As with most storytelling in the Western world, we begin with the three-act structure.
This ties into our most basic and essential understanding of stories — they should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Bare as it may seem as a framework, it’s still useful in understanding and critiquing professional wrestling matches. Pro wrestling matches are a medium of storytelling in their own right, so it’s only natural that it would borrow storytelling conventions from other mediums.
Luckily, there’s even pro wrestling terminology that utilizes that three-act framework already. In wrestling, we have the early babyface shine that leads into the heel heat and all capped off with a final comeback before the finish. Certain match types and styles fit this description better than others.
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I find that the shine-heat-comeback descriptors work best for North American TV wrestling, especially starting around the 1980s TV golden era wrestling up to the mid-90s or so. Learning to see its inner workings can be really easy, actually. One just needs to find any well-regarded TV tag match from the 80s or a whole myriad of Hulk Hogan title matches to get a clear picture of it.
I’d say that shine-heat-comeback also works well when talking about a lot of classic lucha libre. That’s helped by most lucha libre matches being contested under two out of three falls rules which only makes the delineation between segments even clearer than in a one fall match. Watching any number of classic lucha trios matches or major title matches will help one develop a better understanding of three-act structure in pro wrestling.
Beyond Three Acts
Of course, the three-act framework isn’t a perfect model. A lot of matches won’t fit neatly into that particular mold. The longer a match gets, for example, the likelier it is to have a slightly more complex structure the closer one examines it.
In this case, I find that the most useful thing to pay attention to is the control. Which wrestler has the advantage at any given time and what are they doing to dictate the match? Keeping an eye for who’s in control of any given segment of time is greatly important for myself as a critic because it’s important to answering the question at the heart of any athletic contest: who’s winning?
It’s important to me that a match remain dynamic even as one person controls a particular segment. Just because one wrestler is in charge doesn’t mean the action has to be devoid of excitement or struggle. In this sense, a variety of offense, or a continuous struggle from the person working from underneath does a lot to add flavor to any control segment. Barring that, really strong selling from the person being worked over or engaging and fun crowd work from the one in control also help quite a bit.
Just as important as identifying each segment of control, however, is identifying the transition points between them. Transitions from one competitor’s control to the other is a large source of tension and drama in any match.
In the message board circles I often frequented in my teen years, a wrestler’s ability to create compelling and interesting transitions was one of the key markers of quality that many hardcore fans looked for. I still recall the textbook example a forum poster once gave of what might call a lazy transition. They referred to the old cliché of a worker being in the corner of the ring and getting their boot up to cut off their charging opponent’s momentum before going back on offense as a tired way of transitioning between control segments.
While I think that getting a boot up isn’t an immediately bad way to cut off another wrestler’s momentum — especially in a more back and forth setting where one wrestler struggles to get a sustained advantage — it’s a nice shorthand to illustrate the idea of a less than ideal transition.
In general, the effort put behind a transition should feel proportionate to the length and effectiveness of the preceding control segment. There’s many ways to achieve this, two of my favorites being either by attrition or by cunning. A great babyface like Kenta Kobashi might grit his teeth through a barrage of offense and fight back tooth and nail with strikes and suplexes of his own until he’s back on top. Conversely, a wily heel like Adam Priest might use a combination of ring placement, cheating, and leverage manipulation to get the better of an opponent. Finding the ways that wrestlers seize control of a match often reveals much about their abilities and philosophies as workers.
Transitions can also be seemingly random or accidental within the story of the match though. AEW’s done a great job this year of incorporating this style of momentum shift into their in-ring narratives. Dax Harwood’s shoulder giving out on him at Forbidden Door, Bryan Danielson knocking himself loopy on a missile dropkick, Punk re-injuring his bad foot — all are strong examples of transitions in matches that aren’t tied to an opponent seizing victory but a bad twist of fate being dealt instead.
Not every style of wrestling has the same approach to transitions though. I’ve made mention of this before but both joshi and lucha have a much more free-flowing approach to structure as compared to North American wrestling or men’s heavyweight wrestling in Japan. This isn’t a flaw of either style whatsoever, simply a different approach. One doesn’t really find rigidly defined control segments so much as the advantage shifts fluidly between competitors.
The Little things
These are some of the broader aspects I look to when discussing the structure of the match. There are some important micro elements that are worth spotting. The important thematic and plot elements that workers infuse their matches with are key to discussing how well a match comes together as a whole.
An easy example to illustrate this is limb work. A commitment to limb work isn’t necessary to create a great match but done right, it’s a great way to see how the plot elements of a match can contribute to the whole. Consistent limb selling creates a strong sense of consequence in a match — things that happen early matter in the later stages. Again, this isn’t the only way to use limb work, but it’s just an easy way to start looking closer for elements at play within a match.
Structure in wrestling can also be used to impart broader themes about the participants involved. Take something like the 1992 Dream Rush title match between Bull Nakano and Aja Kong. Although we see limb work, but not all that much long term selling, everything still fits well because of the broader narrative being told by the match—that Bull Nakano is being surpassed at long last by someone better and stronger. As such the match is structured around all of Nakano’s offense and control being shrugged off and surpassed by Aja until the latter finally wins the match.
What Does Structure Mean?
In terms of how I write about structure, I often couch it in terms of clarity. Some matches have very clear and defined segments while others are a little more abstract. Structure can also be talked about as either tight or loose. Tighter matches have very well-defined narrative progression where every action feels purposeful to the overall match, whereas looser matches don’t really have those clear throughlines. These are neutral terms. Tighter matches aren’t always necessarily better, and looser matches aren’t automatically bad, but I’ve found that they’re very important qualities to identify and discuss when I write about matches.
Really, what it comes down to is recognizing that matches are constructs created by the workers within (as well as whichever agent or producer helped them in the back). Breaking the whole down into smaller elements makes it easier to talk about and pick apart.
None of this is about boxing matches into neat categories and forms. Rather, it’s more about developing an awareness of the choices wrestlers make, and how those affect the larger narrative around them.