonate with you, it’s okay to set it aside.

Polishing Your Story to a Shine

Finally, after you’ve revised and incorporated feedback, it’s time to polish your story. This is where you fine-tune your language, iron out any remaining kinks, and make sure every element of your story is as strong as it can be.

Check your dialogue. Does it sound natural? Is it true to the time and place? Look at your characters. Are they well-developed and compelling? Examine your plot. Does it hold together? Is it engaging from start to finish?

This is your last chance to make changes, so be thorough. Read your story out loud. This can help you catch awkward sentences and clunky dialogue. Take your time. Don’t rush the process.

Remember, writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. But with patience, perseverance, and a whole lot of revision, you’ll cross the finish line with a Western story you can be proud of. Happy trails!

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