Writing Lessons From Wrestling
I’m not really going to blow your minds by saying that I, a guy who grew up in small-town Texas during the 90’s, loved wrestling am I? Well, if so then put the brain splatter back in your head and get over it. That was the Attitude Era, the Monday Night Wars, the birth of the NWO, and the origins of such superstars as The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin (yes I know both had careers previous to this timeline but we’re working from the point at which they got over). There were dark spots too, but overall it was a great time to be a fan, and some of my favorite childhood memories are going to see live shows with my dad.
Today isn’t a discussion about my childhood love of wrestling or the stars that come from it, however. Nope, today we’re going to talk about the story-telling, structure, and general lessons that can be taken from wrestling rings and applied to creating a book or story. And, lest you think I’m doing this sarcastically or as a bit, let me say upfront that this whole thing is 100% serious. There’s brilliance on those turn-buckles, if you’re willing to look past the garish costumes and see it.
1) Jobbers are Integral
In the wrestling world, there’s a term for someone who is used purely for bigger names to mow through in easy victories: jobbers. See, when you’re trying to push a wrestler into a new storyline, or get them over (popular) with a crowd, sometimes you need to have them whupping ass nonstop. The thing is, they can’t come out of the blue and start fucking with your other big names. For one thing, that messes up the storylines that those wrestlers are working. For another, it feels unearned and sort of pisses away opportunity. Jobbers fill that space, getting some experience and learning the craft in the ring while helping to push other, more experienced, wrestlers along in their path.
And Jobbers are just as necessary in writing. Well, okay, this one might be more specific to action or superhero writing. Romance folks, you can skip this part. Unless you’re doing a romance set in the backdrop of pro wrestling, in which case email me a link to that shit today. The point is, every action-style story is going to have Big Bads, usually with one standing above the others as the grand finale for the book or series. Jobbers are what you use as you escalate toward that final confrontation to the Big Bad. Muggers, low-level crooks, general nare-do-wells, these are who your protagonist starts off against. They provide a good proving ground, allowing you to show off what the character can do, and perhaps make some rookie mistakes to learn from, while the stakes are relatively low and more forgiving. On the other side, you can use Jobbers for your villains as well, having them push through mundane law enforcement and maybe less powerful good guys so they can appear as worthwhile challenges to your protagonist. If all the hero and villain have to play off is one another, it’s going to be hard to really showcase either, and the encounters will get stale quickly. All of this is really important because Jobbers make it possible to do one of the core tactics of wrestling and writing:
2) Build to the Payoff
This is a great example of what so many properties do wrong, and the real successes do right. They get scared they won’t get any other chances, so they put everything they have in the first film/book/season, rushing to the grand finale so quickly that it’s hard to even remember everyone’s names, let alone get invested in the fight. Wrestling, for all of its flaws, is usually pretty good about not doing that. When they’ve got an angle, they’ll let it run for a while. If two wrestlers are in a feud, it’s not a quick match and done. No, they build to it slowly, brick by brick. Helping fuck the other over in non-related matches, beating down their enemies friends/teammates/stable. Cutting promos calling one another every different shade of mother fucker. The angle is always there, in everything either one does, slowly rising until finally, finally, they get the chance to go at one another. But even then, its rarely a clean fight. Maybe it’s a four-man match or an elimination and neither gets a satisfying conclusion. What they do get, and the crowd gets, is a taste of what’s to come. Perhaps only a few minutes of them going at it before circumstances pull them away, but enough to show that when this fight occurs it’s going to be awesome. And holy shit, assuming it’s been booked right and you’ve got two people who know what they’re doing in the ring, when that battle finally arrives it’s the stuff of legends. What would have otherwise been a ten minute match with no build up becomes the sort of event that fans talk about for years, sometimes decades, to come.
I’ve written about this at length in other posts, but not building up to payoffs is one of the surest ways to undercut your character. Not just in the action/superhero genre either, this is true for pretty much all genres. Unearned victory or triumph is one of the surest ways to make sure a moment fails to land with a reader. Sometimes, they can be so bad it actively turns readers away. The term “Mary Sue” gets thrown around a little too freely these days, but I tend to see it more lobbed against characters that win through no hardship and suffering of their own than those who, while objectively better, earned their way to victory. Go slow, build up to the climax, make it so that when there’s finally resolution, the reader is on their chair screaming like an insane person because they’ve wanted to see it so bad and now it’s finally here.
3) Doing Heel-Face Turns (And Vice Versa)
Real quick: face is short for babyface, meaning your good guy/girl characters. Heel is slang for the baddies. Now in most wrestlers careers, they’re going to have to switch between those roles as the situation demands, because if they keep doing the same shtick for too long people get tired of it. You wouldn’t read a whole series about a guy eating cereal, eventually you’d want that dude to get up and maybe get some lunch. When done well, a turn (switching from face to heel or the other way around) is rooted in a good story providing solid reasons. I’m trying to avoid real life examples here for those who aren’t fans and don’t know wrestling history, but if you ever want to see one of the best face-heel turns, look up the Mega Powers exploding, Macho Man Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth’s split, and then the eventual reconciliation that became a fucking amazing heel-face turn. That was one rooted in very human, understandable motivations and endures as a classic for good reason.
See, here I’m not going to hold up wrestling as a paragon, but rather as a great case study. Because they have so many turns in their history, it’s really easy to look back and see what makes for turns that work, and ones that flop. Turning a heel into a face has become a big thing in some stories lately, however very often it looks like a cheap gimmick rather than an actual character moment. Honestly, I could do a whole blog on just this topic, it’s so complex and interesting. But to boil down a few rules I’ve gleaned from watching many turns through the years: A) Always root your turn in a relatable emotion. Emotions are what can change people at their core, circumstances just alter actions temporarily. Pride, jealousy, anger, anything is on the table as long it’s something a normal person has experienced. B) If you’re going heel to face, it helps to have a bigger heel acting as a catalyst. There’s a reason “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has endured as a saying for so long. C) Don’t make it too easy. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and there should be some struggle to stay on their new path, be it heel or face.
Wow, I’m pretty much done for this blog entry and I feel like I barely scratched the surface here. We didn’t even touch on anti-heroes, of which it’s hard to find a better than Stone Cold during the McMahon feud, or the importance of a character losing sometimes. Well, if you folks like this let me know and I’ll do a part two somewhere down the line. Leaving the door open for rematches is a classic wrestling tactic as well.