Anticipation: Hitting Paydirt on Gold
Jesus Christ, gold.
How freaking antiquated is gold? I mean, we don’t use it much in science or anything utilitarian like that, and it doesn’t even back American currency anymore. Yet it’s still a big freakin’ deal. It’s still the sparkle in that breathtaking moment where some young stud gets on one knee, opens up a silk box from Dee (every marriage and subsequent divorce begins with Dee) and pops the question, “Will you marry me?” You gotta wonder, what’s their story? How long has the guy been waiting to pop the question and give the gold ring to his honeycomb sweetheart? Probably months, maybe years – lots of nights out in a year. Lots of time to get to know each other. Hopefully they could call each other “companions” by then. Still, it’s not the same as marriage. So they wait and they dream, they plan and they scheme, they fight they breakup, they kiss they make up. (Dr. Seuss and Katy Perry had a deformed lovechild.) What all those dates, dreams, wishes and kisses ultimately boil down to, however, is anticipation. But it’s not just about the gold. It might be fragile, but boy, does it tell a story.
When I see wrestling represented out of context, such as in a skit on MAD (my cable box won’t budge from Cartoon Network, shuddup), one of the elements most consistently referenced is the belt. Although non-fans don’t understand the nuances of wrestling, they at least grasp one important element: there are title belts. One’s the best. Wrestlers fight for these belts. The one who carries it is the champion. Simple, right?
No, wrong. We know better. We, as dedicated wrestling fans, know that there’s a lot going on with a title belt. It’s not just a prop – well, ideally it’s not just a prop, but I know you’re all thinking, “FREAKIN’ MID-CARD TITLES AHHH!”, but for the purposes of this article let’s just bear in mind that ideally title belts are not just props. No, as dedicated wrestling fans we know that a title belt represents history. The WWE Championship represents Buddy Rodgers, Bruno Sammartino, Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle, CM Punk and a myriad of other names I didn’t pick ‘cause bias. Title belts aren’t just props, they’re symbols of wrestling’s history.
What I want to explore in this article isn’t how title belts represent history, but how that is just one layer folded on top of other layers, all bundled into one blinged-out piece of hardware. Sometimes when history’s mentioned to discuss title belts, it’s used to criticize how they’re used now. Think about the Intercontinental Championship – though you probably did already, because holy crap, did they forget Barrett’s even holding it? The biggest criticism about the current Intercontinental Championship is that whereas it was once used as the stepping stone to the WWE Championship, it’s today more often used to occupy mid-carders creative’s kind of sort of maybe thinking about pushing, only for them to say, “OOOOH LOOK, NEW TOY!” and try someone else.
To me, the bigger injustice isn’t that they’ve reduced a once-prestigious title down to a hot potato (or cold, rotten potato they left in the pantry as is Barrett’s case), but they’re failing to utilize the championship to its fullest narrative potential. A championship isn’t just a prop, it’s not just a symbol of history – it’s a plot device, the denouement, the point where all the narratives ends are tied together into one neat, comprehensive knot. Everything else, all the layers that go into a belt making to make it worth fighting for – those are the seeds of anticipation. And that’s what makes the gold sparkle.
There aren’t enough sparkles these days. When we look at the mid-card especially, we see Wrestler A defending the title against Wrestler B because of one of a short list of conflicts, which include “Wrestler B beat Wrestler A in a non-title match”, “Wrestler B was being mouthy to GM T” or “Wrestler A and Wrestler B got into a non-wrestling confrontation.” Often commentators will remind us of the most obvious freakin’ layer of a title’s narrative significance in a thinly veiled attempt to convince us the feud matters. That being, the history. “Dozens of former Intercontinental Champions have gone on to become Hall of Famers – the Honkey Tonk Man, Bret Hart, Mr. Perfect…” In that case, the feud is built on two flimsy layers: a generic conflict and history everyone already knows
When anticipation’s good, when it’s really good and sparkly, sparkly enough to make you salivate (gold’s food, right?), it’s fueled by layer upon layer of meaning. In my creative writing classes, I hear people use this expression all the time about good writing: “It really gives me something to chew on.” To extend the metaphor, think of a good story, a wrestling storyline, as a thick, juicy steak. You don’t want some cheap IHOP’s steak and eggs ordeal, that’s more thinly pounded gristle than beef. You want something thick, so that when you bite in you get a mouthful. But bear in mind, it can’t be overly convoluted – if it’s too thick or too rubbery, people will spend more time chewing on it than actually tasting it. It needs to be thick enough that they get a mouthful, but also tender enough, juicy enough that when they put pressure down with their molars, their mouths are flooded with hot, succulent juices. But where does a good wrestling storyline get its thickness? Where do its layers come from?
We’ve already established one: history. When history’s tied into the conflict well, like when CM Punk was disrespecting a number of former WWE Champions during his feud with John Cena in the summer of 2012, it adds another stake. Not only was Cena fighting for his own personal goals, but he was upholding the honor of all those represented by history. Then, now that I mention it, there’s personal conflict. Think back to Jeff Hardy, back when he was still the lovable daredevil with only two strikes on his record. When he was feuding with Triple H over the WWE Championship on SmackDown, he was trying to fulfill a 10-plus-year goal to be a world champion. Oh, but there’s another component lurking in the background – or, rather, cheering loudly in the background: the fans. With almost any storyline and certainly every good storyline, the fans are given a stake in the narrative. In a simple example, a heel comes out on RAW, gets some cheap heat by insulting the local football team, and then a face comes out, challenges him to a match, wins – BOOM, happy fans and the premise to the wrestlers’ brief, mini-story is satisfied. More eloquently, after CM Punk set off the Pipebomb, he claimed to be the Voice of the Voiceless. Suddenly he wasn’t fighting for just his own aims, but also the supposedly repressed portion of the WWE Universe, fans who wanted an edgier, more wrestling-oriented product in the WWE to match their more mature tastes. Oooh, there’s another layer: industry or, more appropriate for WWE, the company. We’ve had tons of storylines that could shake the corporate world of the WWE – just the kayfabe side, but still, since the corporate or administrative side of WWE is represented in their fictive world, it could potentially unsettle fundamental parts of the show. Think back to when the whole WWE roster walked out on Triple H. No wait, that was awful, think back further, back to when Shane McMahon and Stephanie McMahon had bought up WCW and ECW respectively (in kayfabe – Vince owned them, or rather his corporation bought them), and Vince McMahon was then left with the question of how to tackle the oncoming Invasion. What ensued was months of television that, for better or worse, was significantly different in its format and themes than what the product was pre-Invasion.
There’s more. There’s a lot more. In general terms, what you need to understand about a good storyline, about anticipation, about build, is that it’s layered. A good storyline doesn’t necessarily have to be comprised of the same layers as another, nor does it need to accent certain layers to a certain degree – all it has to do is give fans enough to chew on, while making sure that what they’re chewing is flavorful.
Think of a good storyline. When we build toward its title match, when we anticipate the battle for the gold, we think about all the ways the narrative has engaged us. We think of our stakes, the wrestlers’ stakes, ethics, industry, history – the storyline becomes not just a product we’re consuming, but something with which we’re engaged, something that’s been our companion every week for the past month or more. And when that moment comes, when champion and challenger step into the ring, when tens of thousands of fans are screaming in the background, when millions are clenching their fists white at home, we see that gold, we see it sparkling, and we know that when the ref counts to three, a story will have closed. And just like the man with the ring, yes or no, win or lose, there’s still another story yet to tell.
Another week, another story. As always, I’m grateful for your readership. I look forward to hearing from you all next week. In the meantime, check me out on Twitter and NOW take a gander at my fiction page: