Watching professional wrestling has long been a favorite past time of mine. I grew up watching WCW and WWF (what would eventually become the modern sports entertainment juggernaut of WWE.) I was enamored with Stinger’s metamorphosis into Sting, the enigmatic Crowesque denizen of the WCW rafters. I remember watching “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ King of the Ring match on Pay-Per-View and Austin’s ‘Austin 3:16’ speech afterward both birthed a new era in professional wrestling, as well as a deep love of flawed characters in me. My favorite’s were the oddballs, the underdogs, the weirdos. Take Mankind, for instance. He debuted as a damaged young man, tortured by a lifetime of agony and abuse, who made his home in the boiler room of whatever stadium they were at that day. Wrestling is the greatest soap opera everyone loves to hate on, but I stand by its ability to have wonderful storytelling and character development.
Samuel Gately, author of professional wrestling-inspired fantasy series, The Titan Wars, has written up a guest post for us today all about lessons in storytelling that he has learned through professional wrestling and how they can be applied to any story! Check it out below and be sure to check out his excellent novel The Headlock of Destiny! It’s one of my favorite books that I’ve read in recent memory and an excellent display of creativity and originality.
The Headlock of Destiny by Samuel Gately
Series: The Titan Wars
Intended Age Group: Adult
Published: March 6, 2020
Publisher: Self Published
Some say titans are descended from giants. Others say they are risen from men. But there’s never any debate about where to find them. They will be in the center of a roaring crowd, beating the hell out of each other. From contenders like the Savage and Scott Flawless to pretenders like Richard the Living Portrait and Troll-Blooded Thom, a titan’s lot in life is the same: To wrestle for dominion and glory in the squared circle.
Van, a quiet titan from the brewery town of Headwaters, wants no part in this. He’d prefer to be left alone with a beer. But destiny has him in a headlock, and it is prepared to drag him into battles that will shake the land and change his world forever.
Step into the ring with this one-of-a-kind novel, brewed special for fans of epic fantasy, fans of professional wrestling from the Golden Era and beyond, or simply fans of a good tale.
Face-Stompingly Valuable Lessons from the Storytelling of Pro Wrestling
The film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome simplified the pro wrestling formula for everyone’s benefit: “Two men enter, one man leaves.” Professional wrestling, arguably the world’s most successful form of sports entertainment, is not an art of subtlety. It is loud, aggressive, crass, violent, juvenile… and often incredibly energizing, emotional, and engaging. Anyone who wants to deny that it places a huge emphasis on storytelling either hasn’t paid it any attention or was just feeling particularly elitist when they did.
Wrestling is all about storytelling (at least when it is effective), and I’ve done my best to boil down some of the lessons that can be learned from the “squared circle”. My hope is that they will be of interests to writers, readers, and fans of a good story. Also, if you want to see these in action, check out The Headlock of Destiny, my own attempt at marrying the storytelling of epic fantasy with that of professional wrestling.
Don’t Be Afraid of Bright Colors, Big Personalities, and Bold Choices
There are many flavors/packages/strains of pro wrestling, but that one that likely will resonate with most is that pushed by the World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE, formerly the WWF), the people that brought you Hulk Hogan and friends. It is a brand that pushes larger-than-life characters often defined by outlandish, overboard “gimmicks” and very frequently relies on putting a character you want to cheer for (a face) up against one you desperately want to boo (a heel).
Pro wrestling understands that, to hold their audience’s attention, they need to communicate these characters and get emotional responses from the crowd, and they need to do it fast. So subtlety is chucked out the window. These characters are loud, bold, and extremely on-brand. I think there is a lesson there for writers.
There is value in finding what drives a character and putting it right on their sleeve (whether they are self-aware of it or not). A character blinded by universal arrogance can be a delight. Or one firmly convinced that they can and should purchase the world. Or one who revels in trickery. My favorite example (from The Headlock of Destiny) of applying a singular, obvious desire to a character was the creation of Judge Cage, a titan who loves nothing more than to see people locked up. Imagine the life of a strongman so uniquely motivated. It can seed some fascinating interactions.
The obvious threat is that you are making one-note, overly predictable characters. But I would argue that will only be a problem if you are putting them in predictable situations with like-minded people. Mixing it up can make for some real fun and add tons of color to even routine interactions. (If you want a good example of this, I can’t say enough of Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld. Those characters are leaning heavily into different motivations and archetypes. And they are incredibly fun to be with even when ordering dinner.)
Start the Hype Long Before the Bell
The drama of wrestling is neatly structured. Two combatants seek the same prize that only one of them can raise over their head as the crowd goes wild. To make it more interesting, the professional stakes are usually just the smallest factor emphasized in a long hype run-up that precedes major matches. Instead, personal stakes are created and emphasized. Because these characters need to be cross-wired. They need to have strong, justified feelings about why they absolutely need to win against this damn prick who betrayed/disrespected/injured them. Their stakes become the audience’s stakes, and before long an arena full of people is screaming for the bell (and often willing themselves to ignore obvious fakery).
In writing, there are some very common and useful techniques/tropes to get this cross-wiring going. Some characters have a shared past that can be revealed early in the story (think Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort) or late in the story (“Luke, I am your father”). It’s often part of the hero’s journey to rectify some personally-impactful injustice of the villain (Thulsa Doom killed Conan the Barbarian’s family). A simmering rivalry can always be fun (the Lannisters vie for their father’s approval). Or one character can represent everything the other hates and strives to change in the world (the leader of the villainous IOI stands directly in the way of Wade Watts in Ready Player One as they compete for the fate of their shared world).
Probably the best lesson here is what not to do. Narratives sometime fall flat (or at least have to work extremely hard to generate interest) when the “final” conflict hasn’t been seeded. Some works that are derivative of Dungeons & Dragons-style campaigning or videogame progressions struggle here. At the end is a… big monster! It can be fun, but better stories would have established a personal relationship and need with the final conflict. As the two combatants square off, neither should be substitutable. The reader should be thinking “yes, it had to be this way.”
The Bad Guys Are Often More Interesting
When you peek behind the curtain of nationally-televised pro wrestling, one of the curious things you hear is that many wrestlers would prefer to be a bad guy (aka heel). The secret is that bad guys “sell more action figures”. While we all pretend to be obsessed with the cool hero, we’re often paying as much if not more attention (and channeling as much emotion) into the jerk standing across from him. I still get heated when I think about Big Boss Man handcuffing Hulk Hogan to a railing and beating on him. You know I didn’t miss a minute of what came next.
I think writers can and should not be shy about giving plenty of time to the bad guys. I personally love a good bad guy monologue and have no issue seeing the good guys constantly captured by and then escaping the bad guys – whatever gets them together before the big showdown. Allow bad guys to share some of that valuable “screen time” and recognize that readers are strongly motivated to turn pages by righteous indignation – give them characters they love to hate.
Also, obvious bonus points for embracing the grey. Paying time and attention to the dark elements of the good guys and the good elements of the bad guys can make the conflict within characters that much more interesting. And then of course the conflict between what people believe and what they actually do … man, we’re getting in deep here. Should we just have them start throwing each other around the ring yet? Where is that damn bell? Do we have time for a quick beer run?
Bonus Lesson: Closely related to this point, you know what else is really interesting? Cheating. And hypocrisy. Pro wrestling has recognized both points and you see it everywhere. Nothing gets people out of their seats quicker than a cheap shot when the (easily distractable) ref has his back turned. And nothing makes people boo more lustily than when the cheater gives a long speech about how he (or she) earned the victory. I recall reading Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell and being so mad about the cheating involved in Kale’s naval training that I couldn’t put the thing down. That’s reader engagement right there. Lean in.
None of this is new or startling to fans of pro wrestling. And storytellers have been doing all these things since the dawn of time. But I think, for most writers, a few minutes of thought about what is effective in pro wrestling can yield some great returns. Think about that ultimate struggle, and the rivals who slog towards it. Build that hype by cross-wiring interesting, unique characters together, don’t forget to spend as much time fleshing out the enemy as the hero, and watch the crowd go wild when they finally slam together and start pulling each other’s hair. Good times.
About the Author
Samuel Gately is a writer of novels and short stories in the fantasy genre. Most have spies in them. Samuel lives in Oak Park just outside Chicago with his wife, daughters, and overly fluffy dogs.
Author website: www.samuelgately.com
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