The Five: Everything I Need to Know about Storytelling I Learned From Professional Wrestling

Anthony R. Miller checks in to ruin any credibility he had as a writer.

Hey you guys, In keeping with Septembers theme of “Breaking the Rules”, and following up on my “Tips for Doing Reasonably Well” I have one more installment of rules I actually follow. Which I suppose is my clever way of breaking the rules. Now I make no secret of my passion for the Art of Professional Wrestling, I have long considered it theatre at its base, undistilled if you will. One thing that most fans can agree on is that feats of athleticism are great and all, but when Pro Wrestling is truly great, it is because of its adherence to strong storytelling. So along with Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing or Stephen King’s On Writing, being a lifelong fan of pro wrestling has taught me some important rules in compelling story telling, and wouldn’t you know it, there are five.

DISCLAIMER: I am still not famous, so these shouldn’t be seen as rules that will make wildly successful, but they do work for me.

Black Hat/ White Hat

Even in a world of grey area and anti-heroes, it comes down to one basic principle; there is a good guy and a bad guy. Call it Protagonist / Antagonist or Babyface / Heel, but there’s the character you feel compelled to root for and there’s the jerk who keeps messing it up. The good guy is not seen as such just because he smiles or says things that make us cheer, he is supported by just how awful the bad guy is. Sometimes we want the good guy to win simply because the bad guy does such awful things; we are invested in him getting what he deserves. The good guy is simply a representation of what we want to see most in the world: justice.

Why Did You Do That?

Sure, we know Johnny Skullcrusher is going to bust out his steel chair at some point. But what makes that moment exciting is when and why he does it. While it is in the nature of the bad guy to cheat at some point, it comes at a time when he is afraid he will lose. It should be seen as an act of desperation. Because of that act the bad guy is seen as a cheat, or a coward. So, like in any story, there is a reason for the character’s actions. A series of moves with no real motivation is the same as a series of events that are not connected to each other. It is the difference between “This happened AND THEN this happened AND THEN this happened” and “This happened, BECAUSE OF THAT, this happened.”

Pacing, Pacing, Pacing

Like any good story, you can’t just have action, action, action. The same goes for an exciting match. There can’t be just spectacular moment after spectacular moment. There has to be peaks and valleys. Sometimes you slow things down to build tension, sometimes you speed them up to create excitement. Great matches, like great stories place major events at just the right time, and they take the time to build up to those major events.

Winning is Better When You Think They’re Going to Lose

I’m a sucker for a good underdog story, and if your story is told well, I am emotionally invested in the good guy getting what he wanted. In the case of pro wrestling, it is a victory for a championship or it is to settle a grudge. This make the moments leading to his victory pivotal. This might be the moment when our villain has seemingly overpowered our hero. And then, our hero digs deep and pushes himself harder than he ever has and fights back at the last moment to get his victory. But the weight and emotion of his moment of victory are dictated by two questions; did we want him to win and was there a moment when we truly thought he wouldn’t win? Everyone likes a happy ending, but it still needs to be earned. Victory is so much sweeter when we truly believe if just for a moment, it’s not going to happen. Equally, a loss is more upsetting when you truly believe everything is going to work out.

The Only Thing They Remember is the Last Thing They See

Also known as “Stick Your Landing”. End strong, the final moment of your story and the emotion it carries is what your audience takes with them as they walk into the lobby. Were there a few botched moves? Sure. But these moments can be forgiven with a strong impactful ending. Maybe it’s our battered hero, almost unable to stand, hoisting the belt above his head. Maybe our hero only wins because he has turned to villainy. Whether your ending is happy or sad, it should have emotional intention. Does it make me feel happy? Do I feel excited? Do I feel emotionally exhausted? Whatever the feels may be, the ending has to make me feel them. A great ending in pro wrestling is like any story, we’ve gone somewhere with the character, we have experienced things along with them. Everything is just a buildup to the end, where we feel the triumph or the tragedy. Now there are bad feelings too, like bored, or relieved it’s over, or dissatisfied. No matter the medium, those feelings are the result of weak storytelling. A great ending should be something we feel along with our hero.

Anthony R. Miller is a writer, producer and wrestling nerd. His play “Sexy Vampire Academy” will get its first reading in October, learn more at www.awesometheatre.org. His other play “Christian Teen Dolphin-Sex Beach Party will be read as part of the San Francisco Olympians festival in November.

Working Title: In Bruges, In Purgatory, In The Pillowman

This Week Will Leschber will writes in only violence and expletives…

Sometimes you just need the dark. Growing up American tinges lives with a cutting, optimistic edge. This is not a value judgment. This is not a universal truism. And this is hardly a new revelation. Plenty of my friends would not describe themselves as optimistic yet there is a undercurrent of Manifest Destiny that informs the fabric of who we are. We have come to expect happy endings. We see ourselves as the good guys and believe that to be true. What strikes me these days is not this aspect of our collective identity but moreso the way it pervades our outlook. Specifically, this train of thought is a recognition of a tug that often pulls on the way we creatively tell stories or expect stories to be told. When we’ve had our fill of comfort and familiarity, an abrasive and unexpected story may be just what is required.

A story that uproots blind optimism can be supremely refreshing. Martin McDonagh, the acclaimed Irish playwright seems like a tonic to cure stories with bows and happy endings. Yet, even with his happy ending averted…or inverted, McDonagh retains a moral optimism in all of his vulgar and violent tales. This may simply come down to the characters finally lying in the beds that they’ve made.

(l-r.) Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell star in Martin McDonagh's IN BRUGES, a Focus Features release.

(l-r.) Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell star in Martin McDonagh’s IN BRUGES, a Focus Features release.

Now, I’m more familiar with his film work and yet I’ve been told I’ve been really missing out by not experiencing his distinct voice in Theatre. Well if you are like me and need to bath in the absurdly, hilarious darkness of a Martin McDonagh play, now’s your chance. On June 12th, The Breadbox, a company in residence at the EXIT Theatre, opens The Pillowman directed by Ariel Craft. To wet your whistle for a proper cinematic and theater pairing, I reached out to Justin Gillman who is one of the lead actors in this new production.

Justin had this to say: “There are very few individuals in cinema who can match Martin McDonagh’s sickly beautiful and uncomfortably hilarious world-view, that is so brilliantly on display in his masterpiece, “The Pillowman.” I see glimpses of it in the works of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. But, if you really want an idea of what you’re in for when you come see McDonagh’s play, look no further than his own recent writing/directing effort, 2008’s Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay, “In Bruges,” starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. The film, about two Irish hitmen in hiding, has the same signature mixture of horror and hilarity that makes “The Pillowman” so grueling yet so captivating.”

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I can’t speak for The Pillowman, which I’m dying to see, but I can say that In Bruges is such a refreshing knockout-punch of obscenity, potent violence, serenely boring beauty, unexpected hilarity and genuine feeling. How McDonagh weaves such a balanced hypnotic net with such deranged and estranged parts, I’ll never know. But I do know that I love this film. Mcdonagh’s second film effort, Seven Psychopaths, while not quite as fully realize as In Bruges is still a captivating treatise on violence and the way we spin our lives into the stories we tell. I hear all these threads twist and turn within The Pillowman. Even with it’s rippling tragic core, In Bruges seems to tie up exactly as it should. It’s the definition of dark and satisfying.