So I want to talk about professional wrestling for a few weeks.
If that immediately turns you off, it’s okay to tap out and come back another time.
When I was in my early 30s I freakin’ loved pro wrestling. I caught the bug from a friend who’d been into it his whole life, and before long I too was invested in the world of spandex, piledrivers and shit-talkin’ promos. I was also dating a girl who loved it, so we’d watch WWE shows and PPVs, go to local indie shows, hang out with wrestlers and – this next part is very important – get very, very drunk in the process.
It was a pretty sweet time.
It’s a time that culminated for me, just before I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne, with Wrestlemania XX – a night when my two favourite wrestlers, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, overcame all the odds to win the two championship belts. The pay-per-view ended with them in the ring together, hugging and holding up their belts in triumph, confetti raining down around them. It’s a moment that gave me so much joy.
A couple of years later, both men were dead – Guerrero of a heart attack, Benoit killing himself after murdering his wife and son – and all the joy was gone out of wrestling for me. I was done with it.
About a year ago, wrestling started pinging my radar again. Lucha Underground is cool, people said. Chikara have intricate comicbook storytelling, they said. WWE’s NXT spinoff have brought back the joy, and wrestlers aren’t suddenly dying the way they used to, they said.
I resisted the urge to dive back into the ring for a long time. But then I started getting some ideas about a YA urban fantasy story centred around pro wrestling, and I had a poke around the internet for things to cement those ideas together, and I watched some matches… and the hooks were back in.
I marked out. Again.
So what did I love about pro wrestling, and what am I rediscovering now?
No, it’s not ‘real’ fighting, but wrestling is absolutely real action, in the same way that you see action in martial arts and superhero movies, gymnastic performances and dope dance numbers. It’s practised and (to a limited extent) choreographed, but that doesn’t stop it from being exciting and entertaining (and more fun than real fighting, which is mostly just sad and horrible).
I’m particularly enthralled by the smaller, faster performers who jump off ropes, hit crazy spots and generally have a ‘flip-dee-doo’ style (phrasing stolen from the hosts of the excellent How2Wrestling podcast). I could watch cruiserweights, high flyers and luchadors go at it all day – especially if ever now and then you bring in a big muscle dude or a skilled technical wrestler in to change things up and show another dimension to the dance.
Yeah. It’s a dance. And dancing is fun as hell.
Telling stories with action
Almost all of my storytelling focus these days is on action – not just on writing engaging fight scenes, but using those fight scenes to demonstrate character, progress plot threads and develop the tone of the overall story. And the start of that focus was watching wrestling and looking at how they used fights to communicate plot and character.
A typical wrestling match isn’t just ‘two guys fight’, although that happens sometimes. What makes a match engaging is stakes and conflict – making the fight about something and giving the fighters a personal reason to win. Even the simplest feud sets two wrestlers against each other, usually over matters of ‘dignity, family or money’ (according to wrestling wisdom), and then that conflicts builds and becomes more personal through fights, confrontations and occasional promos. Plotlines may be simple or intricate, but they’re always immediate – and they find resolution through physical action. And all of that translates one-to-one into prose writing.
Wrestling is also a masterclass in demonstrating character through action – in what people do and how they do it. If a heel cuts promos about his courage, then runs away from danger in the ring, you immediately understand that he’s both a coward and a liar. If a face is outnumbered and overwhelmed by enemies, but refuses the offer of help in the ring, preferring to fight – and maybe lose – on his own terms, then the audience knows more about his character than any interview or vignette could tell them. Character is what you do – that’s one core principle of wrestling. The other is even simpler – everything that matters happens in the ring. Again, this plugs directly into writing engaging action.
Also, sometimes an alien superhero fights a dragon.
OMG WHAT A WANKER
Look, I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say, but it’s true – the very first thing that attracted me to wrestling was the strange tension between performer and character, and the plotlines that mixed real-world and fictional (‘kayfabe’) realities. Wrestling is a world where there is an actor called Dwayne Johnson, and there is an athlete called The Rock, and they are two different men except on those occasions when they are the same dude and sometimes they are both and neither at the same time and everyone agrees to accept this and pretend it isn’t weird. AND I LOVE THAT.
Wresting is a world where the fictional and the real grind together, informing and shaping each other and generating story from that grind, and from Day One I found that completely fascinating. And I’m not alone; Roland Barthes wrote about the metatextuality and symbolic density of wrestling – yes Roland Barthes the father of semiotics he loved wrestling and I HAVE (most of) AN ENGLISH DEGREE SO GET STUFFED – back in the 1950s and he was FRENCH so you know it was very clever.
That’s why I love wrestling. Simple-but-effective storytelling; complex-yet-straightforward commercial metatextuality; fit people in short shorts doing crazy stunts.
What’s not to love?
So please, join me over the next few weeks as I explore the new world of WRESTLE 2016 and try to make storytelling fodder from it.
Come on, it’ll be fun. There’ll be suplexes.