A Stranger Rides Into Town

The Simplest Story Structure For Writers In a Hurry

When it comes to story structure, there are as many approaches as there are books in the library. You’re probably familiar with The Hero’s Journey popularized by Joseph Campbell, which draws on Greek mythology. You may have also heard of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, a contemporary structure that emphasizes how the protagonist changes over the course of the story. And that’s just looking at Western ideas of how stories should be told. Every culture has its own storytelling traditions and norms. All of them are valid ways to build your story, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to stick to the European-American canon that I grew up with.

But what if you’re not sold on the idea of following a set story structure at all? What if you’re a writer looking for a framework that can guide your plot without being forced to conform to a rigid set of rules? In that case, you’re in luck, because I have just the thing.

Back in college, I took a screenwriting course and my professor liked to say that when you boil it all down, there is only one story—a stranger rides into town.1 Now, I’m not sure I would go as far as to say that there are absolutely no other kinds of stories, but there is something about the sudden appearance of an outsider that lends itself well to crafting a fictional narrative.

If you’ve ever seen a Western, you’ve seen this trope play out. A town is in the grip of a group of outlaws when a mysterious stranger rides in on his trusty stallion to save the day. But to take it a few steps beyond Clint Eastwood, it’s easy to see this pattern in lots of stories.

Two droids land on Tatooine with a secret message. Beowulf arrives at Hrothgar’s besieged hall. Nick Carraway moves to West Egg. A rabbit sneaks into Mr. MacGregor’s garden.

At the heart of all of each of these plots is change. Something changes, which sets off a series of events, which eventually lead to a conclusion.

In some cases, a literal stranger comes to town, upsetting the tranquil order of the everyday world. Other times, it’s a metaphorical visitor. Think of every single Doctor Who adventure, which nearly always begin with our hero arriving in some strange new place. Or take the opening chapter of The Hobbit, where a wizard arrives at Bilbo Baggins’ front door and invites him to undertake a perilous quest. Without a nudge from Gandalf, Bilbo would’ve stayed home and never come to possess the One Ring.

In each case, the arrival of a stranger or the arrival in a strange land precipitates conflict—and conflict is the engine which drives a story forward. After Neo is contacted by Trinity, the Agents come after him, forcing him to make a choice that will change his life forever. When Ishmael steps onto the Pequod, he sets off on a journey that will ultimately bring him face-to-face with the white whale. When Marty McFly goes back in time, he interrupts his parents’ first meeting and must bring them together.

The beauty and simplicity of this story structure is that it gives us a jumping off point. Something disrupts the way things were: a person, a storm, the arrival of a letter. If you find yourself struggling to move your plot along, it may be time for the arrival of a mysterious stranger in some form. The stranger forces our characters into action and voilà, the story is off and running in a new direction.

A stranger rides into town is great for writers who want something more flexible than a full outline or the prescriptive steps of the hero’s journey. And if you want to combine it with a more elaborate story structure, it becomes the perfect tool to reach for when you get stuck. No archetypes or worksheets required, just an easy reminder that change is a fiction writer’s best friend.

So, the next time you’re working on your fictional world and you hit a dead end or it feels like the plot is dragging, look to the horizon—and you might just see a stranger riding into town to save the day.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, podcaster, and storyteller. He lives in Tacoma, WA with his family, a dog, and three adorable typewriters. His writing has been published in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. You can listen to his audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, and his writing podcast, Dispatches with Jonny Eberle, wherever you enjoy podcasts.

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[1] My college professor was channeling an oft-quoted (and more often misquoted) adage about writing which can be traced back to the novelist John Gardner, who wrote in his 1984 book The Art of Fiction, “Write the opening of a novel…As subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order—the usual novel beginning).” Later on, other writers turned Gardner’s writing exercise into the more catchy saying, “there are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and a man goes on a journey.” It’s fitting that in this long game of telephone, the second plot was dropped entirely by the time it got to me.

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