On writing better stories

How to write a Western story

A Western story is just like any other story
except for one thing:
it takes place in the west.
and that makes it unique.
Here are some things you’ll want to consider when writing your Western.

This is in the format of the journalist’s “5 Ws and H”: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.

If you have any questions, please put them in a comment or email

I. Who

A. The protagonist. This one is simple. What’s our hero or heroine’s name?

B. The antagonist. Another simple one. Who’s the bad guy?

C. Supporting characters. Are there any other people we should know about? If they are important enough to focus on, then give them each a name or other identifier.

D. Specifics. Each character has a variety of ways to be distinguished from the other characters. Some of these are:

1. Name. We’ve already hit on this, but it’s important enough to mention again.

2. Sex. Is the character male or female? Inquiring minds want to know!

3. Ethnicity. German? Irish? American Indian (Apache, Arapaho, Comanche, etc.)? Each group has common traits that
set them apart from other groups, and that can be very useful to you.

4. Age. Aside from physical appearance, there are certain expectations of each age group. Youth can be expected to be inexperienced while older folks are supposed to be wiser.

5. Education. This isn’t just about school, although schooling certainly applies. It’s also about training. A prospector might have been schooled at a university, but he might also have simply learned from conversations with others how to tell a gold nugget from a chunk of  iron pyrite (fool’s gold).

6. Occupation. Butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. Everybody has to do something to keep body and soul together. We can’t all live the luxurious lifestyle of the cowboy. ?

7. Physical condition. Tall, short, skinny, fat, weak, strong? Missing any fingers or toes? Missing any limbs? Bald, full head of hair, long hair, short hair? What makes the character different than the other characters? If some characters are members of the
same family, is there anything that makes them look like it?

8. Mental condition. Is your character subject to wild emotional swings? Or is he like the old man down the street who was even-tempered: mad all the time? Is the character mentally stable or is he truly insane? Most of us probably fall somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes; so do your characters.

9. Habits. We’ve all got them. Take two gunfighters. One is careless and loads all six chambers of his pistol. The other is cautious and only loads five, leaving the hammer down over the empty chamber. The first gunfighter drops his pistol, it hits on the hammer and fires accidentally, killing the gunfighter. The second gunfighter is ambushed by six Apaches. He’s able to kill five of the attackers but, with all five bullets gone, the sixth Apache kills the gunfighter. Swap the two gunfighters and the dropped gun lands on an empty chamber while the other gun, holding all six shots, kills all the Apaches. Most of the time habits don’t matter but sometimes they can be the difference between life and death. Where it matters, show us your character’s good and bad habits.

10. Special talent. Everyone has something they’re better at than most anyone. If your character has exceptional hand-eye coordination and spent his spare time practicing how to draw a gun, that native talent (the hand-eye coordination) might be used to save his life when it’s needed.

11. Background/History. Nature vs. nurture. The physical and mental aspects of the character have a huge amount to do with how that character acts. That’s the nature side. But his background, his life experiences up to this point, that’s also in play. That’s the nurturing he received, whether it was good or bad, and it also helped shape him. Did the other kids abuse him or did they dote on him? As a result, does he now distrust strangers, or is he as friendly as a puppy?

12. Significant other(s). This category covers lots of ground, and we’ll cover the highlights.

a. Family. The obvious first influencer. Did his father smother him with affection? Did his mother beat him? Were his brothers jealous of him? Did his sisters protect him?

b. Spouse. If married now or previously, did the spouse support him? Did she run him down? Did she cheat on him? Was it a marriage of convenience, a business-like arrangement, an affair of passion, the love of his life?

c. Business partner. This could be anything from co-owners of the bank, co-owners of a ranch, or even just two cowboys who work together. Is their relationship one of mutual respect or are they forced to work together? Are they supportive of each other or do they actively try to sabotage the other?

d. Friends. Does your character have any? How many? How close are they? Or is your character a loner, despising and despised by others?

e. Neighbors. Are the neighbors nearby or far? Are they supportive of your character, hoping he does well—or would they rather see him dropped in a well?

f. Rivals. Not to be confused with enemies, a rival can simply be someone who wants the same thing your character wants. They may be good friends and after the same girl. Then again, they may not even know each other.

g. Enemies. An enemy can be your character’s worst nightmare. An enemy could also be a blessing for your character. An enemy can drive your character to up his game, to become more than he ever wanted to be … simply to stay alive. A good enemy can be hard to find.

II. What

A. The beginning situation. Here’s where you set the stage. You do that by showing us what’s going on. Maybe your opening scene shows a lot of people watching a rodeo. Or maybe it’s inside a saloon, with a card game going on.

B. The change. If the opening scene was the rodeo, maybe the change is when Indians raid the town while the rodeo has most of the townfolk distracted. If the opening scene was at the card game, maybe the change is when someone bursts through the door and yells, “They struck gold!” Whatever it is, this is when the story really begins.

C. The desired situation. What is the hero’s goal? If we started with the rodeo, and the Indians have raided the town, maybe Our Hero has to track them down and rescue the girl who was kidnapped (Searchers, anyone?). If it was at the card game and the
guy yelled, “Gold!” maybe Our Hero (who, as it turns out, was in the card game in a last-ditch effort to win enough money to pay off the family farm before the bank can foreclose on it) dashes off to the Klondike to make his fortune (North to Alaska, anyone?).

III. When

A. What year? It’s your story, and you get to choose, but be sure you know about the time you set the story in.

1. What technology is available? Don’t have the story occurring in 1860 and have Our Hero armed with a gun that
wasn’t invented until 1872. You’ll make readers mad. The internet is a fine resource … use it to be sure whatever you put in the story existed at the time of the story.

2. What are the clothing fashions? Don’t have the bad guy dressed in a leisure suit. We know leisure suits are the preferred outfit of any self-respecting lounge lizard, but they weren’t around in the 1800s. Again, if you haven’t done your research, now’s the time to start.

3. What are the customs of the day? Do you have Our Heroine sitting in the bar, sipping a glass of wine? If Our Heroine is a “lady” and not a “soiled dove,” would she be in a bar? If you don’t know, who’s your friend? Research, that’s who.

B. What time of year? What season? Spring, summer, fall? What month? January or July? What day? We (the reader) may not need to know but you, the author, certainly should.

C. The weather? Influenced by the time of year, but is it a hot summer or unseasonably cool? Is it a frigid winter or a mild one? Are there storms, hurricanes, tornadoes? These can all play a part in your story.

IV. Where

A. The geography. In what area of the country does the story take place? What state?

B. The topography. Let’s say your story takes place in Colorado. But is it in the east, where the land is really flat? Or is it in the west, where all the mountains live?

C. The neighborhood. Now we’re getting to the scene of the story. If Our Hero is in the mountains, is he in a valley, on a peak, or somewhere in between? What would he see if he looked around? Bear in mind that vegetation changes from location to location, as does wildlife and weather. What if you don’t know? Who’s your friend? Research!

V. Why

A. What is each character’s motivation? When the Indians took the girl and Our Hero went after them and her, why did he do it? In Searchers, John Wayne was driven by hatred of the “other,” what he took as barbarians. He was insulted that they had taken the girl and felt honor-bound to do all in his power to rescue her. His motivation drove a lot of drama in unexpected places, which made the story memorable … something that every author should strive for.

VI. How

A. How did the change in situation come about? When the Indians raided the town, we know they kidnapped the girl. But what was she doing when they arrived? What made them notice her? How did they get hold of her? Did she struggle? Was anyone else around? Did anyone get injured? What happened?

(Oh, and don’t tell us … show us.)

This is a reasonable list of factors you might want to include in your story. It’s not complete (I’m sure you can think up more on your own) but they will give you a starting point. You probably won’t want to put each and every one of them in your story but, whether you include them or not, you should know them. An author should always know all about the story, every detail of it, whether the reader sees it or not.

Again, if you have any questions, you can put them in a comment below or email

Happy writing!

For a printable copy of this page, click HERE.

On writing better stories

Tips on writing and getting published

Here are five tips to make your writing first-rate!
Tip #1It’s a story.

Every story needs to have five things:
a situation, a character we care about, an objective, an opponent, and disaster.

Here’s an example:

Situation: When dogs and cats suddenly begin to pal around together
Character: Doctor Dolittle
Objective: tries to find out why. But can he defeat
Opponent: the evil veterinarians who want to kill him
Disaster: in order to make animals the ruling species on earth?

Let’s look at each component of the story “Dr. Doolittle vs. the Veterinarians.”

What if there’s no situation? Dr. Doolittle tries to find out why . . . ? Why what? Without the situation, there’s no reason for Dr. D to do anything, is there? No situation, no reason for a story.

How about no character? Without a sympathetic hero, whom will we care about? You’ve got to have someone to root for or else there’s no interest in the story.

Next comes the objective. If Dr. D notes the strange behavior of dogs and cats but doesn’t wonder about it, what will he do? Sit and have a cup of tea? If he’s not pursuing something—the truth, the girl next door, revenge, a good back rub, something—then we have nothing to hope he achieves. Again, no interest equals no story.

How about a story with no opponent? First, remember an opponent doesn’t have to be human. An opponent can be an animal, a god, an alien, the weather, anything at all that can prevent our hero from achieving his goal. Without opposition, our hero will blithely waltz through life, finding the answers to all his questions as if he was walking through a park picking flowers. And who cares to watch that? There’s no drama without opposition. Make sure your good guy has at least one worthy bad guy to fight.

And now disaster. What is disaster and why do we need it? If nothing bad ever happens to our hero, we are assured he will win in the end. If we know he’ll win, why bother to watch the game? Your story has to have drama to hold the reader’s interest. Drama necessitates putting your hero or his goal in jeopardy. Remember, you don’t have to actually harm your hero to prevent him from winning. If Dudley Do-Right is out to save the day but Tess Trueheart gets run over by the train, Dudley has been defeated (disaster!) even though he hasn’t had a hair on his head harmed. Disaster comes in many forms . . . just make sure it shows up in your story — and the more often it shows, the better! Then have your hero overcome the disaster (who knew Dudley Do-Right had a merit badge in amputation-restoration and would be able to sew Tess back together again as good as new?) and go on to face future disasters until he reaches the final showdown.

At the final showdown, will your hero win or lose? That’s the question that will keep readers turning the pages!

Tip #2:  Spelling and grammar are important.


If that’s clear to you, then bless you. You and James Joyce go do what you want. But it’s not clear to me and I’m the one who wrote it! So if you want to send something to me, please make it easily understandable, OK?

I hear some people say things like “Hey, I’ve seen other writers do it. Their books are selling, why should I worry about it?” Well, ask yourself: how many books have you sold? If the answer is “not as many as I’d like,” go to your first reader, critique group, agent, editor, or whoever you trust. Ask them to read your work and to mark everything that isn’t correct or clear. When they’re done, go in and fix what they marked. DON’T explain why Our Hero ran from his One True Love. You won’t be at the shoulder of every person who reads your story . . . it has to be able to stand on its own. If it needs explanation, what it really needs is more attention from you. Rewrite and get it right!

Remember: Spelling and Grammar — they’re not just for grade school anymore!

Tip #3:  Proofread your work.

You’ve just finished your epic short story! It’s absolutely wonderful and you know everyone will just die if they don’t have a chance to read it soon. So you send it off to your favorite publication.

But they reject it!

The rejection slip says something about not paying enough attention to details, too many incorrect and/or misspelled words, blah-blah-blah. You don’t remember exactly what it said, you just glanced at the letter before wadding it up and throwing it away. You can’t possibly have misspelled any words . . . you used SpellCheck!

Sad fact: spell checking software doesn’t always do what you think it does. It doesn’t look for context or correct word choice. It merely compares each word with its internal dictionary and, if there’s a match, it gives the “OK.” But that’s not always right, is it? Dew ewe no watt eye mein?

You’re a writer, and it’s your responsibility to make your work understandable. It’s not up to the reader to figure out what you meant. And guess what? They won’t! If you confuse the reader, you lose the reader.

So, when you’ve finished that story, set it aside for a while. How long? A few weeks or more, if you can. Then, pick it up and start from page one. Read it as if you’d never seen it before. You may be surprised at the errors you find.

When you’ve corrected everything, start over. This time, read it aloud. Hearing your words can help you discover problems you might otherwise miss.

Why do you want to go to all this trouble? Because — unless you’re very, very lucky — the editor will do the same thing with your submission that you did to the rejection slip; he’ll throw it away.

And we don’t want that, dew we?

Tip #4:  Submit your work to the right person.

You’ve finally finished. You’ve written your story, stayed within the rules of grammar and punctuation, and proofread it. It’s like a little jewel—it positively shines! Now to get it published. Who will you send it to?

In the days before email submissions, when you had to mail the printed story to the publisher, you were a little bit careful who you sent your story to. After all, it cost money for the postage, the paper, and the printer’s ink or toner. It could easily run over a dollar for just a short story. If you sent it to ten magazines, hoping one of them would accept it, that was a ten dollar bill gone. Hey, ten bucks is ten bucks . . . you don’t just burn those things if you can help it.

So, you exercised a little judgement. You checked in the Writers Market to see who printed your kind of story. You didn’t send your blood-and-guts crime thriller to Bride magazine. Why? Because you knew they wouldn’t print it! And you didn’t want to waste your money, did you?

Enter email submissions. Suddenly, you don’t have to spend anything to submit your story. And, guess what? Many of you don’t. You don’t spend a dime on postage. You don’t spend a penny on paper. Your printer sits there idle, not costing you a single red cent for ink or toner. See how much you’ve saved? But wait, there’s more! You can even save time!

That’s right, now that it costs you no money to submit your story, you can stop looking up appropriate markets. Why bother? After all, even though it makes no sense at all to send that crime thriller to Bride . . . well, why not? It’s free and your writing is so superior to anything seen before, those editors at Bride will positively swoon when they see it. They’ll be so impressed, they’ll change the format of the magazine to fit your work. Heck, they’ll even change the name — Bride magazine will become Gang Molls Unlimited!


Read the Submission Guidelines. Can’t find them? Look closer. They’re there. And they exist for a reason. No one will accept your work in an inappropriate venue. Don’t send crime stories to Bride, or bride stories to True Crime. Select the appropriate targets for your attentions. Write Westerns? Don’t bore the editors of Home and Garden with it. Send stuff to people who will appreciate it.

Oh, and one last thing. Address the editor correctly and politely. “Dear Mr. (name)” will get you lots more points than “to whom it may concern.” And if the editor is male, don’t call him Miss, Mrs., or Ms. — and vice-versa. Can’t tell if the editor is male or female? Be general. There’s nothing wrong with “Dear Editor.” But if the editor’s first name is Duke (like mine), don’t send something to “Ms. Editor.” The reputation you save may be your own.

Tip #5:  Don’t submit until you’re finished.

You’ve got a great idea for a story. You rip it out — the words fly from your mind, through your fingertips, onto the page! It’s genius, it’s brilliant! Wow! And you know just where to submit it.

You check the submission guidelines. Yep, you’ve got it nailed. Off it goes! Now, for the interminable wait until the editor says “accepted” or “rejected.”

Wonder of wonders, the editor responds before your hair turns white with age. And it’s good news, too! Your story is going to be published. Yay! Ah, the glory of it all. You look over your story, mentally caressing each word, each turn of phrase. It’s so good, it’s just . . . wait, what’s that? Where did THAT word come from? That’s not what you want in there! Oh, my god, the story isn’t perfect after all. But, you can fix it. Here, just change this, add that, delete that section there and, viola, it’s perfect. A quick note to the editor. “There were a couple of minor flaws . . . I fixed them. All is well . . . I’m sure you understand. Just replace the earlier story with this one. Thanks.”

Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? The editor obviously wants only the best possible work in his publication. Of course he has no problem throwing away the work he did getting your first story ready for publication. See? All is well. And your story . . . ah, look at it! It positively shines. See the way the sub-plot winds its way in and out of the main plot? See how the . . . wait. That would be so much better if you only tweaked it like this and, oh-oh, you need to change that and, ah! There! Isn’t that better? Ooh, ooh, let’s get THIS version to the editor! He’ll like it so much better and . . . .

Can you see the editor, reading your latest email with the attached revision, drumming his fingers on the desk? Are you beginning to get the feeling he isn’t enjoying this apparently-never-ending process of you upgrading your story? You should, because editors have a schedule for getting everything ready to publish. Constant changes eat into that most-precious of all commodities — time. And most of us don’t have so much that we can afford to waste it. Your story was good enough to be accepted in the first place. Save all those wonderful flashes for your next story. That’s the way we all improve.

What to do? By all means, send in your story. But send it when it’s mature, when it has reached its full growth, when it’s at its best. Why would you send in less than your best? That’s not good for the publication you submit to. Most importantly, it’s not good for you. And, once you do send it in, let it go. Start writing your next story. That’s where your energy belongs.

Is your Tale ready to go? Click here to learn how to submit a story to Frontier Tales.

On writing better stories

Help for Authors

What better time to up your writing skills?

Check out our FREE online courses!

1. Tips on writing and getting published
2. How to write a western story


More courses are coming soon!