Wrestling Narratology: How One Moment Can Mean So Much
Lately I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Daniel Bryan. He’s just tops, the bee’s knees. If there’s any wrestler I have a man crush on, it’s him. I like his hobo beard, the scraggly hair, his radical intro music – I’m even a fan of his pectorals, though purely out of an interest in fitness. Promise.
I’ve already written about “The American Dragon” once this month, but after watching his match with Seth Rollins this week I couldn’t help myself. John Canton’s already given the match a positive review, though my focus is something more particular than the match itself, yet somehow broader and deeper than so much else we see on week-to-week WWE programing. In a word, it was a moment. To be specific, it was that freaking surfboard counter.
Yeah, I’ve seen the spot before. I was actually expecting the counter where he muscles his way out, flexing his legs straight to force the opponent into a back bump. What we got I’ve seen fewer times and to me is more impressive. While it was awesome and all, what struck me – and I mean really struck me, practically floored me – wasn’t necessarily the technique, but my own thought process. Or rather, the tumult of thoughts and feelings raging inside my head as I celebrated, intellectualized and experienced the moment all at once. In another word relating back to my article from two weeks ago, it was chewy.
As a fan of Daniel Bryan since back when ROH was on HDNet (so not long compared to you ROH diehards), I understood the significance of Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins, formerly Bryan Danielson and Tyler Black respectively, grappling on WWE Monday Night RAW. And having seen the spot before, I understood the significance of Daniel Bryan not only using it on RAW, but getting such a reception for it. Man, was it mind-blowing to hear fans taken along for the ride of that sequence, booing Rollins as he was mockingly emulating Bryan, and exploding when Bryan triumphantly countered the hold. These two details in particular, when interrelated, speak to how far he’s come. Daniel Bryan’s demonstrated his technical ability dozens of times on WWE TV. This was the first time, or at least from what I’ve seen, where the fans weren’t taken in just by seeing a cool spot, but by understanding that that was Bryan’s hold, and that Bryan is their guy and that Rollins was ripping him off. To put it another way, Daniel Bryan looked like he belonged. I’ve considered him a firmly embedded facet of the WWE roster for a while now, but in that moment the audience responded to him in a way that showed they understood the guy in front of them, that they were invested in him, that he’d been entered into an exclusive fold of the WWE fandom reserved for those few whose work the audience really appreciates. They recognized his work as uniquely Daniel Bryan.
That’s only a couple layers to that moment. There’s more, so much more, and that’s what makes it chewy, chewy enough that when you put even a miniscule amount of pressure on it, really think on it, all those succulent juices seep out. And in realizing this, what struck me further, what struck me so hard the floor cracked beneath me and sent me straight through the earth so I wound up in China, was that I hadn’t just been moved by a great moment in wrestling, but that I’d perhaps uncovered a narrative component unique to professional wrestling.
In trying to create engaging storylines, WWE’s gone through the phases of any fledgling art form, looking toward other mediums to borrow their conventions rather than exploring the depths of their own. Video games were (and in some cases, still are) doing the same thing, as designers tried out exhaustive dialogue to convey narrative, before eventually more and more designers came to realize that the mechanics and the gameplay on their own can tell a story. And not just a story, but a narrative experience unique to the interactive storytelling of video games.
That moment was like game mechanics, was like gameplay in microcosm: an example of a narrative convention distinct to professional wrestling. Turns out, the wrestling itself can speak volumes about the persons in the ring and their relationships, as well as the context within which it all operates. Trainers already instruct fledgling wrestlers in match structures that, in a way, are narrative compositions. If you’ve never been to a wrestling school, here’s a watered down example of a rudimentary match structure: first of all, the face starts out strong to pop the crowd; next, the heel takes control, perhaps nefariously in order to get heat; then periodically, the face attempts comeback sequences to get the audience’s hopes up, whereas the heel cuts these attempts short, intensifying the conflict and building suspense; and lastly, we get the go-home sequence where we get our winner, beginning usually in a similar comeback sequence, although one that might have more back-and-forth before an eventual finisher.
If you pay attention, you might begin to notice how a lot of matches follow this simple structure. Even more convoluted matches still use some of the concepts of this beginner’s narrative. Often the frustration of the face constantly getting cut off by the heel as he tries to regain momentum can be key in getting fans invested near the finish of a match.
But what’s it really matter? How does it benefit WWE storytelling to take the subject of match booking and cast it into a literary context? Am I just trying to appear high-brow by superimposing a literary filter to a subject that doesn’t necessitate it?
To that, I ask that we consider the fact they’ve hired television writers for their creative team instead of people who’ve grown up professionally and as fans in this industry. While there’s much we can learn from other medium’s conventions, by entrusting the storytelling of a professional wrestling promotion to television writers, they’re essentially saying that their conventions are better fit for conveying narrative in our medium, that the conventions of wrestling can’t accomplish the sort of engagement that theirs can.
That’s why this discussion matters. That’s why it would benefit WWE to realize match structures and promos and other sorts of wrestling story elements are more worth exploring for this business than those of television writing. As fans of pro wrestling, we’re accustomed to certain tropes, symbols and motifs that might not mesh with what ones soap opera writers would contribute to WWE programming. Of course, WWE must already in some ways still acknowledge its craft for us to have grown to know these components of it in the first place. However, where they might improve is in taking this craft, realizing its potential as a mode of narrative conveyance, and explore it. Deeply.
When Daniel Bryan sat up from Seth Rollins’ surfboard, it evoked so many thoughts and feelings. So many tropes, motifs and symbols bled through the screen, spoke to me in ways that conventions of other art forms can’t in this medium. And as a fan of Daniel Bryan, as a fan of both men, I understood the significance of the moment, understood what it meant for the trajectory of their careers. What WWE needs to do is look at what fans already understand about their industry, what they know about their characters and other products, and present stories that play off that understanding, whether conforming to it or challenging it. Because after all, an art form’s conventions are a two-way street – they dictate how one might compose the piece and how the audience will receive it. Satisfy us, challenge us, amaze us – and do so remembering that we are wrestling fans.
Now more than ever, criticism would be really appreciated. Even though English creative writing is my major, this still feels like relatively new ground, so I’d appreciate what insight you all could offer and how you might improve the take on the matter I’ve presented above. However, I like this subject and will probably be reading more material on it, so I’ll probably make more opportunities for us to work through it together in future articles.
Until next week, I’m going to go watch my whole state burn to the ground. Gotta love Colorado summers. In the meantime, exchange avian dialogue with me on Twitter, shoot me an angry email or take a gander at my fiction page.