Writing The Western Update VIII: In the Thick of Act III and Sergio Leone!

I'm sorry for the lack of updates, I've had to lay low for a while. I was able to get some work done on 10/15/11 and 10/17/11, when I got through two more scenes. We're now into Act III, which is where a lot of interesting stuff happens. The way I've structured things, Act III of V is very important. It's usually the longest act, and centers around a midpoint where the circumstances of the story change drastically. Look at Shakespeare: in almost any Act III, someone dies, shows up, or goes into exile. Preferably more than one. Dying is popular- Polonius, Tybalt, Caesar, to name a few.

In my case, we're introducing another major character in Act III, and killing off a minor bad guy. This scene was a lot of fun, and I'd been looking forward to it for a long time. I finally got to it on 10/18/11, when I got through another ten pages, and a gun duel that, if I may say so, is pretty cool.

It goes without saying that I owe a lot of what I'm writing to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. Films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in The West have been hugely influential for the genre and action movies in general.

I'd argue they helped kill off  Hollywood westerns like High Noon, and The Searchers. Leone's production design uses fresh locations, and weather-beaten actors. They have an air of authenticity that American westerns seem to lack. You can't make a western (or a schlocky low budget action movie) nowadays without tipping your hat to Leone. He's well regarded by critics and fanboys alike.

While the gritty style, intense close ups, and badass swaggering have been coopted by many, I'm surprised that Leone's treatment of violence hasn't made as much of an impact. Perhaps because it requires slow building suspense, rather than a fast and furious shoot out. His most famous films all end with some kind of staring contest-quick draw duel. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a prime example. Take it away, Roger:

A fortune in gold is said to be buried in one of the graves, and three men have assembled, all hoping to get it. ... Each man points a pistol at the other. If one shoots, they all shoot, and all die. Unless two decide to shoot the third man before he can shoot either one of them. But which two, and which third?

Leone draws this scene out beyond all reason, beginning in long shot and working in to closeups of firearms, faces, eyes, and lots of sweat and flies. He seems to be testing himself, to see how long he can maintain the suspense. ... If you savor the boldness with which Leone flirts with parody, you understand his method. This is not a story, but a celebration of bold gestures.

Tell people something bad is going to happen, and then make them wait for it. Someone's about to get shot- Ooh! Shiny!

And then it's all over in a flash- someone draws and BANG! The villain slumps to the ground. This is key. All of that buildup gets dissipated in a second. To draw it out is a waste.

Consider a recent homage to Leone in the South Korean film, The Good, The Bad, The Weird. <SPOILER ALERT!!!> We end in a similar Mexican Standoff, but when the three characters draw their guns, we get an extended orgasm of gunfire, where everyone gets hit more than once, but keeps pulling their triggers. All of this makes me think, "These guys have terrible aim."


It's all about suspense. Twitchy, shoot-first, edge of your seat, ask-questions-later suspense. He's the Trope Codifier for me, and I'm happy to tip my hat to Sergio Leone.