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Narrative cohesion, or why last Friday's SmackDown was so good

Pro Wrestling

Narrative cohesion, or why last Friday’s SmackDown was so good

Last week’s SmackDown was a wrestling anomaly: a show with a full, self-contained narrative arc.

I normally put on the main roster WWE shows while I cook, clean, or take care of my kid. There are always so many disconnected and disjointed bits that if a feud or plot comes up I’m uninterested in I can easily go back to doing a chore and not paying too much attention. That’s how last Friday’s (11/1/2019) SmackDown began for me, but that quickly changed. It was by far the most compelling episode of either Raw or SmackDown all year.

There were a couple reasons for this — there were new combinations and matchups of people that we haven’t seen interact before. It also set up for what is a more promising Survivor Series this year, as there seems to be actual character motivation behind the brands fighting, at least for NXT. These things aside, however, I want to discuss what I believe helped to elevated Friday’s SmackDown to the height it reached, and that is the narrative structure of the episode itself.

Most wrestling shows are vignettes of different plots. You have a five minute promo and a 15 minute fight for one particular feud, and then a ten minute promo and a 20 minute match for another feud. And so on.  There usually is not a consistent theme, plot, or through-line that connects the feuds in any way, shape or form. On occasion, you will see one or two feuds cross paths for an episode or two. These crossover feuds are usually in the form of a tag match, however, there is no natural storytelling to these match pairings (by that, I mean the characters didn’t decide they wanted this match, it was just booked), add nothing to the feuds themselves and almost always add no heat to either feud — they’re pure filler.

Narrative cohesion, or why last Friday's SmackDown was so good
Oh boy, who remembers this match right before HIAC and the crazy way it impacted both feuds? Because I sure don’t.

Often a feud or some other plot will have multiple segments leading up to the final confrontation as the main event throughout the episode, but this can hardly be called a through line any more than the commercials reoccurring during the episode can be called a through line. For there to be a truly cohesive plot it needs to thread through other plot points and leave its mark.

So what exactly did Friday’s SmackDown do in terms of narration to make it so engaging? Well, honestly, it simply followed basic tenants of storytelling. SmackDown began as it almost always does, with someone coming out and declaring they were very angry about something or other. But during the first match we had an initial problem, introducing the conflict; an NXT star has come and attacked a SmackDown star.

Next we confirmed that yes, this is what was happening with Keith Lee and Matt Riddle popping up to confront Sami Zayn. SmackDown had established the conflict clearly. And so we continued the show wondering just who else was going to be confronted by NXT stars. As the night went on we had rising tension of other SmackDown stars losing their matches against NXT stars and being attacked backstage by them. The show’s arc reached a climax in the final match between Adam Cole and Daniel Bryan, the resolution being that NXT had prevailed.

Narrative cohesion, or why last Friday's SmackDown was so good
Bryan challenging Adam Cole, thus creating an actually interesting main event and thus an interesting climax to last week’s plot.

It is a very basic plot structure, nothing complicated whatsoever. And yet, compare last Friday’s SmackDown with any other episode of the show this year. Instead of being able to recall one or two basic details from the one or two plot points from the vignette that is a wrestling show, one could easily describe the episode in full.

This is not to say that the plot of NXT and Survivor Series is only in this one episode — of course it will play out until the PPV. But it is possible to have a smaller, yet complete narrative arch within a larger story. And honestly, that should be used more in professional wrestling. A common plot which runs throughout a single episode is a way to set an episode apart, to invest people in more than the one or two plots that they are currently care about.

Unfortunately, we have a perfect example of this being tried and failed — we need look no further than just three days later on Raw. Just like on SmackDown, NXT invaded again. This time however, it didn’t actually feel like NXT was invading. They were not running in and attacking from any place they could. They were not forcing their way into matches. The segments they were in didn’t seem like they were trying to actively attack or invade anyone. And unlike SmackDown, there was no cohesion to the episode with the theme being “invasion.”

So, if you allow me to fantasy book for just a second, here is how I would have added onto Raw this week to make NXT more prevalent and make the show more engaging with a structured story like we had on Friday. First off, keep the Seth/HHH stuff and the Becky/Baszler promo. Now, the Kabuki Warriors finish up their match leading to Tegan Nox and Dakota Kai attacking them as retribution for losing last week. Later, Lio Rush attacks both Andrade and Sin Cara, trying to prove he’s the best at the cruiserweight/lucha style.

Narrative cohesion, or why last Friday's SmackDown was so good
If NXT is invading, why dont these two try to get some revenge on the Kabuki Warriors?

For the Lashley segment you have someone, doesn’t matter too much who, (let’s say Cameron Grimes) run in, yell that this is all drama is petty and stupid because he’s here to actually wrestle. He goes to attack the nearest person possible, Lashley pauses for a second, puts him away without any trouble, then picks up with his promo without missing a beat.

Finally after the Vikings get through with their odd squash match, the Undisputed Era’s tag team attacks, but at this point Raw is ready and runs in for the Vikings, beating the Era off easily. The main event follows now with a lot of Raw people surrounding the ring and slowly more NXT people trickle in until its even and then the brawl breaks out.

This imaginary booking I believe would have the same rising tension and interesting dynamic SmackDown had instead of having a few isolated segments which were disconnected from the main storylines of the night. It had gone back to feeling as if there was an actual story and characters being affected by that immediate threat of an invasion, to simply the invasion just being another set of scenes in a vignette of unconnected scenes.

SmackDown this Friday was excellent because instead of a collage of segments that had no distinguishable theme, it was an actual story. I am not advocating for this to become the norm, but I think having some overarching plot that underlines all the matches for the evening or some other way for the matches to feel less isolated and more of a cohesive whole is what wrestling needs.

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