Storytelling Lessons from Professional Wrestling

The most unlikely of mediums can actually teach important lessons in storytelling.

In the world of writing, there is a multitude of forms to be creative and each one requires its own education before it is tackled. A different approach is needed for novels, short stories, poetry, TV, film, stage, non-fiction; each is a fascinating discipline to explore and each can inform your approach to another. Everything I do – from screenwriting to poetry – has been to help me understand prose better, to inform the novels that I work on.

There is one medium of storytelling that is never discussed, the low-brow cousin of all other mediums, the one medium that no self-respecting writer waxes lyrically about: professional wrestling.

In a sense, the storylines that fuel wrestling are much like the serialised novels of the Victorian era. Charles Dickens released his stories chapter by chapter in newspapers, writing them as he went along. He used letters from fans to either comply with or subvert their expectations, making his stories at times unpredictable but always rewarding. Shakespeare used a similar idea, changing his plays based on the reactions of the audience.

Professional wrestling is both a long and short-form example of screenwriting. The weekly shows need to be self-contained within the narrative of “this is a TV show about wrestling” but they must also advance the storylines that run between major Pay-Per-View events. Sometimes, these stories can take years to fully unravel, creating some of the most complex tales seen on television.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s take a look at one of the biggest storylines in recent years, told in WWE, the biggest professional wrestling company on the planet: Seth Rollins & The Authority.

This all takes place within a fictional company; imagine it as a sport-drama based on a company like UFC or Bellator. Professional wrestling fans know this is all fake – if we wanted to watch people backflip off ladders and kill each other we’d be psychopaths, but because it’s fictional it’s okay.

In 2014, WWE was ruled by The Authority, a group of evil business people and led by the Daughter and Son-in-Law of the company’s founder. They were the spoilt children who now had the keys to the kingdom and they were intent on making sure everybody knew they were in charge.

At the same time, a group of new wrestlers had invaded the company, ostensibly under the guise of inflicting their own brand of vigilante justice. The Shield wasn’t afraid to twist the rules in their quest to clean up the WWE, they were blood-brothers, only able to trust each other and dedicated to their purpose, but this meant they were directly opposing the managers of the company. Over and over, The Shield would foil The Authority’s plans until eventually, The Authority themselves directly challenged them to settle their score in the ring. The grizzled son-in-law Triple H, once a decorated wrestler, found himself about to face off against an enemy much younger, faster and more resilient than anything he had faced before, and now he was older, slower but more vicious and calculating. Beside him in the ring, he chose partners he’d worked with before: Randy Orton, the son of a decorated wrestler himself, with chiselled features and all the genetic tools to be the greatest wrestler ever, held back only by his entitled attitude, and Batista, a hulking brute who had left the company many years ago and was now back to promote his first major film.

The Shield emerged from the conflict victorious but the next night, as they stood in the ring to celebrate, Triple H revealed his “Plan B” and they were attacked from behind by one of their own. Seth Rollins had been lured to The Authority. Under their mentorship, Seth was guaranteed to become champion and surely The Shield had only been effective because of Seth and his mind.

The Authority continued their reign, now with a new fresh-faced weapon. If it seemed like he’d lose, The Authority saw no harm in evening the odds, interfering in Seth’s matches as they saw fit; it wasn’t long before Seth had the belt and the large payday that came with it. However, rather than be grateful for the opportunities he had been given, Seth saw himself as truly deserving of his accomplishments and The Authority were forced to act as mediator between Seth and the various other villainous wrestlers aligned with them. In an effort to humble his protégé, Triple H would force Seth to fight against some of the most destructive fighters under WWE contract until, eventually, Seth injured his knee, worn down by his constant fights.

Unable to compete, Seth was forced to give up his championship, the symbol of everything he thought he deserved – the money that came with it and the pride in being the hand-picked future of the company. He vowed that once he had healed, he would be back and the belt would be his again.

While he was gone, Triple H arranged a tournament to declare a new champion. The winner was Roman Reigns, one of the former members of The Shield, who Seth had betrayed. Triple H saw an opportunity. He could offer Roman everything he had given to Seth, only to have Roman refuse; if he was to be champion, he’d do it under his own terms.

After months of interference and unfair odds, Roman would lose the belt to Triple H. He’d go on to defend it against Dean Ambrose, the third member of The Shield, a former loner who had finally found a home, only to be betrayed, but Triple H’s reign was to be short, one can only play the game for so long before you lose, and Roman became champion once again.

Triple H then created a new belt. If he couldn’t be champion, he could be the one to decide who was champion, he could be a kingmaker. He picked the contestants – including a newly-recovered Seth Rollins – and a match was held to crown the first champion of this new belt. In the fight, Finn Balor, though he would win, suffered injuries too great to see him defend the belt and he was forced to give it up the next week. Seth had failed him, however. Triple H had given Seth one last chance and now he would put his protégé in his place. A new battle was to take place to crown the champion and Triple H once more put Seth into the contest. As the fight raged on, Triple H interfered, assisting Seth to knock his opponent out the ring but as Seth turned to thank him, Triple H struck out, hitting Seth with his finisher – the most debilitating move he knew – and giving Kevin Owens the chance to claim the title. Kevin was a prize-fighter, ready to do whatever it took to win, and he leapt at the chance to claim the championship and the patronage of the great Triple H. The next month, Kevin proved himself worthy of the belt, defending his title against Seth.

Seth would begin a path to redemption, playing by the rules more and trying to show the audience he was no longer the villain he was at Triple H’s side. All the while, he is begging for a chance to fight the man who manipulated him and robbed him of everything, even using Triple H’s prized finishing move in an attempt to rile him and ultimately going as far as to make an appearance at the developmental show that Triple H managed. Knowing Triple H would be there for sure and that he would get his face-to-face confrontation, Seth vows to stay in the ring until Triple H acts like a man and comes out from backstage. Seeing no other option, Triple H emerges from backstage, furious and glowering, silently he motions for security to assemble and remove Seth by force.

The scene is now set: Seth knows he’s got into Triple H’s head. He has played the master manipulator for a fool and shown him to be a coward. The next week, Triple H took to the ring; everyone awaiting him to announce he will fight Seth at last. However, he instead brands Seth a failure. Triple H tells the crowd that no one has ever been given as much as Seth, only to fail, that he created Seth and that Seth’s destroyer is waiting for him.

Seth comes out, ready to face the man calling himself a destroyer. Alone, without any of the family he once had, Seth makes his way to the ring when suddenly, from the wings, he is attacked from behind, just like his attack on The Shield. Triple H knows he has Seth’s number; he knew Seth would rush out and he knows that the assault would remind him of the mistakes he made. This attack, however, led to a real-life knee injury. Just as he missed his chance to fight at Wrestlemania, the biggest show of the year, previously, Seth now looks at a longer recovery. For a moment, it seems like Seth will never wrestle again, with two knee injuries so close together.

But Seth is a new man, he is driven and single-minded, and he continues to harass Triple H, vowing to never leave him alone until he gets his chance to prove that he is the better of the two. Triple H finally agrees, on the condition that Seth waives any liability in the match. If Triple H injures Seth, ends his career or even kills him, Triple H is not liable. Seth agrees and finally, at the largest event of the year, barely healed, Seth Rollins defeats Triple H. The King is dead, long live The Kingslayer.

What I have told you here is an abridged history of one man’s journey (over almost three years) to becoming one of the most recognised figures in professional wrestling. Despite its setting, wrestling manages a cast and interweaving plotlines that rival even the grandest TV shows, and every week there are new stories beginning and ending. Sometimes these stories are so densely packed it is impossible to see where one ends and another begins, such is the talent of the writers.

Wrestling is a storytelling medium first and foremost, but it is one where real-life events affect the fiction, from rising and falling merchandise sales informing those who will see major focus, to the risk of injury from the in-ring action. The wrestlers themselves are also likely to try influencing their storylines from week to week, pitching new ideas and exercising backstage political clout to see themselves rise to the top.

But it’s within this flexibility that wrestling writing becomes most rewarding. To be a wrestling fan is to receive constant lessons on storytelling. Frequently, the wrestlers you like won’t be the focus; they will be dropped mid-story and the on-screen product will evolve to correct this. If you have an opinion of the stories of wrestling, it’s born from a subtle education in storytelling, based on what they have done wrong or how you would have done it. More than any other medium, wrestling invites fans to critique it. A glance at the online fandom for professional wrestling might lead you to wonder if they truly are fans – such are the level of complaints – but this is exactly what wrestling encourages. Often, we become so conditioned to the idea that a story should flow a certain way that wrestling companies are able to swerve and confuse fans. The rage one feels in this moment is all down to learning how a narrative should work but wrestling is an experimental medium, one in which sometimes our frustrations make the pay-off for a plot all the more rewarding.

Every other form of storytelling is one in which the audience is a passive component of the story. Due to its long-form and data-driven stories, the audience is as much a writer and editor of the stories as those employed by the company itself. With its blurring of the real world and the fictional, wrestling can perhaps be considered not as storytelling but rather as post-storytelling. By adopting similar techniques, a writer can surprise their readers and evolve their stories.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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