Genre 101: How To Write A Western



When you think of a Western, you probably picture the old spaghetti Westerns that used to play regularly on daytime television. The ones where the lone cowboy faces off against a rouge team of bandits and saves the prairie town, but winds up in a shootout duel with his arch nemesis. You've probably also seen those steamy cowboy covers that often grace the aisles in drug stores and grocery stores designated for romance novels. While it may seem like a genre that's not as common as it used to be, the truth is that westerns do still exist and readers are still reading and enjoying them.


Today we're having one final hoedown in our July Genre Series as we round things out with the Western genre. Yeehaw! We'll be explaining what makes this genre unique, what the different types are, how it originated, what characteristics it needs to fall under this category, tips for writing one, and examples to help you get started.


We're going to be announcing our next writing series on our Instagram page at @writingitwells today, so definitely come and check that out. If you miss it, don't worry. Our post this Thursday will be the first of the new series so you can find out then as well.


If you're new here or you missed one of our previous posts in the Genre series, I'll link it here so that you can see what other resources we have for you. We've researched everything from all the possible subgenres in every category, to a complete break-down of each genre specifically to give you the best information to help you decide what kind of novel to write.


What is a Western?


These novels take place in the late 19th century in the western United States. Often categorized as the "Old West", these stories follow the lives of nomadic cowboys or gunfighters. Typically these protagonists carry revolvers and rifles, ride horses, wear Stetson hats, and smoke some sort of tobacco product. They wear things like neckerchief bandannas, vests, spurs, cowboy boots, and buckskins/dusters. It features characters such as cowboys, Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, bandits, lawmen, bounty hunters, outlaws, gamblers, soldiers (like mounted cavalry such as buffalo soldiers), and settlers such as pioneers, homesteaders, farmers, ranchers, townsfolk. In films and television these stories are accompanied with Western music such as American and Spanish/Mexican folk music, Native American music, New Mexico music, and Rancheras.

Themes that appear here are usually those that emphasize the harshness of the wilderness and the setting takes place in the arid, desolate landscape of deserts and mountains of the American West. Specific settings include ranches, small frontier towns, saloons, railways, wilderness, and isolated military forts.


Here are some common plots used:

  • Construction of a railroad or a telegraph line on the wild frontier.

  • Ranchers protecting their family ranch from rustlers or large landowners, or who build a ranch empire.

  • Revenge stories, which involve the chase and pursuit of the wronged by the the one who was wronged.

  • Stories about cavalry fighting Native Americans.

  • Outlaw gang crimes and consequences such as robberies.

  • Stories about a lawman or bounty hunter tracking down his target.

Typically the plot shows a crime being committed, showing the pursuit of the wrongdoer, and usually it ends with a quick-draw duel to settle the score.


What are the subgenres that fall into this category?



To gain a deeper understanding of these individual subgenres, head on over to my post Genre 101: The Complete List of Genres & Subgenres for Fiction Writing Part 2. There you'll find a helpful guide that explains what each one is, what is typically scene within, and examples to help you choose which is right for your novel.


Where did Westerns come from?


Westerns are a genre that didn't appear until the westward craze for land and gold occurred in the 1800s. Naturally it stands to reason that no one would write these stories until the migration and settlements started occurring, as before this not many people had settled the west. The first recognized Western novel was written in 1902 by Owen Wister and was titled The Virginian. Other mid 20th century western writers include Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short, and Louis L'Amour. It seems that writers who were famous in other genres tried their hand at westerns at one time or another. Some of these include Leigh Brackett, Elmore Leonard, and Larry McMurtry.


The 1960s saw Westerns at their peak. The shuttering of pulp magazines, televised Westerns and the rise of the spy novel all helped contribute to its popularity. It didn't last long though. By the late 70s to early 2000s what was left of the Western phase was over. Most bookstores today only carry a small selections of Western novels and short stories. Similar stories include the American frontier, gaucho literature of Argentina, and tales of the settlement of the Australian Outback.


What makes Westerns different from other genres?


The biggest difference is that the setting in Westerns is specific. It largely determines what happens within a story and you can't separate the setting from the story itself. Where other genres are much more flexible and aren't determined by setting as much, westerns specifically take place in the American West during the time of early settlement. Now, not all Westerns have to be set in this time period, but they do have to have frontier period elements. For instance, cowboys, pioneers, and Native Americans. The specific setting, characters, and themes are what make a western distinguishable from all other genres.


What are the characteristics of this genre?


Here is a list of the elements needed to make a western:


Tips for writing a Western:


1) Pull inspiration from history


The best way to inspire yourself and come up with an idea for a western is to look back in time. The settling of the west is full of exciting stories about courage, determination, and perseverance. Stories like those of Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy are wild and crazy enough to create a story that will entice any reader into coming along.


2) Choose your location wisely


In a genre as specific as Westerns, it's important to choose a setting that's going to give you a creative edge over your competition. With a rich variety of landscapes to choose from picking something visually dynamic such as the desert, the Great Plains, or the Rocky Mountains creates a stunning backdrop for your action-packed story.


3) Read other westerns


I always say, you can't write if you don't read. If you don't read Westerns, you won't write great Western stories. This is the law of the writing world. Reading books within the genre you want to write in is a great way to gain insights into how to write one, how other writers make scenes unique to their genre work, and what sort of characters they use to pull it all together.

4) Do your research


Last but not least, do your research. With Westerns its important to remember that there needs to be a level of historical accuracy. The Old West was a real place, in a real time period, with real people living in it. Readers aren't going to read a western that uses modern devices on a pioneering trail. They also aren't going to buy into a story where things are obviously fictitious, especially when it comes to the setting.


When writing a Western its important to stay true to the integrity of the setting. Since the setting is what makes this genre so unique, it can be challenging to come up with something "original". If you're looking for something that will take some finesse to write or are obsessed with cowboys, then this is definitely the genre for you.


What are some examples I can read?


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