I watch a fair bit of pro-wrestling. I mean, I subscribe to the WWE network and mainline NXT like a junkie. I have, in the past, collected an obscene number of shoot interviews and Guest Booker DVDs. I have watched an awful lot of indie stuff, from time to time. I get irritated, occasionally, that you can no longer buy the DVD’s of Paul Heyman’s run booking Ohio Valley Wrestling in 2004, ’cause I couldn’t afford to ship them to Australia then, but could probably afford to do so now.
I like wrestling. And, because I like wrestling and it’s a form of storytelling, it is something I spend an awful lot of time trying to understand better and draw lessons from. Thinking about storytelling in wrestling is often a good way of learning something important about storytelling in prose, largely because it such a different form.
A few weeks ago I watched a shoot interview with veteran pro-wrestling booker Kevin Sullivan where he related a lesson he learned from one of his mentors. Basically, he’d write a television segment for someone that would be all about referencing Othello or The Book of Revelations, and it would be a good segment, but his mentor would take one look at it and ask this:
WHERE’S THE MONEY?
Pro-wrestling narrative is one of those things that is weirdly simple, yet complicated to execute. It’s predicated on a protagonist being denied by an antagonist, over and over. It’s predicated on making the audience want a certain thing, deny them that wanting, and keep that story going over and over until they’re willing to pay big money to see it finally happen.
The money is knowing the match you’re selling. It’s all about looking a month, or six months, or a year down the line and knowing that if you make the audience believe that Hulk Hogan is an iconic hero, and Andre the Giant is an undefeated giant who has never been defeated and is jealous of Hulk’s success, a lot of people will pay a lot of money to see whether the hero can actually pick up the undefeated Giant and slam him into the canvas.
The money is finally seeing Hulk do that, and in seeing him finally get his revenge of the jealous friend who betrayed him. Everything these two characters do for months ahead of that match is all about making that question important – making the audience simultaneously believe that Andre the Giant is unbeatable, but perhaps Hulk Hogan can actually do it.
This is true of every story. We read for the moment of epiphany at the end, when we see characters overcome the internal and external obstacles that have been built up over the course of the narrative. I know enough about structure that this is a thing I can ramble on about for hours, when teaching classes.
And yet, every time I sit down to write or a revise a story lately, the most useful thing I can do is picture Kevin Sullivan’s croaky voice rasping where is the money? What is it you’re going to do at the end of this that makes it worth the readers investment? What is the payoff that will make people think the whole thing was worthwhile?
Everything in the story should be secondary to that, but it’s easy to get distracted by the thing you’re doing in the moment rather than the thing you’re doing at the ending.
These days, a lot more of my editing and planning notes are predicated on answering questions about the story I plan on writing. Where is the money is now the first cab off the rank, before anything else gets answered.