Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape of deserts and mountains. Often, the vast landscape plays an important role, presenting a "...mythic vision of the plains and deserts of the American West". Specific settings include ranches, small frontier towns, saloons, railways, wilderness, and isolated military forts of the Wild West.
Common plots include:
The construction of a railroad or a telegraph line on the wild frontier.
Ranchers protecting their family ranch from rustlers or large landowners or who build a ranch empire.
Revenge stories, which hinge on the chase and pursuit by someone who has been wronged.
Stories about a lawman or bounty hunter tracking down his quarry.
Many Westerns use a stock plot of depicting a crime, then showing the pursuit of the wrongdoer, ending in revenge and retribution, which is often dispensed through a shootout or quick-draw duel.
The Lone Ranger; a famous heroic lawman who was with a cavalry of six Texas Rangers, until they were all killed but him. He preferred to remain anonymous, so he resigned and built a sixth grave that supposedly held his body. He fights on as a lawman, wearing a mask, for, "Outlaws live in a world of fear. Fear of the mysterious."
The Western genre sometimes portrays the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature in the name of civilization or the confiscation of the territorial rights of the original, Native American, inhabitants of the frontier. The Western depicts a society organized around codes of honor and personal, direct or private justice–"frontier justice"–dispensed by gunfights. These honor codes are often played out through depictions of feuds or individuals seeking personal revenge or retribution against someone who has wronged them (e.g., True Grit has revenge and retribution as its main themes). This Western depiction of personal justice contrasts sharply with justice systems organized around rationalistic, abstract law that exist in cities, in which social order is maintained predominately through relatively impersonal institutions such as courtrooms. The popular perception of the Western is a story that centers on the life of a semi-nomadic wanderer, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter. A showdown or duel at high noon featuring two or more gunfighters is a stereotypical scene in the popular conception of Westerns.
In some ways, such protagonists may be considered the literary descendants of the knights errant which stood at the center of earlier extensive genres such as the Arthurian Romances. Like the cowboy or gunfighter of the Western, the knight errant of the earlier European tales and poetry was wandering from place to place on his horse, fighting villains of various kinds and bound to no fixed social structures but only to their own innate code of honor. And like knights errant, the heroes of Westerns frequently rescue damsels in distress. Similarly, the wandering protagonists of Westerns share many characteristics with the ronin in modern Japanese culture.
The Western typically takes these elements and uses them to tell simple morality tales, although some notable examples (e.g. the later Westerns of John Ford or Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, about an old hired killer) are more morally ambiguous. Westerns often stress the harshness and isolation of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape. Western films generally have specific settings such as isolated ranches, Native American villages, or small frontier towns with a saloon. Oftentimes, these settings appear deserted and without much structure. Apart from the wilderness, it is usually the saloon that emphasizes that this is the Wild West: it is the place to go for music (raucous piano playing), women (often prostitutes), gambling (draw poker or five card stud), drinking (beer or whiskey), brawling and shooting. In some Westerns, where civilization has arrived, the town has a church, a general store, a bank and a school; in others, where frontier rules still hold sway, it is, as Sergio Leone said, "where life has no value".