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April 25, 2023

Yellow Stone Breakdown

Yellowstone is a modern take on a Western - a ‘neo-Western’. It’s created by Taylor Sheridan. He has gained remarkable popularity across various viewing platforms. 

In this article, we'll examine the pilot episode to uncover its strengths and offer screenwriting lessons from this popular show so that you can apply to your own writing.

What is a neo western? 

A neo-Western is a story that employs Western iconography, character types, and narratives but places them in a modern context with contemporary concerns.

Yellowstone is an updated Western for the modern day. That means that characters must deal with mega-corporations, the evolving agricultural industry, and ongoing tensions with local indigenous peoples, instead of the traditional bandits and outlaws.

If you're familiar with Taylor Sheridan's other works like Hell or High Water and Wind River, you'll recognize him as a leading voice in neo-Westerns.

The characters

John Dutton III (Kevin Costner): John is the elder patriarch of the Dutton family who own one of the biggest cattle ranches in the country. He is a rich but down-to-earth father figure whose morals are actively flexible in the pursuit of protecting what’s his.

John Dutton III and his son Kayce Dutton riding on horseback looking at something off camera
Although not set in the 19th Century, Yellowstone features lots of horse back scenes

Kayce Dutton (Luke Grimes): The youngest Dutton, he was an ex-marine before living with his wife on a Indian Reservation. However, the clans of the Indigenous people and the Duttons clash, and Kayce must decide where his loyalties lie.

Beth Dutton (Kelly Reily): The only daughter of John, Beth is a ruthless financier and businesswoman with a sharp tongue and incisive insight. Her sheer intelligence gets her into trouble more often than not, but she is a valuable ally for the Duttons.

Jamie Dutton (Wes Bentley): The middle child of the Duttons, Jamie is a clean-cut and highly qualified lawyer. While he doesn’t fit in to the ranch lifestyle, he is more adept than anyone at wrangling the political figures that could spell doom for Yellowstone.

Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston): A property developer from California, Danny proves an existential threat to the Duttons with multiple plans to take the surrounding land and force them from the titular valley. 

Lee Dutton (Dave Annable): The eldest Dutton son and the only one who stayed to help run the ranch. He is seen as the presumed successor, but his father has doubts that Lee has the ruthlessness to make it in the business world of ranching. 

The breakdown

Unconventionally for a TV Pilot, the first episode of Yellowstone is bumper length at just over 90 minutes long. Though that’s definitely on the long side for TV, it does make it really simple to divide the story into a conventional three act structure in the style of Save the Cat.


Yellowstone opens on John, the patriarch of the Dutton family, involved in a car crash. He puts a horse down to minimize its suffering before looking on in disgust at the industrial equipment by real estate developers that caused the crash. Symbolism is being set up early, and John clearly has umbridge to air.


Yellowstone is fundamentally an ensemble show, so this part of the story may well be the most important. It’s where we get out first impressions of all the main players and how they relate to John.

First we see Jamie Dutton in court fending off a case to hand over some of his Father’s land to real-estate developers. Jamie is a good lawyer and manages to win the case, though he it’s clear he is nowhere near as intransigent as his father John when it comes to working with these corporations.

Next we meet Kayce, the youngest son and possibly the wildest. He is a professional cowboy known for wrangling problem horses. We see that he lives on an Indian reservation with his wife and wants little to do with his father. 

Finally we meet Beth. She is a ruthless corporate banker who uses her intelligence to outwit her opponents, often even humiliating them. It’s clear she is not to be messed with and revels in men underestimating her abilities.

Inciting incident

The local Indian peoples hold a grudge against Dutton for holding vast swathes of land that they see as their own. As such, Robert, a young Indian man who is Kayce’s brother in law, cuts the barbed wire that separates the Indian land from the Dutton land, allowing Dutton cattle to wander into the Reservation.

Turn to two

This is a major problem that Lee, John’s eldest son, is sent to sort out. Lee demands the cattle back, but the Indigenous peoples refuse to give it back and threaten to open fire if Lee or any Dutton forces step onto their land. Things get tense, but the fight is saved for another day, defused by John and an Indian elder. 

Promise of the premise

John is not content to let sleeping dogs lie. Instead, he is determined to get his cattle back as they represent a major financial investment. As such, he asks Jamie who has an aptitude for politics to work his magic to get them allies in high up. He asks Beth to use her business mind to help him with the project while visiting Kayce to ask for more information, as well as trying to patch up their estranged relationship.

Finally, John pays a visit to Dan, a Californian real-estate developer in town who is also threatening Dutton land by building directly on its borders. John tries to warn him away, but Dan isn’t phased. A quiet declaration of war seems to have been made. 


For the first time in a long time the Dutton clan all reunites on the ranch to try and solve the cattle problem. Though there is some estrangement, particularly between Kayce and the rest, they still feel warmly with each other, and a new sense of camaraderie is built. Together, they seem very powerful indeed. 


However, peaceful times can only last so long. No longer willing to play games, John resorts to force to get his way. He asks his right-hand man Rip to forcefully make a play against Danny to damage the new properties being built near Dutton land. 

Meanwhile, Kayce’s homelife in the Reservation comes under strain when it becomes clear that his family’s interests and his new Indian family’s interests are about to come into conflict. This tension flares when Robert suggests that they are going to keep the cattle, which Kayce says they have no right to. 

No one’s in a good position anymore, and it feels like only a matter of time until irreparable damage will rear its head.

Turn to three

Confirming this suspicion, the local elder of the Reservation chats with Kayce quietly and tells him that it may be time to leave the Reservation entirely. He’s not unkind, but both men realize that their interests won’t align, and things are bound to get ugly.


Sure enough, they do. Out of patience, John rustles a helicopter and livestock forces to go onto the Indian land to retrieve the cattle. However, doing so antagonizes the Reservation inhabitants who fire on the helicopter and a gunfight breaks out between the two parties.

Initially, Kayce helps the Indians protect the cattle, but when Robert lands a shot on Lee, the eldest son of the Dutton family and Kayce’s brother, Kayce fires back at Robert and kills him on the spot. However, Lee was shot badly and dies too. Blood’s been spilled on both sides.

Meanwhile, Rip detonates a series of explosives alongside a river in Danny’s new real-estate that makes it much more difficult to continue building, showing the lengths to which John is willing to go to protect his ranch.


Though the Dutton’s may have won for the moment, it came at a heavy price. Lee is dead, and though John might take this as a sign to stop walking the path he’s on, instead he doubles down. He unites his family around him and heads on the warpath to make sure that Lee’s death will be avenged. 

Characters are the foundation of story

Most TV pilots are not as long as 90 minutes. Nevertheless, even longer pilots like Yellowstone adhere to the fundamental structure found in standard-length episodes. The Yellowstone pilot thoughtfully establishes its characters, emphasizing the importance of character development.

Regardless of time constraints in a pilot, it is crucial not to rush this process, as well-developed characters serve as the foundation for a successful story.

For more be sure to check out our blog. Also don't forget to download our FREE industry standard screenwriting to make sure your screenplay gets the green light it deserves.


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Yellow Stone Breakdown
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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