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WWE: To succeed at storytelling, they first must consider the fundamentals

Daniel Bryan WWE

By Kyle S. Johnson for WrestlingObserver.com

WWE prides itself as a platform for telling stories, and it most certainly is just that. The problem is that the stories being told at present tend not to be particularly good, and the stories that have the potential to be good are not told well. This can be attributed to, among other things, WWE seemingly misunderstanding or completely ignoring so many of the fundamental aspects of good storytelling.

Don’t get me wrong: professional wrestling is an exceptional medium for storytelling when it’s done right. Wrestlers can tell stories in facial expressions, in subtle movements, and sometimes in doing nothing at all. They can use their physicality to tell gripping stories that compel audiences to cheer or boo or gasp or scream. When aided by a creative mind and a silver tongue, they can speak to the masses and connect with them directly -- one of the benefits of an art form that openly acknowledges and embraces the presence of the spectator.

When all of this coheres, it’s magic. Just look up and down the card at NXT TakeOver: Respect. Six matches, every one telling a tale to near-perfection. Every single individual on that show had a story to tell -- from Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder to Bayley and Sasha Banks to William Regal and Eden Stiles. The commentary team did its part in contributing to the execution of the narrative -- Corey Graves pointing out that Bayley working over Sasha’s hand had limited the latter’s ability to apply the Banks Statement at the end of the match was so incredibly refreshing because it actually rewarded the viewer for being invested in the little details. Even the crowd itself had utility in the narrative, particularly Izzy and her bow, who somehow wound up becoming stars in the main event. 'Respect' may be the WWE’s best show in years in terms of comprehensive storytelling if only because every segment had a function and everything served its purpose. The show even had a theme; it was right there in the event’s title, and it paid off in the main event.

On the main roster, however, WWE is preoccupied with a more conventional kind of episodic storytelling. WWE says it doesn't see the likes of New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor as competition because they are wrestling programs. WWE sees primetime dramas as being closer to direct competitors for its brand of totally-not-wrestling-yet-wrestling-centric-sports-entertainment because it sees itself as an entity that tells the same kinds of stories. Yet despite that focus, and despite staffing its creative arm with people who presumably understand the core components of what makes episodic television shows effective, WWE programming doesn’t come anywhere close to feeling like well-structured and -beloved shows such as Breaking Bad, Fargo, Hannibal, or Empire.

WWE routinely breaks a number of very basic rules of storytelling, much to the detriment of its product. I’m not even talking about aptitude that only the masters of the craft possess, either. I’m talking about the kinds of things that they teach in freshman-year creative writing courses. These mistakes are made frequently and unapologetically.

One of the first things you’ll learn in a good creative writing program is that you should always show and never tell. It’s a fundamental of effective storytelling -- the audience cares less about how many adjectives a writer uses to describe a character as evil and more about how that character is depicted as actually being evil. And yet, telling the audience one thing and showing them something else entirely has been a significant factor in the gradual death of the so-called/oft-called Divas Revolution.

NXT TakeOver Respect

Relative to the idea of hearing one thing and seeing another, WWE’s product has the benefit of a commentary team that should, for all intents and purposes, play a role similar to that of the chorus in a Greek play. The commentary should be a character itself that is tasked with guiding the audience in the direction that the story demands and aiding their understanding of the action -- just as Graves did to great effect in the main event at TakeOver: Respect. Inexplicably, the commentators in WWE are generally positioned as unreliable narrators in that they willingly convey even the company’s own recent history incorrectly. When John Layfield tells the audience that that Divas Revolution happened organically as if they were not watching the product in June, it’s not just insulting to the viewers’ intelligence, but it also makes it nearly impossible to ever take anything he says on commentary at face value thereafter.

There’s seemingly no interest in utilizing a three-act structure despite having an ungodly amount of programming time to fill. Imagine if WWE actually utilized a story arc typical of dramatic plots and leveraged SummerSlam as the inciting incident, Royal Rumble as the climax, and WrestleMania as the denouement. This, of course, would require some degree of pre-planning and a sense of patience, neither of which are the strong suit of WWE creative.

Secondary and tertiary characters in WWE are aimless at best and pointless at worst. In the introduction to Bambogo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut told readers and prospective storytellers that, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” It is possible to tell stories that don’t necessarily tie directly into the central narrative, but what other shows seem to understand is that even those ancillary characters and storylines need direction and purpose all the same. Since ending the angle with Stephen Amell, when has the viewer ever been given the distinct impression that Stardust, Neville, or Wade Barrett have wanted anything when they appear on television?

While there are stories and characters that work to varying degrees of effect on WWE’s main programs, segments on these shows are also rife with forced dialogue, inconsistent character trajectories, go-nowhere subplots, and any number of other confounding narrative problems. And the flaws of which I’m speaking are strictly within the scope of storytelling -- this doesn’t account for bad matches, bad interviews with bad acting and bad blocking, dead crowds, and any number of problems exclusive to a wrestling product. If WWE is truly in the business of making movies, it’s less a production of Paramount and more some rushed hack-job from The Asylum (or WWE Films, for that matter).

One of WWE’s most confounding issues is the lack of a strong central narrative. If there is a tentpole story in the WWE Universe at present, it can be very succinctly summarized: “Seth Rollins is the champion, The Authority is bad, and everyone else is a loser.” This isn’t a particularly compelling story, is it?

WWE’s preferred brand of story tends to rely on a very basic good vs. evil dynamic (forget the notion of complex, grayscale characters). Given even that simplistic metric, WWE is somehow lacking the two components most vital to this degree of story: a triumphant protagonist to persevere over evil and a consistent central antagonist to stand in the way of the hero.

The Importance of the Conquering Hero

If I may go back to Vonnegut’s Creative Writing 101 again, the novelist recommended that stories should give the reader (or viewer in the case of WWE) at least one character to root for. Given the structure of WWE’s storytelling, it stands to reason that there should be at least one character to root for in the scheme of the main-event picture. While John Cena, Roman Reigns, Randy Orton, and Dean Ambrose are positioned as the de facto heroes of the product, not one of the four has emerged as the sustained archenemy of The Authority and its face of the future, WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins.

Each of the four men has thumbed their nose at The Authority and challenged Rollins for his title at some point, but not one of them has quite achieved the distinction of becoming the WWE’s heroic central protagonist. This is because each man has only contested the championship when it has been convenient, and when their opportunity passes them by, they move on to another program with relatively little concern. This makes them more pretenders than actual heroes.

A proper protagonist should be singular in their focus on the ultimate goal, even in spite of trails and hardships laid before them. If Reigns’ destiny is winning the championship on the way to becoming the company’s new face, the audience should be aware that this objective is always in his periphery even when he’s caught up in, say, an interminable feud with Bray Wyatt and his “training wheels.” Everything he does should be a step toward that moment in the sun, and anything that isn’t is simply wasted motion.

Moreover, the story should focus on the hero’s struggle to succeed and not the inevitability of a villain’s failure. If one were to bastardize Joseph Campbell’s monomyth for the purposes of applying it to professional wrestling (and I may be the first), it might follow the pattern of a hero departing from a feud to pursue the world title, overcoming obstacles and conquering opponents along the way to the top contender spot, and ultimately winning that championship for the purposes of returning it to the people. This is the wrestling hero’s journey, and it is a journey that has been sorely missed on WWE programming for much of the past two years.

WWE’s last Campbellian hero was Daniel Bryan. Bryan, very much a David archetype against the WWE’s Goliath, was ostensibly pushed into his journey at the behest of The Herald -- in this case, an audience that was rabid to see him get his due. Bryan answered the call and was spurred into facing WWE World Heavyweight Champion John Cena, playing some combination of both the Mentor and Threshold Guardian archetypes, at SummerSlam 2013. Bryan conquered this challenge only to be betrayed by Triple H (The Shapeshifter), who acted accordingly because he felt that Randy Orton (The Adversary) would be better suited as the face of the WWE. Here, the WWE played the role of The Shadow -- the story’s true antagonist, an overwhelming force focused on preventing Bryan from achieving the level of success for which the fans believed he was destined.  

Bryan did succeed, however, and spectacularly so. His triumph in the main event of WrestleMania XXX was a victory earned almost entirely through the will of the audience, which is a significant reason why his championship win felt like a true catharsis; the audience was invested in Bryan’s story because they empathized with an undersized hero battling an overwhelming machine that didn’t want him to excel. The fans, in some ways, were Daniel Bryan. They felt his failures deeply, and they reveled gloriously in his successes.

Bryan’s story worked exceedingly well because it was spectator-participatory in a way that no WWE story has been in the time since. It was a narrative that had been building since Bryan lost the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in an (intentionally) embarrassing 18-second match at WrestleMania XXVIII and was immediately saved by thousands of fans who chanted for him by name. Two years later, those fans essentially carried him to the main event of the biggest show in professional wrestling by merely refusing to lose interest in him. It arguably proved to be WWE’s best-spun yarn in years -- even if it was a story the company fought against having to tell with tooth and nail (and Batista). What’s more, it was less a story and more a journey, and one in which fans were completely along for the ride.

Since Bryan was forced to vacate the championship due to injury, no single character has approached that same level in terms of connection with the audience. It was a true case of capturing lightning in a bottle, but the brilliant part about it is that it followed a relatively simple formula. The template for Bryan’s success is easily observable and, with even a shred of prudence, replicable. Just look at what’s been done in NXT with Sami Zayn and Bayley; the journey can be repeated if you have the aptitude to understand why it works and how to do it again.

Today, there is no yin to Rollins’ yang. It very well could have been Ambrose -- he was, for a time, receiving pretty incredible reactions across the board -- but WWE’s insistence on being the primary manufacturer of one’s success in getting over set the ceiling on Ambrose’s achievement fairly low. The same was the case with Dolph Ziggler, who seemed primed for a similar journey after last year’s Survivor Series but quickly fell into mid-card oblivion for one reason or another.

Still, it’s less about finding a foe to pit against Rollins and more about finding a nemesis for WWE’s storyline corporate mechanism. Bryan’s story worked because it didn’t pit him against Orton, Batista, or even Triple H. It pitted him against the WWE itself, because the WWE is -- and has been -- the company’s one true villain for almost 20 years. Today, however, it seems unable to make up its mind about even that.

Stephanie McMahon

WWE as Primary Antagonist and Why It’s Not Working in 2015

As the WWF struggled to find its footing in late 1997 and early 1998, it put its weight behind emergent superstar “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who had himself made something of a wrestling hero’s journey from WrestleMania XIII to WrestleMania XIV. In that time, Austin had captured the zeitgeist by being brazenly anti-authority, and so it was only natural that his first major feud after winning the WWF Championship would be with a caricatured version of Vince McMahon and the equal-parts-stuffy-and-scummy corporate entity that he represented. This conflict worked exceedingly well, and it was a decisive factor in WWF turning the tide in the Monday Night War and developing into the juggernaut that it is today.  

So successful was the Austin vs. McMahon dynamic that the company has attempted to replicate it over and over and over for the past 17 years. In some cases, some representative or extension of WWE Corporate plays the role of McMahon. In other cases, a McMahon plays that role. In all instances, the effect is not quite the same as it was in those early years.

WWE has built itself to be its own greatest villain for the better part of two decades, and it remains that way today with the continuance of on-screen authority figures and real-life executives Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. However, the current political landscape within and surrounding WWE has complicated this formula and diluted the effectiveness of WWE as its lead antagonist.

WWE needs to represent itself as a charitable company, and it does so frequently on the most visible platform it has: its weekly television programs. To bolster the effect of this, WWE also characterizes its employees as being equally benevolent, which works fine in the cases of on-screen heroes like Cena and Reigns. However, by depicting heels as being altruistic and generous in one segment and then expecting the audience to boo their underhanded antics in the next, WWE winds up self-cannibalizing its own narrative.

This effect is jarring enough when the subject is someone like Nikki Bella or The Miz, both of whom feature prominently in recaps of the company’s various acts of goodwill. It is increasingly more confounding -- yet considerably more difficult to avoid -- when the company’s top storyline villain also happens to be the most evident representative of its real-world corporate philanthropy: Stephanie McMahon.

Since being reinserted into weekly storylines in 2013, Stephanie has been the company’s chief antagonist, and an incredibly well-protected one at that. And, because she is the corporate face of the all-caring WWE, she has also been featured in nearly every segment run on Raw or Smackdown or various pay-per-views that spotlights the company’s efforts with terminally ill children or support of charitable causes. In many circumstances, these two portrayals of McMahon wind up existing on the same show. In some cases, they happen minutes apart.

This disparity creates something like wrestling’s equivalent of ludonarrative dissonance: the story leads the viewer to believe that Stephanie is the loathsome bully-in-power in spite of the frequent interloping of reality that reveals her to be anything but. Imagine a situation in 1998 where the grandiose Mr. McMahon mocking a crowd or thwarting Austin would be directly proceeded by footage of Vince McMahon shaking hands with troops and speaking humbly about their service.

This doesn’t have to be problematic for the narrative -- Christopher Lee built a career playing villains in films, and he used that fame to advocate for children’s rights in his life away from the cameras. Lee, however, never once wiped off the pancake makeup halfway through a portrayal of Dracula to remind the viewing audience what a great human being he truly was before getting back to the business of sucking someone’s blood. And while a great many wrestling fans can make that distinction between storyline and reality, constant breaking of the fourth wall that confounds a character’s trajectory and pulls the audience screaming out of the narrative is a sign of bad storytelling regardless of the medium.

Even if this were not an issue, The Authority has been booked inconsistently enough for the past few months that it has confounded its position as the top villain. One week, Stephanie and Hunter are faces, the next week they’re heels, the next week Hunter is a face and Stephanie is a heel, the next week Hunter is a heel and Stephanie is mostly a heel but she cuts one face promo, etc. It’s difficult to expect the fans to keep up with character dynamics when they have the potential to shift three times in an hour.  

This also doesn’t account for the fact that WWE, in so many ways, promotes itself as the star of the show. In 2015, World Wrestling Entertainment more often than not takes top billing over even the likes of Cena, The Rock, and Brock Lesnar. WWE promotes its product, its philosophy, and its philanthropy first; all others come second if they are even promoted at all. By this accord, WWE is pitting itself against itself by being its top star and its top villain simultaneously.

If WWE wants to position itself as being a social upstander on its weekly television programs, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to use that same platform to depict itself as the villainous top bad guy. WWE doesn’t have to take Triple H and Stephanie off television, but if they want to leave those characters occupying some strange gray area between good and evil, then it is imperative to create a strong main-event level heel to battle back the advances of a strong main-event level babyface. WWE has the right components, but they either haven’t been able to put them together or simply have forgotten how.

Seth Rollins Loses

Seth Rollins as Unlikable Protagonist

If a story’s antagonist is charismatic enough a force, it can sustain the weight of a story on its own. The presence of the captivating and diabolical villain creates balance through conflict, and in stories where a hero must be chosen and subsequently pass a number of trials, it must also sustain as a point of focus while the hero takes their journey. The best Batman stories tend to pit him against The Joker and the Star Wars universe hinges on the battle between the Jedi and the Sith, but it’s not uncommon for functional and successful narratives to exist within those universes where the likes of Darth Vader and The Joker are the focal point.

Outside of Stephanie and Hunter, Seth Rollins is the most oft-featured talent on WWE television, typically showing up for the entirety of the first and final quarter-hours and appearing frequently in between. This, combined with Cena’s reduced role and the continued struggle to establish Reigns as a top star, suggests that it is Rollins who is the anti-hero protagonist of the WWE’s current narrative. And while Rollins is certainly charismatic in a number of ways, his booking as a perpetual loser makes it incredibly difficult for his character to sustain the narrative in a manner that will keep viewers hooked.

However, because of the combative nature of his relationship with The Authority of late, it’s entirely plausible that Rollins could very well develop into that conquering hero that WWE so desperately needs. Rollins’ standing as the corporate-backed face of the WWE has been eroding gradually as far back as May. Dissention between Rollins and Triple H and Stephanie foreshadows their eventual breakup on a nearly weekly basis, up to and including structuring the recent storyline with Sting around the idea of Rollins not being as great as Triple H. The machine behind Rollins seems almost indifferent to his existence at times and annoyed by it at others, which results in a confounding dynamic where the undeserving chickenshit heel champion is forced into disadvantageous situations by the very people who would presumably want to protect him the most.

Rollins is arguably among the most ineffectual heel champions ever booked by WWE, if only because it’s impossible to make a villain work if they lose nearly every battle they enter. The essence of an effective villain is wanting to see them toppled by the hero. There’s no heat building toward Rollins getting his comeuppance because he gets his comeuppance every single week on free television. WWE wants the weasely and cowardly Rollins to be its version of Joffrey Baratheon, but in having him lose nine of his last 10 televised matches, he’s more like their version of Henry Chinaski.

Yet, Rollins is consistently one of the most entertaining wrestlers on any given show. Though his 20-minute promos can be incredibly daunting exercises (more a knock on the writing and the paradigm of the 20-minute promo itself), Rollins has become exceptionally comfortable on the microphone. He’s also gotten quite good at pinpointing how to work a crowd -- one need only watch the way he shut down an attempt at The Mexican Wave in the middle of his match with Cena at Night of Champions. Most important of all, whether he’s headlining a pay-per-view with Sting or wrestling Dean Ambrose in the middle of a throwaway Smackdown, Rollins puts everything he has into his matches. Of note, Rollins works a reckless-abandon style that is overwhelmingly babyface in nature and perfect for currying favor with fans.

This all makes sense if it foreshadows the next expected dynamic shift in Rollins’ character arc: when Rollins fails in his charge of keeping the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the court of The Authority, he will be cast out in favor of a new face of the future and positioned as the rising babyface looking for revenge against the machine that spurned him.

What’s more, the need for a strong heel to carry the title and fend off Rollins could be doubly advantageous if the kayfabe WWE front office’s chosen replacement for face of the company is the actual WWE front office’s chosen replacement for face of the company: Roman Reigns. By turning Roman heel and allowing him to better tap into some of his natural charisma, WWE has the potential to elevate Reigns’ star the same way a similar scenario elevated both The Rock and Triple H’s more than 15 years prior. What’s more, because Reigns is built the way he is, WWE could be less compelled to book him in a way that makes him look as weak as Rollins has, establishing him as a heel with a level of self-reliance that Rollins has never possessed. This, in effect, might allow the WWE to beg off of its dependence on a heeled-up version of itself as its main baddie.

This would give Rollins and Reigns the respective opportunities to become the emerging hero and the enduring, semi-independent villain that WWE sorely lacks, but only if WWE’s vaunted storytellers can properly connect the dots. It’s an easy enough template to follow, and it’s one that has helped make the careers of a not insignificant number of stars and guide the WWE through its boom period.

At Survivor Series 1998, Vince and Shane McMahon backed The Rock against Mankind in the finals of a tournament for the vacant WWF Championship, turning out the ever-unconventional Mick Foley in favor of the new “crown jewel” of its vision for a more perfect WWF. The formation of The Corporation positioned The Rock as a pawn of Vince and Shane who was nonetheless booked to be strong, and it helped catapult Foley into the position of being a top star, culminating in his infamous Schiavone-spoiled championship win on the first episode of Raw in 1999.

Despite three separate title reigns, The Rock was unable to get the better of Steve Austin six months later at WrestleMania XV, and less than a month after that loss, The Rock was dumped from The Corporation in favor of its new chosen son: Triple H. This catapulted The Rock, who had already been receiving favorable crowd reactions, into the position of the company’s next top face as he sought revenge against The Corporation and later the McMahon-Helmsley Faction.

By utilizing this simple story cycle, the WWF was able to build credible top stars who were ultimately capable of filling the vacuum at the top of the card when Austin was put on the shelf by lingering neck issues. There are impediments that could very well prevent this story from being told again with Rollins and Reigns -- not the least of which being the company’s insistence on presenting Reigns as Cena’s heir-apparent in terms of public acts of charity and the hit that Rollins’ stock may be taking due to over-exposure and incessant losing.

But, to a point, it’s a story so simplistic that it’s almost impossible to tell without creating the desired effect. In the end, if whatever central story WWE creates ultimately fails in its charge, it’s worth remembering that a story is generally only as good as the author behind it. If the WWE prides itself as a great storyteller, but the stories it tells don’t work on a number of very basic levels, perhaps it’s time for the authors of those stories to consider doubling back and starting over with the fundamentals in mind.