Monday, August 10, 2009


by Earl Staggs

This weekend, I treated myself to an old western movie. My wife doesn’t share my enjoyment of a good old fashioned shoot-em-up cowboy yarn, so I don’t do it often. I taped this movie weeks ago and waited for the right time to watch it. Yesterday, when my wife went off to a girls-only farewell dinner for a coworker moving out of state, I seized the opportunity.

The movie was “The Man From Laramie” starring James Stewart. Filmed in the
early 50's, it was one of a string of westerns Stewart made during that period. I’d seen it many years ago, but I wasn’t a writer then. Now that I’ve written mysteries for a number of years, I was amazed at how much like a contemporary mystery story this movie played out.

The story begins with a stranger (Stewart) arriving in town. He only gives his last name, but we soon learn he’s looking for a man and when he finds that man, he plans to kill him. We don’t know why he wants to kill the man, only that nothing else matters to him and nothing will stop him. At this point, we don’t even know if Stewart is a good guy or a bad guy. That sets the hook and, naturally, we stick around to see who’s who and what’s what. As the story unfolds, we meet the rich and powerful old man who owns and runs the town, his spoiled son, and the pretty girl who is engaged to the old man’s second-in-command, the toughest man in town. Stewart is told to leave town, gets beaten up a couple times, has a gunfight or two, but nothing deters him from his quest. Little by little, we learn why he’s there, who he is searching for and why, and the story builds to an exciting showdown. And, of course, there’s the romance thing with the pretty girl.

You could easily take that same plot and, with a few changes, make it a contemporary mystery story. Instead of Stewart riding into an old western cattle town on his horse (the same horse, by the way, he rode in every western he ever made), the stranger could ride into a modern-day town behind the wheel of a Ford or Chevrolet or on a Greyhound bus. The fistfights and gunfights would be about the same except the men would wear suits with Glocks in shoulder holsters instead of chaps, boots and six-guns on their hips.

Come to think of it, it’s already been done, hasn’t it? Many times. We’ve all read books and seen movies with a similar storyline.

There are two points to this ramble.

First, there are only so many plots we can use, even if they’ve been used before. We can change the characters, the setting , the time period and tell the same story in a new way.

Second, when I saw the movie before, I didn’t break it down to the basic storyline and think of it from that perspective. But I wasn’t a writer then.

Funny how that changes the way we view a story, isn’t it?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh, I love Jimmy Stewart. I've watched that movie because of him, even though I'm no fan of Westerns.

You're right...every author approaches even trite plots with a fresh perspective that makes the story new again.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Kaye George said...

Good analysis, Earl. Nothing new under the sun, huh? Now I might have to watch that movie. I adore Jimmy Stewart and didn't know that about his horse!

Earl Staggs said...

You're right, Elizabeth. A writer with talent and skills can take the oldest of plots and create a good story.

Kaye, take a good look at Jimmy's hat, too. He wore that same sweat-stained, beat-up old hat in all his western movies.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Earl! And didn't Jimmy make that same movie over ... and over ... and over? (-:

Pat Browning

Earl Staggs said...

You're probably right, Pat, and I loved every one of them. Who would have thought the same guy from Harvey, Mr. Smith, and It's a Wonderful Life could pay the tough cowboy so well. A testament to his skill as an actor, I suppose.

Morgan Mandel said...

One of the characters says basically the same thing in my new release, Killer Career.

There are no new plots. It's how you treat them that sets you apart.

Morgan Mandel