American Outlaws

Inciting Event: Jesse, his brother Frank, and his cousins Cole and Bob Younger return home to from the Civil War, only to have the railroad try to force them into selling their farms. My first instinct on this was that the Inciting Event was their return, since this is a clear turning point in the First Act. But, nope, if we think about it a little deeper, we can see the Inciting Event has to be the moment when the railroaders show up on the Jameses’ farm and threaten them if they don’t sell their farm at a rock-bottom price. Why? Because this is where the protagonists first brush with the main conflict. They see the conflict when they return home, but they don’t personally have to face it until the railroaders come after their land.

First Plot Point: After Cole is arrested for killing a couple of the railroaders, Jesse and the rest of the gang organize a grand rescue as Cole is on the scaffold, about to be hanged. This officially signals their departure from their Normal World in Liberty, where they were trying to be peaceful farmers, and their entrance in the adventure world of outlawry. There’s no turning back from this moment. From this point on, they’re marked men.

First Pinch Point: In retaliation, the railroad burns the local farms, blows up barns, and kills Jesse and Frank’s mother. This is where Jesse and the others learn the extent of the railroad’s determination. It emphasizes the power of the antagonists, and forces Jesse and Co. closer to definitive action.

Midpoint: Jesse and Cole and their families, including Cole’s youngest brother Jim, decide to rob the bank where the railroad keeps its money. This is them taking direct action against the antagonistic force. They’ve realized by this point that they cannot take a passive stance, and that the only way to strike back against the railroad is to steal from them. This launches the Second Half of the Second Act, in which they become famous outlaws.

Second Pinch Point: The railroad men, aided by Detective Pinkerton, set a trap at the bank in Hyperion. Against Jesse’s better judgment, Cole leads them in. They are nearly captured, and Jim Younger is shot and dies. Jim’s death emphasizes what is at stake for all of the outlaws, and Jesse decides he no longer wants to rob banks. He wants to go home and marry his childhood sweetheart.

Third Plot Point: After getting married and trying to stay out of trouble, Jesse is captured by the railroaders. He will be sent back to Washington City, where a jury will almost certainly convict and hang him. The pall of his own death hangs over this moment, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned himself, which does rob a bit of the punch from this plot point.

Climax: Chained up in a cattle car, on his way to Washington, Jesse gets the drop on his guards, breaks free, and starts a shootout that takes him all the way up to the car in which the head railroader and Pinkerton are riding. As a general rule of thumb: the smaller the climactic setting is, the better. A speeding train is a great choice—especially since, in this instance, it’s thematically resonant as well.

Climactic Moment: After Cole, Frank, and Jesse’s wife stop the train with a cannon, Jesse chooses to spare the railroad chief and Pinkerton.

Resolution: Jesse and his wife decide to move to Tennessee—where Pinkerton promises he won’t pursue them.

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