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Storyline discourse: The differences between AEW and WWE stories

“AEW doesn’t tell stories!” is a narrative that has been pushed hard by some wrestling podcasters and their followers. They either don’t watch the product or just want to discredit everything AEW does simply because it's AEW. Although this claim is baseless, it got me thinking about the different approaches AEW and WWE has on stories and storytelling. So, let me throw my two cents into the storyline discourse.

Storytelling?

 

Pro wrestling being a make-believe sports contest has a story embedded in its structure. Wrestlers fight against each other because they want to win championships and be recognised as the best (this is why rankings are a great concept… anyway that’s a discussion for another time). But, as in real sports, additional story elements (eg, countless rivalries across sports,) allows some games to transcend a simple athletic contest, bringing more passion and emotional investment to those games. So, these extra stories, although not necessary, have an important role in pro wrestling, as they do in all other sports.

AEW and WWE are totally different in their approach to the medium of pro wrestling: from the presentation of the characters (AEW: more grounded, WWE: larger than life,) to the in ring action (self-explanatory,) to the structure of the show (AEW: primarily wrestling-based, WWE: primarily entertainment-based,) these differences bleed into the way both companies approach the way they tell stories.

Both AEW and WWE tell stories: to say otherwise is stupid. But they approach storytelling in fundamentally different ways. The obvious difference to anyone who actually watches the product is that WWE tells stories primarily through promos, in-ring segments and video packages, whereas AEW tells stories through wrestling matches and interview segments (even promos mostly start with someone like Tony Schiavone interviewing the talent). But beyond the obvious, there are more fundamental differences in where the focus lies in WWE and AEW when it comes to telling stories.

AEW tells stories through character arcs where a character goes from point A to point B and so forth. WWE tells stories through self-contained story arcs, where the ending of a story resets the characters to be put in another self-contained story arc. There might be call backs to previous history, but only when it serves the story not the character. So, in order to follow a story in AEW you have to follow the character motivation, whereas in WWE you just have to follow the story. In other words, stories in AEW are character-driven and in WWE characters are driven by the stories. Let me illustrate this with examples…

 

The Agony of Defeat

Danny Garcia is a young wrestler with immense potential. He has been labelled as a prodigy destined for great things by everyone who has come across his work. But the problem with the label prodigy is: it’ll start to weigh on you harder and harder the older you get. He feels he’s at the stage of his career where he has to fulfil his potential or be labelled a failure. So, every match he has with another wrestler, irrespective of any personal grudge, has a story running through it. Every match he loses, moves him towards failure, and every match he wins takes him closer to fulfilling his potential and leaving his mark on the industry.


You HANDED him the chair, Roman!

Now, let’s look at “the story” from WWE: The Bloodline saga.  It was the most character-focused story WWE has told in a long while. Especially when Sami Zayn was the focus of it (but Sami and KO are probably among the best ever at maintaining character consistency and motivation). Even the character-focused Bloodline saga had a simple (and repetitive) story throughline of a babyface challenger rising to face the heel champ and failing through interference or some other shenanigans. The character dynamics and motivations were mostly contained within the Bloodline, while the challengers had the usual reset as soon as the feud was over. The visual of all the wrestlers wronged by the bloodline (plus the Undertaker) having an “Avengers assemble” moment to take them out was cool, and serves the story…but not the individual characters. The characters will simply go back to doing whatever they were doing before, (if anything, as in the case of drop-in legends.)

 

Character-arc based storytelling has enabled AEW to tell modern stories with complex characters, and to pioneering territories never before explored in mainstream pro wrestling: from Hangman’s insecurities, to Darby’s nihilism, to Eddie overcoming his demons.  This approach makes the characters in AEW feel more human, helped by the grounded presentation. The characters make mistakes and learn from them resulting in stories with complex emotions. Hangman costing Young Bucks a shot at the tag team titles, for example, is not the sort of thing we can expect from WWE unless he were turning heel.


What a tease

WWE’s self contained story arc style simplifies the characters and their emotions. This results in WWE telling the classic moral fable style stories of good versus evil. The larger than life presentation of the characters also helps enhance these classic stories. But this approach restricts them to telling stories about personal grudges and not explore any complex emotions and motivations. The virtual monopoly (shameless plug here) WWE had over the industry made people (those who are not exposed to other forms of pro wrestling) believe that storyline-based storytelling over personal grudges are the only way to tell stories in pro wrestling. (Although it has to be acknowledged, a compelling grudge feud does make for great television.)


Is HOOK in disguise? (Can we blame him?)

Chris Jericho is an example of someone who does self-contained story arc driven storytelling in AEW with far less or seemingly non-existent character consistency. The reception his segments have been getting are a big clue that AEW fans don’t really want WWE-style storytelling in AEW, and that doing a more WWE style of storytelling may not be the way for AEW to grow its audience. In my considered opinion, AEW should stay the course and continue leaning into being the alternative to WWE for those fans who want something different, and continue telling the best character-driven stories they can.

We can all have a preference for one style of storytelling over the other, I know I do. Having a preference is perfectly valid. But to claim AEW doesn’t tell stories is either being ignorant or lying. Feel free to agree or disagree.


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