On Wrestling Narratives and Their Components
Note from John Canton: Nick LeVack was one of the seven writers picked to write for TJR in our 2013 Writer Search held this month. This is the column that earned him a spot on the site.
Professional wrestling is a more complex sport or entertainment than we sometimes think. We often see a lot of binaries, sharply contrasting perspectives at absolute opposition such as wrestling versus hype, the technical versus the dramatic and a myriad other supposed binaries that we assume can never be reconciled except by having one perspective win out over the other by bashing someone over the head with it until he submits. In this article, I try to reconcile the two aforementioned binaries and show how each opposing side is related to the other.
To me, there are two aspects of "story" all matches have: the macronarrative (think big, general) and the micronarrative (think small, local). In wrestling, the former is the context of the match: all the story development, character development, history of the individuals or even the occasion (such as a pay-per-view or other specific date). The internal narrative is the story told in the match itself, such as David vs. Goliath, an injury or a simple "spirit of competition" (like in face vs. face matches) angle.
For an example of each, if a guy like Big Show is dominating a match while an opponent like Daniel Bryan is barely managing to sneak in just a bit of offense, it creates the impression that Bryan is the underdog fighting uphill against an enormous obstacle, thus the "David & Goliath" angle we hear so often. This would be the micronarrative. In such a match, you wouldn't have needed to see all the promos or video packages to understand Daniel Bryan is the underdog; you glean that from how the match is laid out and how the individuals portray their respective roles. However, if through the macronarrative we know that a title is on the line, suddenly the underdog’s plight becomes just that more important and we despise the Goliath all the more for standing in his way.
Of course, internal narrative and macronarrative often go hand-in-hand, or rather one is usually complementary to the other. For instance, when Edge returned to face Chris Jericho at WrestleMania 26, Jericho worked over the knee, creating extra drama considering we know through the components of macronarrative that Edge had just returned from knee surgery. However, assuming you didn't follow the hype at all and ignored the commentary throughout the match, Edge selling the knee still creates an internal narrative of an injury angle, only it's perhaps not as dramatic without knowing the history of that knee.
Bear in mind, I consider commentators to be a component of both the macronarrative and internal narrative, since throughout a match they can allude to story or character information, as well as help sell the angles of the internal narrative, such as by saying how painful a certain move looks (or describing it from personal experience as JBL often does, which would also be serving the macronarrative) or emphasizing the size disparity of the two wrestlers during a David/Goliath match.
I also hope some of these examples are getting home a huge point about this whole concept of story: macronarrative and micronarrative are far from mutually exclusive.
I don't think any match can be without a macronarrative. Even if a wrestler's in his debut match against another debuting rookie, their roles as rookies as opposed to veterans creates a macronarrative about where they fit in the hierarchy of a promotion and implies what winning or losing will hold for each individual. Even watching a match with the sound muted so you can't hear the commentary emphasize the fact they're rookies, you'd still have some sense of macronarrative, like the context and occasion for the match. It's invariably contextualized no matter how you might try to remove yourself from those external characterizations. I think the only way for a match to have a macronarrative-free story is for you to lose all mental faculties. But now I'm kind of getting into the theoretical side of this concept, so let's move back into the practical applications.
Though the two aspects of story are not mutually exclusive, one can exist to a greater degree than the other. For instance, a lot of people argued Cena/Rock I had a ton of hype and thus a very strong macronarrative, but very little substance in the match itself. Of course, everything that occurred within the micronarrative seemed more significant because the macronarrative really got over the importance of that match, but had the same micronarrative (the same moves, the same selling, etc.) occurred independent of all that hype for the story and the individuals, perhaps it wouldn’t have been noteworthy at all.
On the other hand, take Tyson Kidd vs. Michael McGillicutty from any of their NXT matches. Before they'd developed their rivalry on NXT, they were just two dudes going at it (innuendo up in here) for a pretty standard prize, but without much animosity between them. However, the match was a great showcase of technical ability (the exchange of holds), timing and internal storytelling. Had such a match happened with a stronger macronarrative, it could have been a classic.
However, when you're assessing a match you don't deal with hypotheticals such as these examples were. You take your criteria of "good" macronarrative and "good" micronarrative and judge the match by how well it adheres to the components of each. John Cena/CM Punk, which to me should definitely be recorded in the top 100 matches of all time, had one of the most engaging macronarratives in years (CM Punk's promise to win and leave the company with the WWE Championship) and a micronarrative that culminated all the components of the macronarrative, making for a dramatic and exciting performance overall. That match struck every chord, satisfied both narratives.
The Undertaker/Triple H II (in their recent rivalry, so excluding their very first WrestleMania encounter) had a tremendous macronarrative and mostly great internal storytelling. I understand the criticisms it receives, as they were at time sloppy (there were several whiffed strikes and a couple poorly timed bumps -- these fundamental errors can dispel the fictive illusion of the match, that these are two real guys with real stakes going at it for real -- really) and sometimes the match structure could have been more concise, such as timing HBK's involvement. However, the micronarrative was still firmly established by the bombs they dropped on each other, Shawn Michael's refereeing and the tremendous selling of all those spots. It was not a showcase of technical prowess nor even a lesson on the fundamentals ("Cereally guize, bump less noobishly," was my comment during the match), but they still told an amazing micronarrative through other components and satisfied the "End of an Era" macronarrative.
Technical wrestling, selling, spots, acrobatics, high spots, attire, timing, presence, fundamentals -- these are just some of the limitless components of micronarrative; in this case, specifically what the wrestlers are doing in the match. Wrestlers can excel in some and fall flat in others and a match is rarely hinged on just one. In certain macronarratives, one component of micronarrative might be more important than others. Spots, selling and presence were perhaps the most important components for Undertaker/Triple H II and they were the most appropriate given the kind of match they were going into (Hell in a Cell) and the sort of animosity that had been brewing between them.
If someone finds The Undertaker/Triple H II match less appealing than Tyson Kidd/Michael McGillicutty, it could be that they either didn't care as much for the macronarrative of the former or they didn't follow it at all. I think most people would find Trips/Taker II hard-hitting, gritty and dramatic whether they'd followed the hype or not, but perhaps to some people it would seem disjointed and sloppy. Kidd/McGillicutty, on the other hand, was arguably more graspable independent of the macronarrative; you could appreciate more of it without having followed the hype. In this light, the preference of one match to another becomes a matter of relative experience, where the factors that affects one's understanding of the macronarrative change how much they appreciate the micronarrative and what they appreciate about it. Then, of course, there's the fact some fans prefer certain components of narrative (maybe technical wrestling and high spots) to others (selling and dramatics).
In my discussion of Triple H/Undertaker II, I mentioned there are components of wrestling that can be more appropriate for a certain match given the macronarrative or, more practically, the occasion and setting. To me, there are two sets of components, each of which has various levels, but we’ll focus on the perspective of individual wrestlers rather than whole productions: action and dramatic components. Action components consists of all the things we might call “wrestling”: chaining, spots, acrobatics, strikes, etc. Dramatics consists of all the things we associate with “entertainment”: selling, ring presence, character, speaking, etc. Of course, these sets are interrelated, but there are times when one may be more important to an occasion than the other.
At an independent wrestling show besides ROH and other indy feds with regular Internet/television exposure, it's much harder to create long-term storylines since they can’t produce a weekly production to help fans follow along. That's why the technical wrestling, spots and other such "wrestling" components (as well as the dramatic components that can be internalized, such as promos that serve only a one-time occasion rather than a storyline developed episodically) are emphasized over broader dramatic components, since the promotions lack the resources of production in order to establish a firmer macronarrative. In general, micronarrative often takes precedent over macronarrative on the independents since the latter is harder to establish with their limited resources. Independent wrestlers still use dramatic components, only they don't and couldn't emphasize them as much because, again, they don't have the same resources as WWE or TNA. However, dramatic and action components are still each layers of wrestling as an overall craft and, like the individual components, a particular wrestler could excel in one layer more than another.
I hope this article has given you a bit to chew on. Yes, it could have been more concise and there are counter arguments and warrants that should still be addressed, but at the very least I hope I’ve opened up a discussion that, through your responses, we can hopefully understand a bit more of this crazy thing we call pro wrestling.
Starting next week, Nick LeVack's columns will regularly appear on TJRWrestling.com on Mondays. You can email him at or comment on the column below.