Wrestling with the Three-Act Structure

Jeff Hardy performing a low dropkick on Umaga....
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Recently I’ve been reading a lot about story structure, particularly the three-act structure. There’s been a lot of discussion about story structure on various blogs lately (hell, I even talked about it), but one thing I kept hearing about was how that stories are all structured the same way, that any meaningful story has a three-act structure, blah blah blah.

I didn’t believe it. I was like “Yeah, whatever, there are some (non-interactive) methods of storytelling that don’t follow the three-act structure, totally.”

This past weekend, I watched Wrestlemania XXVI with a few friends. It was the first Wrestlemania in four years that I hadn’t seen live, but I always look forward to it. It’s often the resolution to a lot of the stories that have been going on since January.

And wouldn’t you fucking know it — those stories tended to follow the three-act structure.

Before I dive in, let’s clear up some terminology for those readers who aren’t fans of professional wrestling.

  • Angle: A wrestling storyline.
  • Over: A storyline that is popular (such as “getting over with the fans”).
  • Face: Short for “babyface,” the “good guy” in an angle.
  • Heel: The “bad guy” in an angle.

From the viewpoint of narrative structure, the face is the protagonist, and the heel is the antagonist. Certain angles aren’t as clear-cut on who is the protagonist or antagonist (or even who is the face and who is the heel), but then again some stories aren’t clear on that line either (just look at movies like The Usual Suspects). Generally, however, wrestling storylines tend to follow a common pattern.

First, the heel and the face have some reason to have conflict beyond a particular match. Originally this was because these two particular wrestlers faced each other frequently to unsatisfying results, or because the heel cheated the face out of a certain opportunity, but these days it can as elaborate as attacking your opponent in his hospital bed or as simple as spilling a cup of coffee on your opponent. Looking at story structures, I’m seeing things like the “setup” or the “inciting incident,” but it all means the same thing — we have to know who these people are, the context they’re in, and why there’s conflict. 1 This is all pretty much Act I.

Because this is a conflict about professional wrestling, that conflict often takes place in the ring, and a match of some kind is arranged — this is the first part of Act II, or plot point one. During this match, something doesn’t go right during that match — usually the heel cheats or robs the face of victory in some way, but it might also be that the heel is unsatisfied with the face’s victory.

The opponent wants to raise the stakes, leading to the escalation of Act II. This often happens outside the ring — one of the characters might attack the other backstage or during an interview — but can also take place in side matches, such as the face wrestling against one of the heel’s friends or the face and heel being on opposite sides of a tag-team match. 2 This leads to a second match, which has another unsatisfying resolution. That’s the second part of Act II, or plot point two. There are a few possible outcomes for the end of Act II, but usually it’s either the face has been dealing with insurmountable odds during the angle and losing matches, or the heel and the face have each had a decisive victory, and both sides want to know who is the ultimate winner.

Then there’s more lead-up to a final, resolving match, the climax of Act III. This is usually a match with stipulations, a match that involves a championship belt, or both.

Now, here’s where it gets weird. Unlike traditional stories, the events don’t stop. These wrestlers are still around, and in the same context. If a particular angle is really over, the writers might want to prolong the feud, ultimately trying to recreate Act III over and over again (which is what happened to some extent between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant). Sometimes the wrestlers won’t face each other for months or years, but when they confront each other again, the previous shared history can act as the “Act I” for the new angle (such as what happened between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels over Wrestlemania XXV and XXVI). 3

But it’s not always due to angle popularity. A particular terrible angle might be scrubbed with little to no payoff. Personal conflicts might get in the way between performers, causing the angle to get too personal (and diluting the narrative structure). Injuries can prematurely end an angle, or at least postpone it until the injured party returns to the ring. Plus, with at least eight hours of professional wrestling available on television each week, writers and performers aren’t going to always stick with the traditional structure.

Sometimes there will be intentional swerves4 introduced into the story, so that the audience isn’t lulled into following the obvious angle. Once in a while, this works effectively to increase the suspense and tension, but  in retrospect this usually means making what appears to be an Act III match really an extension of the Act II build-up.

Which is where a lot of the problems in angle pacing comes from — it’s hard to have an effective denouement. In most stories, you know when it’s about to wrap up — the book’s almost done, the movie’s been running for about ninety minutes, or the slider bar on your computer video is close to the end. In wrestling, it’s never really over unless something happens to one of the performers (injury, retirement, a change in federation, or even death). Where one story ends and another begins is often hard to pick up on, but if you look back at the most effective angles in wrestling, many times you can find that beginning, middle, and end.

And that’s pretty cool.

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  1. Usually the first two are taken care of before the angle even begins, leaving the angle start revolving just around the reason for the conflict.
  2. This is also when the conflict takes on multiple layers. Now the opponents are trying to get inside each other’s heads, or use a variety of psychological tactics to get an advantage. But in the end, all of the layers of conflict lead in some way or fashion back to the physical conflict in the wrestling ring.
  3. The struggles of providing satisfying stories with a common cast in a relatively unchanging environment is shared with another narrative art form — soap operas. The fact that wrestling is often called a “male soap opera” is very apt on a narrative level.
  4. “A sudden change in the direction of a storyline to surprise the fans,” according to Wikipedia.