Kathleen D. Bailey Looks at Story Structure and the Classic Westerns

The Fillies welcome guest Kathleen D. Bailey. Please make her welcome.

Judge Henry Garth owns “Shiloh,” the largest ranch in and around Medicine Bow, Wyoming. When feuding ranchers and Indians from “up north” want to meet to settle their differences, Garth offers Shiloh as a neutral venue. He has two house guests: Ben, a city-slicker newspaperman come to visit Garth’s daughter Betsy, and the Indian Affairs agent who’s supposed to settle the whole mess. Garth wants a peaceful solution to the Indian/rancher problem, but his plans go awry when a group of thugs takes over Shiloh. He finds himself a hostage in his own home along with Betsy, the journalist, the Indian agent and Randy, his singing cowboy. His other hands are all at the roundup.

The hostages try various ways to foil the thugs. After the criminals take everyone’s guns, Randy mouths to Ben that there’s one in the desk Ben’s leaning on. Ben sneaks it out and aims it at the ringleader, but loses his nerve. When the captives discover a small bottle of laudanum they try to drug one of their captors’ coffee, but they are again foiled. The Indian Affairs guy turns out to be part of the problem when he reveals himself as allied with the criminals. There are other attempts at freedom, and each time the viewer thinks, “Well, they’ve got it now.” Except they don’t, because this is a 90-minute Western and there’s plenty of time for things to go wrong. Even The Virginian, Garth’s relentlessly resourceful foreman, can’t get them out of this one. He’s been shot.

Where will it all end? How will it all end, with every escape blocked?

Western movies and television have always known how to keep a viewer engaged. The classic stories hook viewers by baiting, switching and baiting again. Just when the viewer thinks the cowboy/wagon scout/marshal has figured a way out of their dilemma, someone or something will trip them up. Just when the viewer thinks there’s no hope, a solution appears, and they’ll wonder why they didn’t see it before. It’s like mystery writing only with horses.

The genre could be formulaic, especially in the early years. My husband and I are aggressive Western watchers and we’ve learned to recognize the archetypes such as the physician who won’t practice medicine any more, usually due to alcohol or losing someone precious to them. Or losing someone precious, then turning to alcohol. But it’s what they do with these archetypes that makes these tales stand the test of time.

I spent most of one summer watching “How The West Was Won,” the epic TV miniseries starring an aging James Arness as Zeb Macahan, one of the legendary Mountain Men. Arness was perfection in the role of his life, and supporting cast members included shoot-em-up royalty such as Slim Pickens and Dennis Weaver. But as I rolled through it a second time, I became hooked on the story itself. It wasn’t just Zeb meeting up with old cronies, or rescuing his kinfolk from one scrape after another. Oldest nephew Luke, played by a young Bruce Boxleitner, stumbled into serious trouble when he went back East to check on his father. He got conscripted into the Union army, ran away from same, stole a horse and shot a sheriff. The sheriff lived but lost the use of one arm, and that one rash act—and the sheriff’s lust for revenge—followed Luke through the entire series. Luke spent most of the show on the run, eluding the sheriff’s spies, hired guns and the sheriff himself. The threat to Luke’s life kept resurfacing, like Whack-A-Mole, every time he thought he had a chance at happiness. It’s perfect story structure, a thread that runs through the entire series and keeps the watcher hooked.

The best Westerns carry out the classic themes of guilt, shame, retribution and justice. They connect on a deeper level, as with John Wayne in “The Searchers.” It’s why I chose to write Westerns. Take two strong characters, give them something to fight about, give them an attraction—and set it against the Oregon Trail or a cattle drive or the Land Rush. Watch the magic happen.

What of Judge Garth? He solved his dilemma without a single bullet. Calling on his memories of a court case, he set two of his assailants against each other. A long-simmering grudge came to the front, and they destroyed one another. With all other escape routes blocked, Garth solved the problem with his mind.

The perfect ending to a not-so-perfect day.

Find Kathleen online

The Western genre is adventure, romance and at its best something more. Western stories pack a satisfying experience for the reader. And if you’re a writer of Westerns, you can chalk up all that movie watching as research. You’re welcome.

So…what’s your favorite Western movie, mini-series or TV program? I’ll be giving away a paper copy of my first book, “Westward Hope”; an e-copy of the sequel, “Settler’s Hope”: and a New England gift pack to three separate winners. Leave a comment to enter the drawing.

Kathleen Bailey is a journalist and novelist with 40 years’ experience in the nonfiction, newspaper and inspirational fields. Born in 1951, she was a child in the 50s, a teen in the 60s, a young adult in the 70s and a young mom in the 80s. It’s been a turbulent, colorful time to grow up, and she’s enjoyed every minute of it and written about most of it.

 Bailey’s work includes both historical and contemporary fiction, with an underlying thread of men and women finding their way home, to Christ and each other. Her first Pelican book, ‘‘Westward Hope,” was published in September 2019. This was followed by a novella, “The Logger’s Christmas Bride,” in December 2019. Her second full-length novel, “Settler’s Hope,” was released July 17, 2020. She has a Christmas novella, “The Widow’s Christmas Miracle,” scheduled for this December as part of Pelican’s “Christmas Extravaganza,” and is completing “Redemption’s Hope,” the third and final book in the Western Dreams series.

She lives in New Hampshire with her husband David. They have two grown daughters.


For more information, contact her at ampie86@comcast.net; @piechick1 on Twitter; Kathleen D. Bailey on Facebook and LinkedIn; or at http://www.kathleendbailey.weebly.com.


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64 thoughts on “Kathleen D. Bailey Looks at Story Structure and the Classic Westerns”

  1. I love When Calls the Heart, which is set in the western wilds of Canada.

    I also loved the Love saga series.

    Both series are based on Jeanette Oke books.


    • Denise, Janette Oke opened up the West, and especially the Canadian West, for a new generation of readers. She influenced me.

    • We watch Wagon Train every afternoon. It runs at 4 p.m. on MeTV in my area. The Rifleman runs just before it. We like all versions, black and white, color, one hour, 90 minutes. Ward Bond, John McIntyre, whatever. And “Red River” really is a classic.

      • I love MeTV and all the other stations that show these great old Westerns.
        When hubby and I were married 51 years ago it was in the home of the local Justice of the Peace, and he left Gunsmoke on during the ceremony. ?

    • “Wagon Train” rocks. I haven’t watched “When Calls the Heart” but will probably binge it this winter when we have to stay indoors again.

  2. Welcome to P & P. I loved your blog and description of this book.
    Right now I’m living Yellowstone the TV series, when it comes to western movies I have several I love. The Outlaw of Josie Wells, Silverado, Quigley Down Under, and Open Range. Wow I could keep going on.

    • Tonya, I know. I’m from the Fifties and people REALLY liked Westerns back then. My parents used to watch “Gunsmoke” every Saturday night.

    • Debra, they really packed a punch, didn’t they? And the stories are amazing. That’s why I started writing Oregon Trail — you put any character on the Trail and there’s automatic conflict, which needs to be resolved, which gives you a plot.

  3. Old westerns are on our tv 24/7 – my husband is a HUGE fan! I love John Wayne movies, and a few modern ones, including Cowboys and Aliens (which kept to the old structure – with you know, aliens).

    My favorite series I’m rewatching now – Longmire! But I loved Where Calls the Heart, and I’m working my way through Heartland now.

    • Laura, yes, John Wayne. His stuff could be transformational (“The Seekers,” “Red River”) or “meh” (Rio Lobo, Rio Bravo, any of the Rios, Ann-Margret and the train robbery). The one thing he didn’t do well, or his writers didn’t do well, was write female characters. Except for any role with Maureen O’Hara in it.
      I am also new to “Heartland” and working my way through it. There’s a lot to like — the relationship between Ty and Amy (they SO have each other’s backs), the writing, more than I ever knew about horses, and that gorgeous Alberta scenery. I also get the biggest kick out of the little kid, Mallory. Does she never go home?
      We get our old Westerns on MeTV and INSP.

    • Barbara, always good to see a fellow Pelican author in a different venue and thanks for all you do. Yeah, it’s a great genre, isn’t it? I love that it’s so vast. You can do Oregon Trail, Land Rush, Gold Rush, Cattle Drive, or any combination of the above. Put two strong characters in it and watch the story take off. Well, it’s not THAT easy, but the genre meets you more than halfway. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. The Lonesome Dove series was special. We watch lots of westerns too. Like you, I was raised watching the classics such as the Rifleman, Bonanza, Rin Tin Tin, Fury, the Virginian, etc. Love westerns. We go to Wyoming in July and watch the cattle drives along with sheep being brought up the mountains for grazing. We enjoy chatting with the Cowboys. They have interesting, hard working lives. Thanks for coming to Petticoats and Pistols today. It was fun getting to know you.

    • Kathy, thanks for stopping by. Wow, you really are a Western fan, aren’t you? Thanks for stopping by.

    • Oh I love Gunsmoke and watch it on INSP most evenings. I love the relationship between Matt, Kitty, Doc and Chester or Festus, depending on what era you were in. Their writers really knew how to create characters.

  5. Good morning and thanks for stopping by P & P! I loved your blog! I loved watching western’s on TV as a child. I have revisited many of them in recent years when my mother gave up satellite tv and returned to just having an antenna. Digital, of course, in this day and time. She mostly watched westerns and it was fun to watch them with her. I’m terrible at favorites but I guess my childhood favorites were Bonanza, I just loved that family and most especially Little Joe! My other childhood favorites were Gunsmoke and The Virginian. My current day most loved series have been Yellowstone, Longmire and Godless.

    I’ve yet to read one of your books and a giveaway is an awesome way to find a new author to add to my go to authors list! Happy Fall! Stay safe in these uncertain times!

    • Bonanza was a great show and the way it was structured gave it plenty of chances for plots, as with The Virginian and the Big Valley. The whole “largest landowner in the area” vibe meant that people from Shiloh, the Barkley or the Ponderosa would always be rubbing up against other elements, either folks down on their luck they tried to help or folks determined to kill them or at least acquire their holdings. A genius plotting device and one that extended the series’ lives by several years. Also worked with “Wagon Train,” if the writers were short on drama in the train they could have them stop in a small town and meddle in someone else’s life. Works for me.
      Good luck in the drawing.

  6. I grew up watching westerns, and my all time favorite was the Guns of Will Sonnett. I loved Dack Rambo!!! I still watch Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Big Valley, The Virginian, Laramie, and others in reruns. I watch western movies on GRIT, and the others are on GRIT and MeTV now. I’ve actually finally seen the Gunsmoke episodes with Burt Reynolds as Quint Asper, since he was on the year I was born!

  7. welcome toay. this is a great post. i loved some of the oldies – bonanza, gunsmoke, high chaparral, big valley, the rifleman, the wild west etc and john wayne movies like – mcclintock and true grit i also loved to watch jimmy stewarts westerns oh i love to watch westerns that are like you mentioned above. quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    • Lori! Yes, we mustn’t forget Jimmy Stewart. Did you see him with John Wayne in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”? Lots of food for thought there.

  8. Western movie: My children loved Across The Great Divide. My favorite is Dances With Wolves. I also enjoyed Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and The Sting …
    probably had something to do with handsome actors Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

  9. I’m going out for a couple of hours. Thanks for all the great comments. Will be back later.
    Kathy Bailey
    Filly for a day

    • Oh, Teresa, I know, I know. Matt Dillon had so much integrity. Plus it was the originator of the phrase, “Get Out of Dodge.”

  10. Congratulations on your new release, Kathy! I grew up watching Bonanza after Sunday night church, eating dinner on TV trays.

  11. I grew up in the 60’s watching all of the old westerns but today it is the Heartland saga that keeps me going! Thanks!

  12. The original Tombstone is my favorite Western movie. The acting and the authentic portrayal was wonderful. Westerns are captivating, special and give me hope.

  13. When I was young we watched westerns which I adored and enjoyed so much. The men were real men with values, principles, and a code of ethics and morals. Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Roy Rogers, The Rifleman and Bonanza were my favorite shows. I miss those shows and those days.

  14. Westerns were like a different world and now it feels as if it was. TV was in its infancy and I watched all the westerns. The cowboys were so brave, real and amazing. Have gun, will travel and The lone ranger. I have been watching Heartland which is set in Alberta and is extraordinary. The story, acting and setting is superb.

  15. Great post, Kathy!
    I love a good western! Right now it’s Longmire 🙂
    Good luck and God’s blessings

    • Pam, how fun to hear from you in another venue and glad you’re okay after the (latest) storm. What a year, huh?

  16. I guess my favorite WesternTV show would be “How the West Was Won”… unless “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” would also be considered a Western. My grandfather always had a Western playing on TV whenever I was at his house. I probably saw more episodes of “The Rifleman” there than at home.

    • I really like “How The West Was Won.” James Arness is in the role of his life, and the supporting cast is marvelous.

  17. Your book sounds really good.
    My favorite western TV show was Lonesome Dove. I had read the book and was not disappointed in the show.
    I like all Western movies but I always watch this one when it comes on-John Wayne in The Searchers
    2 other great series that take place in the West are Longmire and Yellowstone.
    Now, I look forward to them making a movie or series of C J Box’s books. If you are not familiar with his writing, check him out. He has won all kids of awards for his writing.

    • I like C.J. Box too. Joe Pickett is a great character.
      “The Searchers” takes the Western to a new level. It is more than a classic.

  18. I was always entranced with Westerns which were very popular when I was growing up. The locales called to me as they were unique and majestic. I did visit Tombstone and was disappointed. Gunsmoke, The Roy Rogers show and old Western movies were fascinating.

  19. We loved “How the West Was Won” and “Lonsome Dove” and “Broken Trail”. I know a lot of people like “Yellowstone” but the violence in it bothers me. The setting is absolutely gorgeous and I have to admit I have watched season one at least four times…..I must like something about it.

    • Alice, different Westerns appeal to different people. My husband likes Clint Walker in “Cheyenne,” but that show does nothing for me.

  20. I grew up watching Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and John Wayne Western movies. Our family watched all the tv series like Bonanza and Gunsmoke to name a few. We especially liked watching Gunsmoke since my mom went to high school with the actor who portrayed Festus, Ken Curtis. One of my favorite more current movies is Silverado. I like just about any movie dealing with the Old West.

  21. I grew up watching The Rifleman, John Wayne western movies, Palladin, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Davy Crockett , Jim Bowie, Rawhide, oh so many, many great westerns, I loved them all. I also watched Desperado and it was pretty good also, and some Clint Eastwood westerns , and a couple of western movies with Charle Bronson. Thank you for this walk to memory lane. Have a Great weekend and stay safe. God Bless you and your family.

  22. Kathleen, Welcome to the Junction. I was born 3 years before you and we we seem to have followed a similar path growing up, including the timing of motherhood. I grew up in NE NY with the view of the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire from my front yard in the Adirondacks. I have felt more a part of New England than NY. We now live in the South and really miss the Northeast.
    I have heard about but never seen “How The West Was Won,” or “The Searchers.” I really need to rectify that. A more recent miniseries, “Into The West,” is a favorite. It follows an extended family in the East and their friends who decide to move West to get a piece of the promise of the new land for themselves. It depicts the journey in stark reality, showing just how dangerous and difficult the trip and life was. It also follows the parallel journey of a native American family and the impact of white expansion upon them. The lives of these two groups overlap in ways common back then, but not always expected. I appreciate it for its realism and honesty. It shows the challenges of man against nature, man against man, and man against culture and society.
    Thank you for an interesting post. Your story, “Settlers Hope,” gives a good view of the way things were out West, and sadly elsewhere. You needed to be strong, but you also needed to be smart and resourceful to survive. Enjoy what is left of Fall up there. Stay safe and healthy.

  23. I loved the series How the West was Won, and still wonder how Luke’s story ended. I also enjoyed The Virginian, and have read the book written by Owen Wister.

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