CM Punk quit WWE in January, and the most optimistic and skeptical fans hoped, believed or assumed it to be just another storyline.
WWE does have a history of blending reality with its narrative to the point where it's difficult to tell them apart. Punk's case provides a blueprint for how to tell the difference.
Whether something fans see onscreen or read online is a work or a shoot comes down to control.
If WWE is manipulating a situation to hype some rivalry or remind fans of an upcoming event, then count on the situation in question to be a work. If information regarding an event is drowned in legalese, chances are it's for real.
In addition, if there is little to no mention of an incident from the company itself, bet on it being something that veered from the script.
The Last Time Punk's Contract Expired
In 2011, Punk's contract expired the night he defeated John Cena for the WWE Championship. He then left the company, title in hand, as WWE seemed to be scrambling to move on without him.
How can we tell that was all scripted? The company highlighted Punk rather than ignore him, the way it is doing so now.
Punk interrupted Triple H at a Comic-Con event. The Chicago native supposedly didn't have a contract. WWE had even crowned a new champion in his absence.
Still, the footage appeared on WWE.com.
WWE has not highlighted Punk in this way with this recent departure. The exact opposite is true. Announcers have made no mention of the Superstar, and WWE.com has issued no explanation for him not being around.
Punk's contract is set to expire in July, as he recently told Ariel Helwani. Three years ago, Punk's contract status was the crux of his storyline. This time around, Raw and SmackDown are devoid of Punk contract talk.
That's because his contract that's expiring this time around is related to his real-life reasons for leaving, not the story his character is sucked into.
The company only shines the spotlight on what is part of its master plan. Take "The Big Guy" for example.
Response to Offensiveness
Many fans thought Ryback was running unchecked on Twitter, tossing out controversial tweets before deleting them.
WWE officials reportedly asked him to go nuts like that. F4WOnline, via WrestlingInc.com, reported the following:
Regarding Ryback's crazy tweets as of late, the idea is that talents will be pushed to do different things on social media during slow times on the weekend to get fans talking when there is nothing going on.
One didn't need that backstage insight to determine that this was all part of the script. Announcers mentioned the tweets on air, wondering allowed what was wrong with Ryback and explaining that he was just seeking attention.
Had Ryback simply been taking jabs at fans on his own, he would've likely been banished to the backstage area than become the talk of a match he wasn't in.
The response to Tensai's controversial Tout in July of 2012, per CagesideSeats.com, received a very different response. That's because WWE officials didn't ask Tensai to joke about the dangers of driving with a Japanese person as a means to further his character.
Unlike with Ryback, the announcers didn't then mention it on air.
WWE instead issued an apologetic statement, per PWTorch.com: "While in character, Lord Tensai (Matt Bloom) clearly took his storyline too far and he will be reprimanded for his inappropriate comments."
WWE officials created the Ryback controversy and so highlighted it. The company just wanted fans to forget Tensai's words and tried to do so with a terse statement and moved on with no further mention of them.
As that example demonstrates, the difference between a work and reality is not always a case of hype versus silence. Sometimes, the way the information is presented reveals whether something is scripted.
Reaction to Fan Attacks
On Oct. 8, 2012, Punk had a real run-in with fans. He was in the stands as Raw came to a close when some folks in the audience began to push him. He spun around and decked a guy in a Los Angeles Lakers T-shirt.
WWE's response to the incident was dry and matter of fact.
There was a very legal tone to what the company stated on WWE.com: "WWE regrets that proper security measures were not in place, and CM Punk apologizes for reacting in the heat of the moment."
Compare that to the way WWE described Randy Orton's scripted attack on a fan, namely John Cena Sr., earlier this year.
WWE.com staff wrote the following:
John Cena has given WWE.com an update on his father, who was attacked by WWE World Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton at ringside following The Viper's upset loss to Kofi Kingston on Raw.
'My dad is shook up,' said the Cenation leader after Michael Cole gave the WWE Universe an on-air update that the elder Cena had apparently suffered a fractured orbital socket at the hands of his son's rival.
Note the several references to the onscreen narrative. WWE mentions that Orton's loss to Kingston was an upset, includes Orton's "Viper" nickname and is sure to remind readers that he and Cena are rivals.
That's because the attack was meant to sell the Orton vs. Cena match, and so it was dramatized for maximum effect.
In the statement regarding the Punk-fan incident, the emphasis is not on him clashing with Vince McMahon that night but on security protocol instead. Much like WWE's comments on Tensai's Tout, it's far more official than fun.
When WWE finally does publicly acknowledge Punk's absence, the wording of that statement will be the final mark of proof that his exit was not a work. Expect something plain, brief and lacking in drama.
This latest situation is something that WWE's legal team will address, not its writers.