One of the goals of a story is to introduce its elements in a way that a reader can process who, when and where. Sure, there are things happening, but they do not matter unless the reader understands it; the greatest love story of all time falls flat if the question guiding the reader is “who even are these people?”. In order for a story to work, these things need to be established before the action proper begins.
This does not necessarily mean an extended discussion of the economics of tobacco in the particular part of the world the story is set in, spanning a good dozens of pages before the main character enters the narrative stage, but there has to be something. Some indication of where the story is at, when it happens and who is in it. “Why” can be introduced later, and the necessity of a “how” seems to depend on genre. Get these three things right first, and the rest – and possibly the reader – will follow.
With this in mind, we can consider the opening words of Big Iron: “To the town of Agua Fria rode a stranger one fine day”. Here, we are introduced to the where and when. Even if you do not know that Agua Fria was an important town in gold rush California, the fact that the stranger rode in on a fine day heavily suggests that this is a cowboy narrative. The mere act of riding marks the story as something taking place before our time – the stranger did not arrive on a bus, or a motorcycle, or by parachute. The fact that he is introduced as a “stranger” also tells us something. He is not introduced as a knight, nobleman or other person of means who rode in historical times, who would be instantly recognizable to anyone laying eyes on him. This places the narrative in a time period where strangers can ride, sometime when the process of modernity had loosened the social identities of the old world to such a degree as to make strangers possible, but not recent enough that the presence of a horse warranted mentioning. Moreover, the clarification that this day was “fine” is a genre marker common in retrospective cowboy ballads. Thus, from the very first line, we have gleaned the information that we are somewhere in cowboy times.
This, I dare say, is some heavy duty narrative work performed by only twelve words. While not rich on specifics, anyone who paid even the slightest attention immediately understand what kind of story is about to be told.
Thus, the audience is primed and ready for the next spur of character development: “Hardly spoke to folks around him, didn’t have too much to say”. To those familiar with cowboy stories, this is a common enough description that it might fit on any number of famous protagonists, antagonists, villains, heroes or side-characters of other famous entries in the genre. Indeed, the stranger would be out of place would he suddenly break out into long discursive expositions about the nature of this thing or that; such discursive outbursts are the antithesis of the lone rider who enters into towns on business yet untold. The fact that the stranger did not have much to say, however, is not to be understood as if he had nothing to say. Rather, his later explanation to the townsfolk of his reason for being in town had a very specific purpose and a very specific way in which it was to be delivered. There is a way to go about these things, and telling any random person who happens to come into view is not it. Being sparse with words is, in the context of these lines, more of a character description than anything else, and the character is well known by those who are familiar with the genre.
In the next line, we are introduced to the reaction of the townsfolk upon the stranger’s arrival. We are told that “No one dared to ask his business, no one dared to make a slip”. Not only are the townsfolk reluctant to ask the stranger what brought him here, there is more at work here. Being afraid to make a slip is a very specific state of mind – there is something in the situation that warrants being attentive to, and provoking it by accident might prove fatal. The presence of the stranger is one such situation, and everyone tried their best not to accidentally do anything that would get his attention. While the townsfolk did not yet know the stranger’s mission, they knew he was up to something, and this something was probably not good. In a manner common to humanity for thousands of years, they avoided that which they did not yet know, for fear of what it might do.
The reason for this reluctance on the part of the townsfolk is explained in the next line. We are told, in no uncertain terms, the cause of this sudden attentive stillness: “For the stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip”. This is not a regular iron – which is to say, an ordinary gun – but an iron of such magnitude that it has to be commented upon. Given that these folks are sparse of words and deliberate of speaking, the addition of an adjective is no small matter. To openly admit that something was out of the ordinary – in this case, particularly large – was to make a statement. This gun was not merely slightly bigger than ordinary guns, but otherwise comparable; the defining characteristic of this gun was the unusual size of this weapon. There are guns, and there are big guns, and this gun, it was one of the big ones.
Indeed, the very next line consists of the words “Big iron on his hip” again, which serve as the chorus of the song, underscoring the size of this weapon.
As the song continues, it will introduce new characters and new elements of the backstory, all with the same economy of words and expository discourse. The demise of Texas Red will not come as a surprise to you, given what you have been told about the stranger and his big iron. All this within a span of fifty-six words.
While your own writing endeavors will probably not consist of retrospective cowboy ballads, it might benefit from looking at their minimalist approach to establishing when, where and who. Sometimes, less is in fact more.