Suspension of disbelief is a fundamental element in any form of storytelling. Whether it is a childhood trip around Dublin a la Joyce or time-space continuum glitches like anything Borges has offered, the story has to be skillfully narrated to lure the audience into believing that the whole of it, every element considered, is possible, probable and plausible.
Likewise, if the narrative is expected to function appropriately, the audience should be willing to accept the elements within the story even if those clash with the reality in which it exists, as long as such elements are consistent and coherent.
All of the above considered, wrestling fans must wonder: Are wrestling promotions (promoters, wrestlers, bookers and, in some cases, writers) good storytellers? Has Pro Wrestling (an institution, an entity) been rightfully used as a storytelling device?
This article marks the beginning of what will hopefully be a prolific series of texts which sole purpose will be discussing storytelling elements within pro wrestling, namely coherence and consistency in characters and storylines, and how inconsistencies or “authorized liberties” might affect the overall product, whether positively or negatively.
For purposes of brevity, the term “realism” will be used to encapsulate the conditions for an ideal narrative described in the opening paragraph.
I’ll do my best to employ varied scenarios to exemplify the issue at hand, but, for the most part, because of its accessibility, WWE shall serve as the main source of angles and storylines for this series of texts.
I encourage (the small portion of) readers, for the sake of article enrichment and wrestling erudition, to provide other examples and cases besides those included in the piece.
Conflict is the prime element in all narratives. Stories exist when two or more forces collide with one another. The basic pro wrestling storyline handles conflict in the simplest form: two persons at odds, mostly because they’re competitive athletes fighting for the right to be called “The Best." Personal issues can be added into the panorama to build a more complex, compelling and intense storyline, which in turn garners more interest in the audience.
If the feud is promising, it will extend for months, with fire and rage increasing with each new chapter added. Great feuds will climax in a definitive final showdown, which often involves a gimmick (street fight, ladders, a cage, etc.) or stipulation (“luchas de apuestas”).
Most dramas will hold onto a specific conflict (or set on conflicts) and stop narrating after it is solved. Unlike those, pro wrestling has to build a seemingly endless chain of conflicts in which every link is a direct or indirect product of a past one. As WWE put it, “our season never ends."
Unless pro wrestling promotions mean to insult their fans’ intelligence and memory, meticulously keeping track of events is a must. Yet that’s not always the case, especially when we talk about how wrestlers feel (kayfabe) about each other.
When Shawn Michaels was announced as the special guest referee for New Year’s Revolution 2005’s elimination chamber match, none of its six participants were thrilled by the decision. Fans knew HBK had been embroiled in strong feuds with all of them. A backstage segment at WrestleMania XXVII depicted The Rock coming face to face once more with Stone Cold Steve Austin. The atmosphere was tense and the words exchanged were cold, to say the least. Even though there’s respect between both men, they are well aware of what they’ve done to each other in years past.
English speakers call that rancorous remembrance of past events “holding grudges," a prominent phenomenon in pro wrestling. Grudges are used, among other things, to spark new life into old feuds or create skepticism when creating an alliance between two former enemies.
Yet sometimes the mechanism is not used appropriately or becomes totally irrelevant for storyline purposes.
Shawn Michaels and Triple H had one of the most tremendous feuds of the past 10 years. It all started in the summer of 2002, when Triple H tricked Shawn into a fake DX reunion just to plant his face on the canvas with a Pedigree. From there after, both men confessed that their friendship was purely built on interest (Shawn used Hunter to stay on top and Hunter used Shawn to reach the top) and proceeded to compete in several brutal matches which saw them bathed in a mixture of each other's blood. The feud officially ended when Triple H beat Shawn Michaels inside Hell in a Cell, almost two years after the feud had originally started.
In 2006, Shawn Michaels and Triple H reformed Degeneration-X to battle The McMahons and Co. They forgot about all the brutality that had taken place in years prior. Triple H sort of overlooked the fact that in January of that same year, at the Royal Rumble, he tried to pedigree HBK to protect Shane McMahon. More important still, The Showstopper suddenly forgot that his former best friend’s original betrayal used a DX reformation to lure him into the trap.
You might also remember Randy Orton’s hug to special guest referee John Cena after his successful title defense against Wade Barrett at Survivor Series 2010. At the moment, both men were branded as faces—no big deal. But consider they had a strong rivalry a year earlier, highlighted by a 60-minute Iron Man match in which Orton almost killed Cena using pyrotechnics.
A year passed, and they hug.
CM Punk’s case is similar. After Summerslam 2011, he was embroiled in intense confrontations against authority figures in WWE, most notably Triple H. Come October, he was teaming with the COO himself to take the (not so) menacing threat of The Awesome Truth.
What happened? Which was the catalyst that led to such monumental changes in mentality?
The moves were evidently made to fit storyline purposes. The HBK/HHH and Orton/Cena scenarios just happened because it was convenient for the storyteller to force them.
It could be argued that in the Punk/Triple H case, former enemies opted to create an alliance against a common threat. The device has been used in other realms (comic books, TV series, movies, etc.) with success. For the most part, the common enemy is a very powerful entity, dangerous enough for the formerly opposing parties to consider coalition. The NWO and Invasion angles might serve as good examples of enemies unified by hate towards a bigger enemy.
But what happens after the threat is finally defeated? When the truce has expired, enemies will act as such once more. The anomaly has been eradicated, so the natural order of things is reestablished; cats and dogs hate each other again. Though the event will hold its place in the fictional universe’s history, it shall stand as an extraordinary circumstance, outweighed by a tumultuous past filled with conflict.
Hence the grudge will stand…unless the opposite serves narrative purposes. If needed, the narrator will find a way to justify a lengthy (or permanent) alliance between former enemies. It will be done, most probably, through an occurrence with enough relevance to produce change within characters.
Wrestling promotions don’t always play by such rules. As shown above, WWE is notable for their tendency to overlook past events to fit whatever storyline is taking place at the moment. They’re well aware of it and showed it in a backstage promo four years ago.
Triple H’s statement, although true, evidences a mentality founded on short-term goals and immediate satisfaction, a characteristic which seems present in several of WWE’s high-ranking officials.
There are exceptions within WWE and the business as a whole, but the sort of storytelling at which pro wrestling aims cannot rely on such cheap tricks. Nonetheless, most fans are willing to stretch their suspension of disbelief a bit more, overlooking incoherence and inconsistency. Wrestling promotions and fans won’t mind at all about historical congruency if there’s an opportunity to promote huge marquee matches.
As a fan, I don’t mind much either, but it makes me wonder: Where should the line be drawn? When is it OK to forget about good, congruent storytelling for the sake of dream matches and/or teams? Which situations justify the lack of realism in pro wrestling?