The Importance of the Slow Build
Note from John Canton: Brandon Lasher 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. Enjoy.
“This book is boring!”
No words are heard more often for a high school English teacher then the above phrase. All too often as an English teacher, my students tell me that the book was too slow and therefore they refused to read it. Granted someone wouldn’t read a book if it was wrapped in chocolate and they were given a free I-Phone to do so but it still makes me think.
Now if I am in a good mood, I will try to figure out why this story was so “unreadable” to them. The answer is always quite baffling. It is slow, they say, because there was no action and “just talking”. It is a generation of seemingly short attention spans this is the audience that Vince McMahon seems to be catering to. He is catering to this audience at his own long-term financial loss.
Why am I talking about books in a wrestling column? Well besides the fact as an educator I am able to answer all of Damien Sandow’s Apprentice questions, I am worried about the long-term viability of this organization I have loved since my high school days. That would be as a high school student in this case.
While I am more likely to find my students then my fellow teachers at a WWE event, I do see a lot in common between the best novels and my favorite moments in WWE history. And no I am not referring to the total rip-off of Romeo & Juliet that was the Molly Holly and Spike Dudley storyline from over a decade ago. It is simply a matter of character.
Criticism of the product we love is at an all-time high while its ratings are at an all-time low. While it is easy to blame the PG Era for the WWE’s current woes, it is character that needs to be the major focus. What my students criticize most, character development, is what is hurting the product long-term. The lack of development, beyond maybe a few major players, is at its weakest in years. My students and the WWE seem to be forgetting the golden rule: if you don’t care about the character, no one cares about the payoff.
It is WrestleMania season and we fans are supposed to be pumped for our “Super Bowl”. So why are fans so upset? First, no one likes reruns. Cena-Rock II? I swear I have already seen that. How about Brock-Triple H II? Didn’t Triple H say he was going to retire like eight months ago? Why should I care that he might retire now? The Shield is in another six-man tag? I believe I have seen that particular match twice already on pay per view!
But it is the lack of build that is especially destroying the middle card contribution to WrestleMania 29. Why exactly are Dolph and Big E fighting Team Hell No? The best reason I can think of is Daniel Bryan picked on AJ two weeks back after she got water thrown on her.
Why is Ryback so mad at Mark Henry? To see which one can pull off the angry scowl the best? Do we even have a legitimate reason for them to fight or hate each other? Anyone can throw random matches together but why should I pay for something I could simply watch for free every Monday and Friday in between the discussions of Twitter and movie trailers?
The lack of character build is killing the WWE’s future. Let us take the example of the previously mentioned Dolph Ziggler. What has he done lately? After “winning” at the TLC pay per view, his character has stagnated. He lost repeatedly to John Cena, The Miz, Alberto Del Rio and Ryback and he wouldn’t even get a regular entrance on the show. He interacted with no other characters and simply lost for months. Then randomly he demands a Tag Title match with Team Hell No? Based on what? His massive losing streak? I wonder why I should care about his feuds if his character has no true direction leading into his matches. The same goes for a champion like Antonio Cesaro, who has had little character development in months. If the writers don’t care, why should I care?
It doesn’t have to be this way for supporting players; in fact it used to be something that the WWE excelled at, the slow build for its supporting characters leading into your major shows. Your main characters will fade away and all that character development is what will push the newest generation of memorable characters.
A good author will build character motivations many pages in advance leading to their character’s eventual successes or failures. This is what makes us return to that favorite show or novel over and over again. It is a simple formula that makes us want a satisfying conclusion, by creating interesting multi-layered characters.
One of my favorite examples of this from WrestleMania history was Trish Stratus versus Mickie James. It all started on October 10, 2005 with Mickie’s debut. She started tagging with Trish and eventually dressed like her on Halloween. Mickie proceeded to start using Trish’s moves in matches and kissed her under the mistletoe at Christmas. The drama continued.
After the “apprentice" lost to Trish at New Year’s Revolution 2006, the build continued with Mickie professing her love for Trish. When Trish demanded her space in early March, Mickie snapped in an episode of Saturday’s Night Main Event leading to their match at WrestleMania 22 in Chicago later that month. It wasn’t the main match of the card but simply go back and listen to that crowd, they loved every minute of it. Because they built the match carefully and intelligently over five months, the audience was into a Women’s Championship match like never before or since. Do you think the WWE’s writers have the next five months mapped out to this degree now? How about five weeks? I have my doubts.
It doesn’t really have to be that long-term to be successful. Take Chris Jericho vs. Shawn Michaels in 2003. In late December, Shawn Michaels presented an interesting challenge to Jericho to prove you are the best by duplicating my amazing feat by winning the Royal Rumble like I did. It is the classic battle of the master versus the apprentice. Sure, the villainous Jericho cheated at the Royal Rumble but the stage was set for their showdown WrestleMania XIX. The next two months had many one-upmanship contests between the two but we knew the forthcoming payoff, a battle to see who was the best. It wasn’t the main match on the card, far from it, but it was one of the most famous. Naturally it ended with a hug of mutual respect, followed by a low blow by Jericho. After all, the story must continue.
The question I would ask any WWE fans is does any match have that long of a build currently? The closest would be the main event with has about a two-month build. But the middle card, the future of the business, do any of those matches have the famous slow build of the above examples? The answer is no.
I know the WWE writers examine the pop culture landscape and think they see the disadvantage of the slow build. Blockbusters like Transformers, which are little more than explosions, makes billions. Information is spread within seconds online. People express themselves in 140 characters or less. In such a seemingly impatient landscape, why slow build anything?
It brings me back to my teaching profession; it is the slow build that matters in the end. I have taught Of Mice & Men for years with great success. Why is it so successful? It is the slow build of character. We see the tragic character flaws of Lennie and Curley’s Wife and its horrifying ramifications as the story unfolds. And every time, my students get upset when George makes the ultimate life-ending decision at the end of the story. My student cry and demand more stories like it.
Okay, I admit a discussion of John Steinbeck in a wrestling column might seem a stretch but it gives the world and me hope. If a bunch of fourteen year olds can enjoy the same hundred-page story for over seventy years because they love the characters, then surely it is proof that character is paramount to long-term success.
This is something the WWE has lost sight of in the last few years. In the constant push for instant gratification (Touts or trending on Twitter anyone?) it seems easy to forget the successful slow build of WWE’s past. But the stories that matter, the stories we remember, the story we pay for time and time again are the ones that make us care, laugh or cry. The best ones will do all three at the same time!
I guess if it was that simple we would all be great storytellers. But we can look at our professional wrestling history and find the slow build working to amazing success (the Mega Powers, the New World Order, McMahon vs. Austin) and the memorable moments we remember fondly years later. It has made a lot of people rich and a lot of fans happy.
Patience may be a skill lacking in teenagers but not all wrestling fans have the patience of a teenager right? If they do then we have many more things to worry about then a simple wrestling pay per view. But seeing how the Internet Wrestling Community complains about hash tags, Touts and trending, I doubt that is the case.
Maybe I am quickly becoming an old man but the feuds that stick with you deserve more than random beat downs and stares. Make me care again WWE. It is ok. Take your time.
Starting next week, Brandon Lasher's columns will regularly appear on TJRWrestling.com on Mondays. You can email him at email@example.com comment on the column below.