Classic Stories Series: A Stranger Comes to Town

It’s time for another post in my classic stories series, in which I break down recurring classic storylines and discuss how you can use them — and change them up — in your own writing. This week, I’d like to talk about one of my favorite classic plots: “a stranger comes to town.”

How the story works.

In modern storytelling, this plotline is most evident in the Western genre. In a good western, like the Clint Eastwood golden oldie A Fistful of Dollars, the plot begins when a stranger, often anonymous or with an unknown past, arrives in a small town. In the case of A Fistful of Dollars, the hero is actually called “the Man with No Name” — the mystery surrounding the character is an important part of the mood. Once this stranger arrives, he ends up walking into some sort of mess that’s been going on — usually there are warring factions in the town and he’s forced to choose a side, or there’s some villain that is harrying the town. The stranger has to get involved and endanger himself in order to help — and usually, it all comes down to a showdown in which he or she faces the principle baddie. This is the beloved story structure of many Westerns, and it all starts with that classic inciting incident of the stranger’s arrival in a new, isolated, and troubled world.

Why we love this story

“The stranger comes to town” plot is not limited to Westerns, however. It could be argued that several Shakespeare plays and Japanese samurai stories follow this same rubric, as does something like The Hobbit, in which Gandalf arrives at the peaceful unsuspecting Shire and manages to stir up trouble. In some ways, this plot line is interesting because the stranger is often partially complicit in the trouble, starting it in motion by the fact of his arrival or what he does when he gets there. No one is fully innocent in a good version of this story; and we love the hero precisely for his air of mystery, and the few cracks in the armor that we get to see. Often the stranger acts pretty cool at first, but finds himself pulled into the emotions of those suffering. Sometimes he or she falls in love, and finds him or herself no longer able to travel on.

After the jump: how to use the plot line in your own writing.

Using this plot in modern fiction

What’s so satisfying about using the stranger coming to town as your inciting incident is that it’s all about place and character. The stranger must be fascinating as a character, with just enough clues to his past dropped throughout. He might have a locket he wears with a woman’s face, or she might have a scar on her face. We might get to find out the stories behind these items, and we might not; what’s important is that they suggest story and character behind the face of the mystery.

And the other important part of this storyline is the sense of place. The stranger must come to town; he must arrive somewhere that desperately needs him for one reason or another. He might make things worse before he makes them better. Or he might get pulled in to the bad side of the war. Either way, we must have a strong sense of what this place is like, and why it is hurting so badly.

The end?

The exciting thing about the stranger-comes-to-town story is that it ends in a bittersweet way. Usually the problem gets resolved in one way or another, but the stranger cannot stay; he must move on, breaking the ties he’s made, breaking the hearts he’s won. We want our Westerns in particular to end with our hero riding off into the sunset, but other genres, too, play on this need for departure, both for closure and for a heart-wrenching good finish. As always, remember that to wound your reader is usually better than to put your reader to sleep. As surely as the stranger came, he must leave, one way or another.


  1. Annie says:

    I don’t remember who said it, but there’s a quote that goes something like, “There are only two stories: someone goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. And a stranger comes to town is ‘someone goes on a journey’ from another perspective.” The stranger comes to town plot is totally necessary for all genres.

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