Storytelling Lessons from an Unlikely Source


Don’t refresh your screen. Don’t rub your eyes. What you see above is a championship that has stood the test of time in one form or another. The stories surrounding this belt and its lesser counterparts bring in a loyal audience, providing dependable ratings and life blood for up and coming television networks like USA Network and SyFy (we’ll talk about that questionable name change at a later date).

These stories have been retold for more than four decades with new cast members and new twists, using various forms of media to immerse fans in a complex milieu. They manage to sell out stadiums made for teams that couldn’t hope to do the same. And the man that holds this belt has managed to develop an extremely diverse skillset: stage fighting, choreography, stunt work, public speaking, improvisation, marketing, and acting. Trust me. He’s earned this, and the fanfare that comes along with it. We’re not here just to talk about the WWE Championship, but World Wrestling Entertainment as a whole, and how it taught me a few very important lessons in storytelling.

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WWE Logo (courtesy of WWE.com)

If you’re an aspiring storyteller the following lessons have been harped to you over and over again, but there’s a big difference between hearing something and having it repeatedly proven to you over decades.

Lesson #1: Pacing matters.

When I finished the first Harry Potter book, I said to myself “This Voldemort fellow… he’ll be back.” For a brief moment there was speculation all around the world about JK Rowling and whether or not she was going to write a sequel to The Philosopher’s Stone. The manuscript sat in an editor’s slush pile for years and Rowling herself may have moved on. But the speculation was brief as it was quickly announced that she was working on the sequel. I was in middle school at the time. For me there was no question-a sequel or a series was on its way. When people disagreed I simply said “That wasn’t a championship match.”

For those of you who read George RR Martins Song of Ice & Fire series, the climax to the series, the championship bout will be when Daenerys makes her way to Westros to face whichever noble family is on top. If Martin really wants a great battle, he’ll somehow put the Starks on top, and the two fan favorites will face off. It’ll be like The Rock vs. John Cena at Wrestlemania. WWE has mastered the art of the episodic story arc in a way most television shows can’t even touch because they know how to steadily raise the stakes until the tension is so high that the lid bursts. The company paces it out masterly because that lid bursts during a pay per view event. I’ll give you a recent example.

The story of WWE’s most recent pay-per-view begins nearly a month before, on a Monday Night Raw like any other.

Act 1: The newly instated general manager of the show wants to shake things up a bit, so at the beginning of the three hour show he tells the reigning WWE Champion John Cena that he can choose his next opponent. This is unusual since the top contender for the title usually fights his way up the ranks for a shot. He gives Cena until the end of the show to make his decision. Cena goes backstage and throughout the three hour show various Superstars (characters) make their appeal to him. During the last ten minutes of the show (a segment usually reserved for the main event) John makes his way to the ring and the entire active roster joins him.

He talks about what he values in a good opponent and reels over the weight of the decision, but the stadium of fans, clumsily referred to as the WWE Universe, have made their decision, screaming ‘YES! YES! YES!’ as they point their fingers into the air. This is the celebratory gesture of an up-and-coming Superstar who recently reached a new level of ability and notoriety while battling the WWE’s villainous Shield trio. John acknowledges their wish and grants it, choosing Daniel Bryan as his next opponent. Here’s the challenge for WWE: Summerslam is a month away. That’s about four more Monday Night Raws and five more Smackdowns, nine episodes, twenty four hours of programing in total. Not a problem.

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John Cena and Daniel Bryan (courtesy of WWE.com)

Act 2: Enter the McMahon Family: Chairman Vince McMahon, his daughter and head of WWE Creative Stephanie McMahon-Lavasque, and his son-in-law COO Paul Levasque, better known as former WWE Champion Triple H. Vince believes John Cena no longer has what it takes to be Champion, but likes the prospect of Daniel Bryan even less. The man with that belt around his waist is the new face of the company, with posters, action figures, and magazines featuring his likeness. Bryan is short, unfashionable, and sports an unruly beard, so Vince forces the General Manager of Raw to put Bryan through a gauntlet of three opponents, back-to-back, in one night. The next week Bryan has to face the supernaturally strong Kane, who just so happens to be one of his best friends.

Triple H does what he can to thwart Vinces machinations, believing the Chairman is just throwing his weight around. Stephanie, caught between her father and her husband tries to find the middle ground, attempting, but failing, to give Daniel Bryan a corporate makeover. All the while, Bryan is hearing whispers of subversion, claims that the babyfaced Herculean John Cena chose him because he was substantially smaller and weaker. When confronted by reporters, the Champion speaks highly of Bryan, but is dodgy on whether he believes Bryan can defeat him.

Act 3: On the last Raw before Summerslam Vince makes one last move, appointing the general manager, now well established as his minion, to be the referee for the Championship match. Triple H appears, hits general manager with his signature Pedigree body slam, and appoints himself as the referee for the match. Later that night, Cena and Bryan meet face to face. What was once a relationship of respect has deteriorated into contempt, poisoned by the previously mentioned rumors. Insults are exchanged, and Cena is angered to the point that he slaps Bryan. It looks like the battle is about to take place on Raw nearly a week ahead of time, but Triple H comes out to stop it from happening.

Climax: The stage is set, motivations are clear, the tension is palpable. John Cena and Daniel Bryan have a hell of a match that goes down as an instant classic. Triple H calls the match right down the middle, and Bryan wins the WWE Championship fair and square. Cena shakes his hand in a show of great sportsmanship and leaves Bryan to celebrate with the droves of fans.

Looks like a synopsis, doesn’t it, authors? I did that on purpose because just about every sentence was a segment of programing lasting about fifteen minutes or less. Each sentence could end up being a chapter in a book, an episode of a serial, or a short story in an omnibus. Not that I’m saying this particular story with these particular characters should be turned into a NY Times Bestseller, but the pacing is masterful, as the story progresses and the stakes rise just enough to wet the audience’s appetite.

Lesson #2: The Reality of Originality (Plot & Character).

When I was reading Matthew Quick‘s Silver Linings Playbook I was able to deny that what I was reading was a romance. What romance author in their right mind would make two leading characters so broken and disturbed? When I saw the movie about a year later, I realized it was indeed, and also remembered that the vast majority of Shakespeare’s comedies were love stories like this one. What Matthew Quick brought to the archetypal story was the way the two leads were damaged.

Stephen King said in his memoir On Writing that there are perhaps a dozen different stories that are being told over and over again. There’s really nothing new under the sun. I happen to disagree. I think there may be around fifteen. The same thing goes for character archetypes and relationship archetypes. When I think of the stories I’m working on, I have a hard time seeing them, but I know that’s because I’m too close to the project. When aspiring writers and storytellers hear mantras in this vein, they buck back out of fear that they can do nothing original.

Have no fear. WWE has the answer. Take the seven classic story archetypes (Facing the Monster, Rags to Riches, Quest, etc), and watch an episode of Monday Night Raw with them in mind. You’ll see at least four of them being played out within an hour. So why does WWE remain popular throughout the ages? Because two things continue to be recycled: its fan base and its cast. What archetype do you see in the Summerslam synopsis I gave above? They’ve done that story at least twice in my lifetime, but not with Daniel Bryan or John Cena in the leading roles. I guarantee the last time they did it they didn’t have Daniel Bryan’s inferiority issues to play off of. When the man fights you’ll think Napoleon had a Bryan Complex.

I’m partial to Jungian Psychology. Many people see his archetypes in fiction, and we can break those classical story archetypes down further into six events, nine characters, and three motivations. Mix them up and you have a lot of options, most of which WWE has been cornered into attempting with varying results.

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Dolph Ziggler and AJ Lee (courtesy of WWE.com)

Dolf Ziggler and AJ Lee. For a short time he was a hero, she was a trickster, and they were a happy couple – the very definition of the Junian event archetype Union of Opposites (known today as an odd couple).

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(Left to Right: Stone Cold Steve Austin, CM Punk [WWE.com], an artist’s composite rendering of the two [deviantArt.com].)

For a decade, the beer guzzling, cursing brawler Stone Cold Steve Austin was the very definition of the anti-hero. The new anti-hero is CM Punk, who doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs, but like Stone Cold he rebelled against the establishment and challenged WWE’s ideal image of a champion. I’m not the only guy who notices this.

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(Left to Right: John Cena, Hulk Hogan, The Rock [WWE.com])

John Cena is the traditional hero of the current era, and with an injury keeping him out for four to six months, it’ll be interesting to see what WWE does without him. His predecessors were Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and countless others going back to the fifties. Like them, he goes over well with WWE’s largest audience, young boys. He’s strong, good looking, eloquent on the microphone, and electric in the ring. Unlike The Rock, whose prime was during the controversial Attitude Era, he keeps the profanity to a minimum. Unlike Hulk Hogan, he’s a hip-hop enthusiast, as his entrance music is a self-made rap song.

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(Top Left to Right: Chyna, Trish Stratus. Bottom: AJ Lee [WWE.com])

WWE’s top women wrestlers (Divas) have all played the Trickster at one time or another. However, China was a physical anomaly, capable of dominating even the strongest men in the ring. Trish Stratus wasn’t nearly as imposing, but just as athletic and quite easy on the eyes. Current Diva’s champion, the video game playing comic book reading AJ Lee, is a nerd’s fantasy.

So as you can see, it’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it and who you do it with. Most of us don’t realize that just being ourselves as we craft a story may just be enough to put an original twist on it. Still time can really take its toll. WWE has appeared on television every Monday for years. More than one thousand three hundred episodes so far. Their last tool for success is how they take control of audience perception. This is something we all need to take seriously.

Lesson #3: Perception is in the hands of the Storyteller.

Chuck Palahniuk, writer of Fight Club, can tell you what I’m about to tell you. A character doesn’t have to be likable for the reader to like him/her. Why? Because how you feel about the character is in his hands, and Chuck knows how to make you fall in love with the biggest assholes in the world. I bet JK Rowling is well aware that she could have lost us all when Harry Potter went through his annoying teen angst phase during Order of The Phoenix, but she knew how to hold on to us.

Allow me to introduce you to two wrestling terms that you should be aware of while you’re working on your characters, Face and Heel. Their definitions pertain exclusively to how the audience reacts to a particular superstar/character. Face is short for babyface, and refers to a superstar who is received favorably by the audience. A Heel is a superstar who is received negatively by the audience.

While for the most part heroes are faces and villains are heels, there have been several very intentional crossovers, where well-meaning Elliot Ness types were heels and nefarious tricksters were faces. If a superstar stays in the WWE for long enough, they’ll spend time on both sides with only a few key changes to their core character. Kurt Angle’s run with the WWE comes to mind.

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Kurt Angle (courtesy of WWE.com)

Before Kurt Angle was in the WWE he was an Olympic wrestler, and he had the medals to prove it. Vince McMahon convinced him to come see a show, gave him a front row ticket, and he was hooked. When he made his debut, he was accompanied with red white and blue lights, and a patriotic brass tune that could have opened the latest Captain America movie. However, his self-righteousness didn’t go over well with the audience, and within weeks of his entrance, he was being booed. A story arc in which he allegedly attempted to capitalize on tensions in the newlywed Triple H and Stephanie McMahon cemented his heel status, even though he never cheated in the ring, never intimidated people backstage, and his involvement in the couple’s issues wasn’t proven for quite some time.

This was all very intentional on the part of WWE. They instructed Angle to call himself a role model instead of letting others do it, to claim to be an American hero, and to come out with one of his Olympic medals around his neck. It worked. The audience hated him. They would chant ‘You Suck’ along with his music when he appeared, and would continue to do so even when he became a face. The difference was they were chanting it to his opponent rather than him.

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Eddie Guerrero (courtesy of WWE.com)

Villains and scoundrels can be made to be loved by the audience as well. Along with Ric Flair and Stone Cold Steve Austin, the late Eddie Guerrero utilized tactics that were beyond questionable in the ring. I chose to focus on him over Flair and Austin because his entrance music actually featured the phrase ‘We lie. We cheat. We steal.’ For the majority of his career, the audience loved him. Why? Because he lied, cheated and stole at the expense of characters the audience didn’t like.

He was a karmic weapon against the characters the audience hated the most. Every now and then, he would do his dirty work against a face, and we would let it slide. Even the commentators would say ‘Hey. That’s Eddie. You shoulda seen it coming.’ In this case all WWE had to do was pit him against a large number of faces or against a face we really loved, and suddenly he was a heel.

Sometimes we worry about our characters being likable and we consider changing their actions or the storyline to give them some sort of redeemable quality. The WWE shows us that this quality might already be there, and in an age where dark heroes and principled villains rule, where character complexity is in great demand, sometimes a spot light in the right place is what’s needed.

I’ve been saying this a lot lately. But you don’t have to be a fan of WWE, just like you don’t have to be a fan of video games, hip hop, or ballet. But if you’re a fan of good storytelling and you’re looking to learn a bit, WWE may deserve your attention.

Until Next Time,

A.T. Augustine

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2 thoughts on “Storytelling Lessons from an Unlikely Source

  1. Pingback: “Pay no attention to the woman behind the children…” | 3rdculturechildren

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