WWE-TNA Storytelling 101: How To Book Sports Entertainment Conflict

Marc MattalianoCorrespondent IIIOctober 28, 2010


In my humble attempts at breaking into the world of science-fiction/fantasy publishing, I’ve come to a point in my life where just about every story around me has become fair game to break apart piece by piece, in the hope that I'll discover the real purpose behind the creator’s intentions. Sometimes, a book, movie, album, or TV show comes out and we can see very clearly what was intended.

Avatar was intended to make people sympathize with nature and an indigenous alien species, both of which are attacked by beings we are supposed to relate to (i.e., humans) that were looking to raze the foreign planet dry, thus creating a largely unprofound conflict within viewers. 

Twilight was intended to tug at the heartstrings of young adults (mainly females), with the tale of yet another tortured vampire who can't stand to drink from humans and a girl looking for identity. 

Independence Day was intended to show all races, creeds and peoples of mankind uniting against a common alien enemy that happened to be hostile.

In some cases, the intentions of a story aren’t so clear, but when a tale is hugely successful and gets grand reaction from the audience, the intentions matter much less than the financial yield. 

In the case of professional wrestling, the initial purpose long ago was simple.  Even if every hip toss and body slam weren’t scripted to the letter, it was still intended to offer a physical sport that was more dynamic and unpredictable than boxing (a sport where you can only attack with punches), but not carry with it the deficiency in drama or the abundance of complex rule sets that Greco Roman/Olympic style wrestling carried. 

Professional wrestling offered us something a bit more exciting.  It didn’t start out with its stars coming to the ring with sunglasses, boas, sparkles, necklaces, chains, rings, pyro and other props. It was just over-the-top enough to hook peoples’ attention.  The dawn of Sports Entertainment completely changed this and not necessarily for the worse.  It just made things different.

Attempts at making wrestling especially compelling brought ideas like creative booking and classifications like “babyfaces” and “heels.”  For a long time, just about every competitor had a gimmick to motivate them or give them personality and times are still changing.  Simpler gimmicks, like policeman, race car driver, garbage man, hillbilly, supermodel, vampire, etc., tend to go by the wayside, but if our average wrestler doesn’t have a gimmick to get them started, how do they appear interesting enough to watch?

A very basic tenet of storytelling…conflict!

Let’s take a brief look at what happens when conflict goes away.  You end up with a setting (any place, any time period) featuring a group of beings that love each other, care for each other, work together and generally live in harmony and tranquility.  Some might call that a perfect world, but if we saw a trailer at the movies that advertised a new flick called "Peace," in which this scenario played out for 2-3 hours with absolutely no fighting, deception, distrust, discomfort, disagreement, anger, rage or battle, many of us would likely be turned off. 

Some might pay their disposable 8 bucks (or, if you have your Optimum Rewards card, you can go to a Clearview Cinemas on free movie Tuesdays) to check it out, but without any conflict, we see a world that doesn't fight, doesn't argue and always agrees.  Perfect and ideal, yes, but largely, unexciting and uneventful from a mentally stimulating viewpoint.

Realistically, emotions are going to compel a person to disagree enough with how life or government works, sparking a catalyst that may yield a halfway decent story. Even in the real world, eternal peace and tranquility, although a desired way to go some of the time, would make life extremely boring.  Eventually, two people need to disagree.

In the case of a fictional arena where people can take their disagreements too far and fight?  Perfect place to encourage people to argue.

Conflict can come in many forms:

It can be about love (Matt Hardy vs. Edge and/or Kane for Lita’s hand...or Test vs. HHH for Stephanie, both acceptable). 

It can be about ideals (Bret Hart calling HBK and Hunter “degenerates”). 

It can be about power (Kane vs. Undertaker). 

It can be about the almighty dollar (Lex Luger vs. Tatanka to see who sold out...Tatanka vs. IRS over back taxes requested for the sacred headdress).

It can be about respect (Jeff Hardy vs. Undertaker…big amount of respect on both sides...or Razor Ramon vs. 1-2-3 Kid for $10,000...that one had money, but it was more about Razor saving face). 

Whether it’s a series of internal monologues, a romantic comedy, or an interdimensional war, conflict is absolutely necessary when telling a story.

So, how does conflict arise?  Typically, a character in a villain position takes the initiative and says something, does something, or makes some sort of choice to put forth the motions to make their desires come true. I say “character in a villain position” as opposed to “heel” or “evil SOB,” because the best “villains” are the ones that have an extremely practical and relatable ideal, or set of ideals.

They may still get booed, but the best ones get us to ask questions to convince some of the boo-ers otherwise.  If a villain acts evil just for fun or greed or vengeance or anger, it’s too easy!  It ends up bringing about a hero that is equally as simple, one-sided and easy.  The hero becomes merely the opposite of the villain and in the end, the character that people root (good) triumphs over the character people boo (evil) and everyone lives happily ever after.  A tale that has been told far too often. 

However, when a villain speaks and really makes sense to the viewer or reader, that’s a villain that’s special.  That kind of villain will split the fans into different groups and the ideal he or she speaks of will be the catalyst for major debate. 

Usually, the villain is the one to take the initiative, whereas the hero is typically the one who’s happy with everything being peaceful and calm.  With the dismissal of cheesy, cartoon gimmicks that can easily clash in professional wrestling, we have a charismatic band of fiery competitors, with flashy move sets, great athletic abilities, but no real motivation to go out and make anything happen.  We have heroes content with just competing, and we have villains that no one cares to see defeated.

Sure, MVP can interrupt Jack Swagger while he talks about himself on the sole episode of the Swagger Lounge, but it just looked like someone shoved Montel through the curtain with a mic and said, "go!  Interrupt him and try to poke at his insecurities, you can do it!  Go start a feud!"  And now look, MVP isn't feuding with Swagger anymore.  It's these types of mild moves that hold back the bigger waves giving fans very little for their interests to catch in the hopes of riding all the way to the beach.

The potential for a year long struggle was ever-present in the feud featuring CM Punk's heel stable, the Straight Edge Society, attempting to bring a high-flyer known as Rey Mysterio into the group.  Mysterio's victory at this year's Wrestlemania was the first nail in the coffin for Punk's band of purists.  With a vote being put up on WWE.com about CM Punk's new t-shirt line?  It's looking like the SES may not come back, like many of us had hoped. 

Then again, he was "scouting talent" during Raw this past Monday, so who knows?  He's not scouting the US or Intercontinental Title, so what else could he be looking for? 

Regardless, for now, guys like Punk and Swagger are hovering in creative limbo crossing their fingers for another chance to share the spotlight.

I feel like much of what we've seen in wrestling lately is following this template:  a peaceful situation with only moderate, predictable, forgettable and easily extinguishable conflict.  Creative on the part of both WWE and TNA are feeding us one of two things.

In the case of WWE the past few years, we've seen extremely typical heels doing extremely typical things like insulting the crowd, claiming they're better than everyone else or attacking people we like. 

We've seen these things done before and it's not going over well.  Despite the cries of many saying it's simply a band of useless rookies with no real talent, though, the Nexus angle has really injected some energy and unique twists into WWE's storytelling, giving them some great tools and characters to work with. 

Wade Barrett, whether reading off a script or ad-libbing a smidgen, has wildly avoided going the Sting/Abyss route. 

Instead of constantly feeding us extraordinarily veiled messages that we interpret in circles for months at a time, his promos give our minds something to chew on at the beginning of an episode, he hands us an answer by the end of the episode and opens up even more questions once it's all over. 

He's claimed there's "bigger pictures" at work, I'd say so far, after manipulating (an albeit rebellious) John Cena into the group and helping Undertaker into his latest grave, and with the help of the shifty and shady David "A-List" Otunga, Wade and the Nexus continue to imply yet bigger things to come, including a secretly deeper reason for helping Undertaker fall. 

Whether you're with them or against them, the Nexus is reminding us what kind of waves can wash up on shore when an eloquent villain like Wade Barrett teases us with plans...and then executes every step.  It's a great thing when any person makes promises and then keeps them.

In this article by Rize:  http://bleacherreport.com/articles/501351-drive-with-rize-special-edition-major-bragging-rights-news-title-changes-nixed, we're told that much of what happened at Bragging Rights was actually NOT planned to happen, but as we've seen with accidental stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, many of the moments WWE spends thinking outside the creative box tends to mean bank for them.

In the case of TNA, for a long time, 90% of their roster has been made up of characters who DON'T follow an easy-to-grasp heel/face format and as such, the crowd and the rest of the fans are so confused, they don't even know who they're supposed to root for.  In wrestling, you can have a villain OR a hero that doesn't follow a typical template, but not BOTH. 

Too many people say things fans can support and you end up with too many possible heroes, too many possible villains and watering down of any amount of plot that could arise. 

Many in the IWC are praising TNA for pulling the trigger on their big heel turn, as Jeff Hardy is currently throwing away the fans' appreciation and has become the self-proclaimed "Antichrist of Professional Wrestling."

He's the new shining jewel of a massive jumble-stable known as Immortal, along with NWO mainstays Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff, TNA founder Jeff Jarrett, TNA homegrown star the "Monster with a Brain" Abyss and the previously individual stable Fortune (who can't seem to nail down a concrete spelling of their name or one single gang sign to get on board with), thus taking almost every major heel in the company (aside from Generation Me, Shore, and Knockouts Madison, Tara and Sarita) and grouping them together under one banner and mindset. 

Earlier, I spoke of intention and how to pick up on it.  Thanks to the story heavy ReACTION program following the past three Impact broadcasts, it's no secret that Bischoff intended to recapture the past that made WCW powerful. 

Creatively, the intention behind Immortal was to bring back the mega-heel-stable and overpowering effect a group like the New World Order had in professional wrestling.  The problem is two-fold:  1) the NWO was NOT a FACE stable...it was a heel stable that gathered a massive fanbase with repeatable catchphrases, logos emblazoned on t-shirts and tons of other merch, and not only a desire to take over wrestling, but to take over THE ENTIRE WORLD!  After three weeks of being together, Immortal still does not have any of those things.

In a related point, 2) with crowds in attendance at TNA that can't be more than maybe five or six hundred, TNA doesn't look powerful enough a force to warrant being threatened by such a massive group. 

It's like the US Military busting into the backyard area of my apartment unit and planting a flag on it.  And with many of their increased ages?  It's like a gang of 50 Vietnam vets rising up against the nurses at the old folks' home.

What exactly is Immortal taking over, really?  TNA Creative created a heel group that fans should want fought, but with so many members, and no real distinguishable leader per se, even if one person were to rise to fight them, they lack a specific/strong enough mouthpiece to argue with in Immortal.  

Furthermore, even if they had one, too many people in the group WANT to talk but aren't getting the chance to do so.  Hogan was a great mouthpiece for NWO, but so were Hall and Nash.  With Immortal being so big?  We might never hear AJ Styles talk ever again, and he's proven himself to be a fun guy to listen to.  Instead, last night, he's standing BEHIND Ric Flair.

A lot of talent is going to get seriously lost in the shuffle here, and all in favor of putting NWO version 20.4 and a heel Jeff Hardy over...

From a plot analysis perspective, creating a massively unstoppable power is fine...provided there's a power working against it, even a tiny little dot of light at the end of the tunnel, some little flame that can burst and erupt into an inferno.

In WWE, the Corporate Ministry had Stone Cold Steve Austin breathing down its neck and he was some intense power all on his own.  The NWO had Sting (at least, for a while). 

Currently in TNA, with Kevin Nash looking to be on his way out of the company (if he hasn't already left, who knows, if he's still under contract, maybe this angle will give him someplace to direct some new catchphrases), Anderson injured, The Pope and his Harlem hustler gimmick looking more like a depressed, downtrodden victim of the economy than a victim of bad booking decisions, and RVD and Samoa Joe pretty much on their egotistical lonesomes, who is there to fight this group?

EV2?  Here's the thing, numbers really only benefit heel stables, as they're more likely to pull the random "gang up."  EV2 is a face stable, no way around it, and their numbers are severely overpowered by Immortal...yes, even with Brian Kendrick.  I guess the only real hero to save TNA is Sting, and even if he's not done with TNA, quite frankly, he's done this before. 

It may have been briefly shocking for this all to go down at Bound For Glory, but by using ReACTION to give a shaky creative decision, at best, a deep-rooted, heartfelt explanation and motive, TNA is digging itself a rut.  A bad one.  A rut that's been walked dry by the same people who dug it more than 10 years ago.

Someone needs to inform these people of something crucial:  a one-trick pony draws crowds if their trick is absolutely astonishing.  If all a one-trick pony can do is something every other pony can do?  Something that another one-trick pony has already mastered?  People will toss a quarter into its water trough as they pass and forget they ever saw it.

In essence, conflict is the result of the drama equation, which is the culmination of three key variables: characters + circumstances + communication.  Apply this to any situation in life and you find the main pieces in what causes it to be dramatic. 

As I said above, simple gimmicks are going by the wayside, thus new characters need to be defined in much more precise ways. 

For instance, their theme song says a lot about them.  Sheamus, I've said before, has terrific theme music.  For a huge, pale, fire-haired Irishman to have a metallic jig that tells a mature tale of sin and death play as he enters, really accentuates his gruff attitude, his move set's grace contrasted against his size and power, and his unending desire for battle. 

Bryan's music seems to be going through a bit of a flux.  It started as, what he referred to as "generic rock," and is now the song that plays during an airshow, or when you watch the History Channel and they're talking about Fighters during World War II. 

I've heard people say that we should give it a chance, I've decided against that myself.  Ride of the Valkyries was a powerful song when it was first written, but it's been featured in a comical way in so many sitcoms, cartoons, and comedies, that I can't ever take that song seriously. 

Bryan wanted a strong, mature, old fashioned song, that's all fine and good.  But at least Kurt Angle's theme was a WWE original, one we hadn't heard before hearing it in WWE. 

A wrestler's look isn't always so easy to define, as many wrestling outfits are the same...either long tights, pads and boots...tighty briefs, pads and boots...apparently, if your last name is Rhodes, you don't have to wear pads and can sport the Tri-Force, I don't know how he got around copyrights for that. Cena does the jean shorts, which I also still wear in warm weather, though he doesn't do them quite as strongly as Austin once did.  Cena's really just come off as a remnant of his rapper gimmick. 

Circumstances can usually be defined by two things:  their prior-to-debut promos, a la Alberto Del Rio and MVP or, the choices they make once they arrive.

Some have gone the way of "I was told to make an impact," but that's proven a bit cliche.  Some ride the coattails of others with an immediate rivalry, but that approach can be really shaky ground if the new character either 1) can't hack it solo, without someone to rival, or 2) watch their personality gimmick change into something silly later on.  

Mickie James started by playing the role of Trish's stalker and really sold it perfectly!  Victoria started out as Trish's old rival from a life gone by.  Of course, once their rivalries with Stratus disappeared, their appeal dwindled...Mickie descended to mid-card, and is now in TNA to push even more homegrown Knockouts out of the spotlight.  Victoria started dancing to techno, shedding her individual look of spiderwebs and her psychotic attitude, and is also now in TNA.

Then again, the circumstances of some are obvious when they enter.  The original intention and destiny of the Undertaker character, being managed by Brother Love, may not have been to rise to power as the Lord of the Dark Side, but just by looking at him, even with the old school tight black shirt with the faux torn sleeves...everyone knew that's where his character was headed. 

Steve Williams' first steps on WWE soil may not have been as the middle finger waving, beer swilling, Texas redneck, but once Stone Cold Steve Austin was established...everyone knew what he wanted to accomplish, and whether he was stunning his tag team partner after winning a match or chugging a beer with Vince, he always did what his last few shirts said...Arrive, Raise Hell, Leave.

Then, there's communication.  Or the "Talk-the-Talk Challenge" as it is referred to on NXT.  A person, character, wrestler, anybody...can be, look, or exude just about anything they want.  But a big part of who they are is rooted in what, and how much, they say. 

Some characters really don't need to say a lot at all.  They can let their actions speak for them. 

Austin never needed to say much, he was called Stone Cold for a reason, however The Rock likely wouldn't have been half as popular if he didn't have a mic in his hand every two seconds. 

Some use their opportunities to speak to expand their character.  Like I pointed out with Alberto Del Rio's promos before he arrived, much of what I saw of him describing himself, I could shoot holes through.  I really saw a predictable character in him.  However, now that he's here, I love it when he gets to speak.  He's regal and genuine and nonverbals such as his smile aren't necessarily cocky in the same way others have been. 

JBL's smile looked incredibly fake.  Alberto's smile looks natural, one that he was born with.  Del Rio's accessories, like his original cars every time he enters, his personal Spanish ring announcer, his clothing style, all communicate a lot about him and make sense to his royal presence as a rich, powerful, educated man. 

His first impact upon arriving at Smackdown was to "put Mysterio down like a little chihuahua," and it was pretty big when he accomplished that goal.  Where his money and regal nature will take him from there, it's hard to say, but so far?  He's proving his claims true. He's an honest man that does what he says and that's hard to argue with.

Probably the most important aspect of conflict, that can't effectively appear in the equation, is timing.  An unexpected surprise can go a long way, but it needs to be one that gets explained quickly, and still have room to move. 

When the Hart Dynasty were placeholding the WWE Tag Team Titles, a pair of braided Samoans decimated them, double splashed them from the top ropes and seemed to be directed by a woman who was somehow familiar to us, but that we couldn't place.

Turns out, the pair of Samoans were Jimmy and Jey Uso, the twin sons of Rikishi, and the woman was Tamina, daughter of WWE legend Superfly Snuka. 

The three of them were the predominant polar opposites of the Hart Dynasty: two talented male in-ring competitors trained by either their elders or a famous training facility, flanked by a woman manager, trained by her elders as well, who also could go in-ring. 

They came out of absolutely nowhere, even the commentators playing up the fact that they didn't know the three right away.  The two teams must've feuded for all of a couple weeks, if even that long, and the Usos are barely ever seen on Raw anymore. 

Tamina made kissy faces at Santino and even jumped on top of him once or twice.  Now, after that nonsense, the Hart Dynasty, probably the Usos' best chance at making a considerable impact in WWE, is looking to be breaking up. 

The Usos' career in WWE started out exceptionally, their timing being fast, their pull being huge, and their cred through the roof!  The Hart Dynasty had barely been around for enough years to really warrant a sudden break-up receiving any kind of sadness whatsoever and their destruction is getting drawn out for far too long now. 

The Gatecrashers (Vance Archer & Curt Hawkins) broke up, too...I think a few people are disappointed by that.  I certainly am... 

In WWE, with the exception of the Kane/Undertaker feud that's really picked up some unexpected steam since Undertaker was attacked into a vegetative state, the potential for grand, long-lasting conflict has often been passed on in favor of the cheap pops. 

A heated rivalry that lasts six months or more, a rivalry that forces characters to wrestle outside their comfort zone, a rivalry that brings out the best AND worst in all/both parties involved, a rivalry that means more than simply chasing an accessory like a leather belt with some metal on it, it's becoming a dying art and that has to stop.

On the other side of the coin, we have TNA, that insists on furthering feuds like Foley vs. Flair, Sting vs. Hogan's camp (whoever that may be), rivalries that were once hot and heavy, but that have since cooled to the point of going completely cold. 

WWE has the power and money to be mediocre and try lame twists once in a while, but that seems to be in the process of changing. 

Eric Bischoff, like a leopard, has spots that can't change, as he doesn't seem to want out of one single groove, and it's going to put TNA out of business.  

Forget about merchandise sales and PPV buys; the best conflicts are ones that spend most of their time in the slow cooker, marinating and sending off waves of scent into the whole house, making everyone present salivate at what could be coming. 

Just when you think the conflict is ready to eat, you're told, "nope, those are just the side dishes, the entree isn't done yet."  Damn.  So you wait a little longer, hovering around the pot, even pulling off the lid to get a better smell.

And when you finally get your plate, it's exactly what you'd always dreamed of.


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