So You Want To: Be A Booker
So you want to book some wrestling matches? Okay; however, you should consider that good wrestling booking is a skill set that is both rare and extremely difficult to implement. More have failed at it than succeeded
. However, there are some basic rules to consider when working as a booker.
The Golden Rule
You are selling a product.
The fans give you money for this product. If the fans are not interested in your product, they will not give you money. Without their money, you are out of a job. Therefore, your first and only responsibility is to the fans. Not your family; not your shareholders; not anyone else. This is because only the fans give money to you. Failure to follow this rule will result in a failure of your business.
- Never let your own ego get in the way of business. This is seemingly the hardest thing for bookers to do, and it is the thing which damages wrestling most of all. Vince McMahon squandered millions and millions of dollars on the Invasion angle because he could not accept that a rival promotion could be as good as his. His ego cost him millions; if he had put ego and pride aside, the Invasion would have rolled on for years, making him money hand over fist. It cannot be overstated how much of a license to print money that angle was. The lesson is a stark one: put your own ego first and you will pay for it.
- Never punish wrestlers for Real Life misdemeanours by depushing, burying, or otherwise harming their Kayfabe characters. Your wrestlers are your business. If you damage their credibility through a series of protracted losses, you aren't harming them - you're harming your own business, because you have just told the fans that this wrestler cannot be taken seriously. To harm a wrestler's aura is to harm the business. Be a professional; do what actual businesses do; have a disciplinary process. Take the wrestler off-television, dock their pay. Have a legally airtight code of conduct that states in black and white what is expected of your employees so they know. Have a set of clearly defined boundaries that you will not allow to be crossed. You know, like a real business. Wrestling needs to leave its carnival days behind it, and march into the modern era.
- Celebrities should be used carefully; never pay more than they can bring, and remember your core business. This is the difference between William Shatner and Bob Barker producing two of the best guest-host gigs of 2009, and countless other "celebs" using the show simply to shill their latest project. It's all in how they relate to the wrestling.
- Wrestlers should be treated well, and should have a solid say about matters relating to their health, jobs and well-being (but never booking decisions; see Employee Relations, rule #3).
- Wrestling leads to horrible injuries as limbs and bodies wear out. Give your wrestlers ample injury time off; let them return to their position on the card when they come back. Creating this kind of a positive working environment is good for the wrestlers' performances and the fans. See The Golden Rule.
- As a further thought, if you're in the United States, you really should pay your workers' health-care benefits if you can afford it; keeping them healthy keeps your product healthy. Lose them, and you lose a skill set that is not easy to replace. WWE does not provide its employees with health insurance, claiming they are independent contractors. Learn from their mistake.
- Remember that while cool spots are great for the fans to watch, they should be balanced with their effect on your performers' bodies. A leading theory behind Chris Benoit's behavior during his family's tragic incident is the fact that he had suffered repeated concussions from years of diving headbutts and German suplexes. The NFL has been learning to take brain damage more seriously, with examinations after every serious hit and they compete wearing state-of-the-art helmets and protective gear! None but the most ruthless fans would rather see an extra couple feet of elevation on the latest broken table spot du jour than a slightly less impressive, but much more dangerous maneuver.
- A special caveat is in order for promoters of Garbage Wrestling. By its very nature, hardcore-style matches are very dangerous to compete in, even if everything goes right. Smaller independent promotions use hardcore matches to display the kind of ultra-violence that would never be seen on nationally televised shows, which builds them a niche, but also paints them into a corner and does little to truly set apart their talent; it doesn't take an impressive physique or a great deal of training to be smashed with a florescent light bulb, after all. Before deciding to book these kind of matches, take special care to weigh the risks and benefits to not only your performers, but to the reputation of your promotion.
- Steroids and drugs are bad. This really cannot be stressed enough in a business where entire locker rooms could probably fail a drug test at any given time. It's gotten so bad that a cursory glance at the list of wrestlers who've died in the last twenty years or so shows that a wrestler who began his career after 1995 has a life expectancy of about 39. Drugs are the single biggest threat to the wrestling business and need to be taken seriously. Anyone caught using is a liability at best, and a danger at worst. People will always want to see steroidal physiques, but superior in-ring action and mic work will compensate. To the claim that audiences only want to see steroidal physiques, there is an argument to be made that if more "normal" physiques are made the norm, there would be no demand for the 'roid freaks. If you disagree with this rule, there are only two names that need mentioning: Nancy and Daniel Benoit.
- It is worth noting here that Benoit's problems were much exacerbated by brain damage caused by his diving headbutts from the top turnbuckle and chairshots to the back of the head. One neurologist described his brain as the brain of a 85-year-old man with Alzheimer's. Know what he could have used? Better and more thorough health care to catch the warning signs of drug and bodily abuse before they lead to catastrophic damage; see Rule #5 above.
- The majority of wrestling should be simple, one-on-one or tag-team matches with no interference; Face vs. Heel. This is the basic product you are selling, and it’s what the audience wants. One stipulation can be a good thing — a steel cage match instead of a regular match can drum up business — and the capper to a truly well-crafted feud. When you have a Contract-On-a-Pole, Two Out of Three Falls, lumberjack match contested in a steel cage under a time limit, it gets ridiculous. The more swerves, gimmicks, run-ins, etc. you add to a match, the more confusing it becomes. A confused audience is a bored audience, and a bored audience does not come back. Therefore, you lose fans, and more than that, you lose money.
- Clearly observe your wrestlers, and make a note of their strengths and weaknesses. Play to your wrestlers’ strengths, and hide their weaknesses. Learn who you've got working for you and don't just throw opponents together. This was something that was done particularly well in ECW. Playing to your wrestlers' strengths can be the difference between Malenko vs. Guerrero (a feud of two completely evenly-matched technical wrestlers, widely regarded as one of the best sets of matches ECW ever produced) and Big Show vs. Batista (a WCW giant and a WWE power-face, neither of which were known for their technical skill, booked as the "best" in ECW).
- Let the fans' reaction be your guide. The crowd decides who is a face or heel better than any booker. If they cheer a wrestler, he’s a face. If they boo him, he’s a heel. It is almost impossible to make a crowd like a heel (not Love to Hate, there is a difference) or boo a face (X-Pac Heat nonwithstanding). Bookings should be made according to crowd reactions.
- A notable example of this being done right is the Honky Tonk Man. He had an Elvis Impersonator gimmick that was originally supposed to get him over as a face but the fans hated it and booed him. Rather than keep booking him as a face and trying to force the fans to accept him as such, the WWF turned Honky heel. The Honky Tonk Man went on to become one of the greatest heels in the history of the promotion.
- A small appendix to this: Don't confuse loving a wrestler with loving to hate them. This was a mistake Vince McMahon made during Shawn Michaels' 90's career. The crowd had became so enamoured with Shawn's cocky, over the top antics that Vince decided to turn him Face. Of course, this meant losing his heel antics, and thus losing the very thing that was making him popular at the time.
- All belts are equally valid. All belts are important. They are your main MacGuffin for angles and plots. As a result, a belt is as important as the champ who carries it says it is. Never forget this. Therefore, no wrestler should ever insult a belt; a belt brings characters prestige and respect. Insulting a belt insults your organization. Remember this if you choose to pursue stories where a heel insults a belt; that heel must be publicly destroyed — booked into oblivion — or else you have admitted that the belt (and by extension your company) is worthless.
- All storylines and feuds must be logical; wrestlers must have a simple, clear and easily understood reason to be fighting. The reason must be one over which members of the audience would fight, since there is only so far their Willing Suspension of Disbelief can be stretched.
- Logical reasons are either over the belt, a believable grudge, a test of excellence (Technician Vs Performer, or two of the best going at it), or a combination of any of the three. Logical reasons do not include behavior that doesn't occur in real life: e.g., fighting over the rights to the name “T,” as Booker T once did.
- Grudges should be simple to understand, and related to either previous matches, a personality clash or another character (valet, manager, etc…)
- If two wrestlers do not have a logical reason to fight, it is the bookers’ duty to create one.
- Where possible, storylines and angles should be respectful and tasteful. Shock storylines lose their power if they happen every week. Say the word “fuck” once, and it’s a powerful phrase. Say it 1,000 times, and it’s just a meaningless sound. Teach your audience to expect a largely similar product each week; make them feel safe, secure, comfortable... then blow them out of the water with a logically-plotted event (extra emphasis on "logically-plotted" — poorly-thought-out shocking swerves are what torpedoed WCW) that they'll never see coming.
- All inter-character relationships must be logical, and established inter-character relationships must be maintained. If characters are friends, they must stay friends, unless a story event witnessed by fans clearly denotes that the nature of the relationship has changed. Likewise for enemies. Unless there is a plot event that makes wrestlers friends, or turns them enemies, they remain simply indifferent rivals. The Heel-Face Revolving Door, in this business, is a disaster. It confuses casual fans and irritates long-time fans.
- Match stipulations should always be honored. If a wrestler or the company can’t keep the stipulation, then it simply shouldn’t be made in the first place. Every match stipulation you ignore insults your audience on a very personal level, and proves your company to be untrustworthy — as well as to prove those employees involved are liars. People (and therefore fans) resent being lied to. As a result, stipulations should only be broken due to exceptional outside circumstances (that is, something happens in the Real World that means the stipulation cannot be honored). There should NEVER, EVER be a broken stipulation otherwise. Clearly demarcated boundaries help sustain your integrity without letting the stipulation ruin the possibility of future business.
- Certain stipulations may be worded in such a way that things can be re-set later (e.g: a hair vs. hair match in which the loser stays bald for a year) and fan resentment can be avoided.
- If the worst happens and a stipulation must be broken, this counts as a swerve, and should be the main plot event of a given card. If you're going to include them, give them the respect they deserve. Remember, every stipulation you break loses you credibility and thus, in the long run, fans. Every lost fan is lost income. Therefore, every broken stipulation is lost income.
- Of special consideration are Retirement Matches. Retirement stipulations have been broken so often that fans have now been conditioned to regard it as a Discredited Trope. Terry Funk's "retirement" is a joke that was old in 1999, and Ric Flair's return after his "retirement" clearly demonstrated that no matter how perfect the send-off, no matter how appropriate, no matter how emotional, it won't stick. Why not? Unless you're prepared to support them afterwards, wrestlers have to earn money somehow. We'll say it again: no wrestling promoter has yet invested in a sound retirement plan for their workers. Unless you're 100% certain that your wrestler isn't going to be performing anywhere afterward, don't use the retirement angle; it's always a lie.
- Character relationships exist to further angles. Angles exist to give the fans emotional investment in matches. Matches exist to make the promotion money. Therefore, character relationships should never be ignored, and should always be logical. Illogical relationships and foolish stories drive fans and therefore business, away.
- Heels vs. Faces.
- Faces should win the majority of the time. Fans want to see the wrestlers they like victorious, and the want to see the wrestlers they hate get their comeuppance. A heel having the upper hand for most of a feud is fine, so long as there's a payoff to the fans in the end. If you decide to have the heel win his feud for whatever reason, there are two important things you should do.
- First, do not have the face dominated by the heel in their final match. Your face will look weak when he finally loses, and it makes the heel come off as more of a bully and less of an actual threat. Don't have the heel dominated by the face either; if the face is just going to be pinned after the heel hits his finisher out of nowhere, then your face will have his credibility damaged as well. Make the wrestlers appear evenly matched, so that the fans will walk away with the impression that it honestly could have gone either way and that if the heel had been a second slower or the face a second quicker, the result would have been different.
- Second, if your fans truly hate the heel, seeing him victorious and celebrating will make them unhappy. Don't let them stay unhappy for long; as soon as the heel gets his hard-fought victory, have another face show up and let everybody know his intentions to take down the heel. Preferably a face who is perceived to be tougher than the one the heel has been feuding with all this time. This will give your fans something to look forward to. Just make sure that their patience is eventually rewarded.
- Monster pushes (of either heels or faces) are perfectly acceptable. The monster character should be fed a steady diet of jobbers to destroy; avoid having the monster fight main-eventers anywhere except PPV main events. A monster should be fed mid-carders at PPV before main-eventers. Failure to do so will result in the angle hot-shotting. Mid-carders due to lose to the monster character should be pushed hard for a while before their loss to the monster, which will help the monster establish credibility. The monster’s loss must be used to elevate a character - it is a serious thing to take down a monster.
- Squash matches are perfectly acceptable. Someone has to look at the lights. Be wary of using squash matches too often, though; they're predictable. Use them as the tool they are -– they elevate those wrestlers you want to be main-eventers or mid-carders.
- Hardcore matches should be used sparingly. Beyond overplaying a gimmick, hardcore matches can destroy the bodies of those involved; just ask Mick Foley, or look at the gravestones of Chris Benoit and his wife and son. Another danger is the increasingly dangerous stunts people will pull to get reactions out of a desensitized crowd. Use them as a blow-off to a bloody feud and promote the hell out of them so your wrestlers won't feel like they're sacrificing a lot for nothing. More harmless stunts like table bumps or blading can be used more frequently. Unprotected hits to the head and New Jack-esque falls should never, ever be used, fans care about the wrestlers, and watching them get crippled will shock and scare away all but the most
bloodthirsty extreme fans.
- When ordering the card, the opening match and main event are always the two most important segments. The opener gets your crowd pumped and sets the bar for the quality of matches they can expect to see. If your opening match is weak, the expectation is that the rest of the card will be too. The main event is what closes out the night and showcases your best performers; you want to finish on a high note. In between, you can utilize other highs and lows (squash matches, promos, mid-card matches, grudge matches, comedy), but the overall feel of the show should be consistent.
- If you're gonna book yourself as an evil owner, at least try to look like you have money. Unless you're booking the Welfare Wrestling Federation, waddling into the ring in Crocs shoes and sweatpants makes you look like a hobo. This goes a long way toward helping your company's image and maintaining kayfabe.
- Regardless of how you book any kayfabe 'General Manager' character (Big Bad 'Evil Owner', a Big Good face, a Reasonable Authority Figure, an Obstructive Bureaucrat or a simple Mission Control), keep an Author's Saving Throw in hand by setting up a character who has more kayfabe power than the day to day GM. This can range from the owner of the company, someone who represents the 'Network' if you are televised, or even yourself if you prefer to stay backstage. This should be used extremely rarely and for the most part only when Real Life Writes the Plot. Example: If you book a long Womens title feud involving your best female wrestlers, your heel Dark Action Girl and the face Cute Bruiser, and the women come to you and say they want to work a ladder match, you say fine, the GM announces it and promotes it, only for one of them to get legit injured bad enough that they can't do any of the ladder spots, but not badly enough to stop the match, you use the Author's Saving Throw to turn it into another type of match like a Hair vs Hair match.
- Wrestling and circuses have a lot in common. Some people go to the circus to see the acrobats; some go to see the animal acts; some to see the freakshows; and some for the clowns. Similarly, some people watch wrestling for the high-flyers; some for the technical wrestlers; some for the giants and bodybuilders; some for the talkers; some for the comedy acts; and some for the storylines. Every single wrestler is somebody's favorite. Make sure that somebody gets their money's worth by making them seem as important as possible. Give them ample mic time to get their characters over, and storylines to rope people in. Stories outside the main event may need to be kept simple in the name of efficiency, but never let this be an excuse to neglect them completely.
- In regards to wrestler input into the booking process:
- Wrestlers should have broad creative control of their character’s look, moveset and performance, but note, this is not the same as letting them book their own matches. You are the one who should ultimately be deciding who goes over, not them. Take advantage of their knowledge and save yourself the work.
- Never give your wrestlers too much control over their own matches, but always, always, always be willing to listen if they come to you with ideas on how to put someone else over. Despite the views of old school wrestlers and promoters, superstardom is not a zero-sum game. The happiest problem a promoter could have is having too many talented, charismatic athletes in his employ. Just because fans cheer loudly for one guy does not mean they won't cheer just as loudly for someone else. Encourage this type of thinking and go out of your way to reward selflessness. Get your wrestlers out of the mindset of asking, "What can I do to help myself?" but "What can I do to help the company?". If the company does well, then everyone wins.
- Wrestlers who have charisma and other talents, but only Five Moves of Doom should be booked in matches where this lack of working ability should be obfuscated. For example, John Cena should not be booked to throw punches. The Big Show should not be booked against a high-flyer, unless the point of the match is for Big Show to throw the high-flyer around and nothing else.
- Wrestlers who routinely stink up the ring and draw X-Pac Heat without making any effort to improve should be dropped without consideration. No matter who they are, or who they are friends with. Your business will be better for it.
- Related to the above topic, backstage politickers are the death of your business. Nothing will destroy morale and work ethic like politics backstage. Find out who the politickers are, and then find reasons to fire them. If you cannot fire them for legal reasons, then book them into oblivion; if they have no marquee value, then they have no power over you at all. If the wrestler is a drawing name and they leave you for the competition, fair enough: let them eat your opponent up from the inside. As the booker, you have personal responsibility for defining how much politics exists. Make it as low as possible, preferably zero. Good locker room morale means wrestlers who are happy to work for you, which lead to better performances, pleased fans, and more money.
- As is true in any organization, wrestling or otherwise, politics in the workplace come into play when some workers believe (or want others to believe) that they know more than everyone else and want to spread that around. Open and honest communication is the key to curbing these tendencies. Many of WCW's backstage problems were caused by secretive angles between a handful of people meant to fool other wrestlers backstage just as much as the fans, which caused trust in management to plummet. A tight lid should be kept on some angles if surprise value is a key component, but otherwise everyone should have an idea what's going on with the company.
- In regards to your non-main-eventers, who are usually the first to be mistreated:
- Treat your jobbers well. Their self-sacrifice is the cornerstone of your business, and without them looking at the lights, your main-eventer will never get over. They are brave men, willing to sell their own glory to create yours; you, your performers, and your company owe them everything.
- Guard your mid-card workers. Remember, their purpose is to establish the credibility of your top-card performers. As a result, they get to beat jobbers, and their losses should generally be protected, to ensure they can continue to build future top-stars. They should never descend to the level of jobbers. Your mid-carders should be those talented workers whose mic skills are essentially non-existent, or those who can talk a good fight, but not wrestle.
- As a side note, every main-eventer was a mid-carder once. Pay attention to the mid-carders who get a reaction from the crowd: those are the guys you push.
- Don't have wrestlers break kayfabe under any circumstances. The same goes for you; don't ever create a storyline based on real-life events if that story would contradict a previously established narrative. This is for the same reason that halfway through Blade, Wesley Snipes doesn't stop using his silly rusty voice. It breaks the Willing Suspension of Disbelief a story needs to work! Worked shoots have almost never made big money. Nobody wants to see it; the casual fans will be horribly confused, and the smarks, the only guys who would actually be able to follow what is going on, would really rather you drop the nonsense and just put people in the ring anyway. It makes no money, and serves no purpose other than damaging your credibility with the fans. This is wrestling, not UFC. While there's no need to insist that wrestlers maintain kayfabe outside of the job, as was done for much of professional wrestling's history, the fact that almost everybody knows it's a work in no way means you should call attention to the fictional nature of your storylines. Everything that happens inside the arena and/or on camera should be treated as if it were completely real.
- The Internet Wrestling Community will complain about everything you do. This is acceptable and their complaints are to be largely ignored. After all, it is impossible to please everybody, and unless ratings, buyrates, and live attendance plummet then there is no reason to believe you are doing a lousy job. There are a lot of people writing about wrestling in the internet, and each of them has completely different tastes — the only things they share in common are that they are loud and opinionated. You will piss somebody off. Accept this.
- Now, having given you that caveat, it is also worth remembering the Wisdom Of Crowds — many fans want to contribute to your business being successful (that's part and parcel of being a fan!), so do not ignore them entirely. Instead, if you can afford it, have an office they can contact (preferably via email) with suggestions and feedback. Legally speaking, soliciting creative ideas from people outside the organization is a bad idea, and you should never actually use a fan's idea wholesale as part of your show (unless you like courtrooms and being forced to pay royalties, anyway), but keeping up on this, and noticing general trends in the messages received, can help you determine which storylines are working and which wrestlers are getting over. Plus, having a point of contact for fans to write to goes a long way to improving public relations, and helps you avoid looking like Real Life Heels in the process.
- Always remember that wherever the internet is concerned, there will always be leaks. Unless you take absurd lengths to keep everyone in the dark about your booking plans except for the wrestlers involved, and only for their own matches, you have to expect that someone, be it a performer, referee, security guard, or ring crew member will be willing to sell out the day's planned events to some website or other just for the notoriety value. In a perfect world, it would be nice if spoilers could be kept under wraps, but it is not your responsibility to take draconian measures to make it so. As long as fans are willing to scour the web for the latest dirt, someone will be willing to provide it. In the end, they're only ruining the experience for themselves. Do not book plans at the last minute or engineer a Shocking Swerve just to blindside this one sub-group. They being who they are, there's a better than even chance they'll catch wind of it anyway, and the product will be damaged for the vast majority of your fans, who are now watching something that doesn't match thematic sense because of the haphazard change.
- If the crowd reacts to a rivalry, it should be milked further. Failure to do so loses fan interest. If the fans are not interested in a rivalry, it must be dropped. Failure to do so will bore fans and lose fan interest, besides the fact that there's nothing fans hate more than being force-fed a rivalry they don't care about week after week. It's generally a cue for changing the channel.
- Women can wrestle, so take advantage of this. Lingerie matches and their ilk insult 51% of the population, which are also 51% of your sales. Don't make the mistake of thinking your demographic is entirely men. Remember rule one — you're here to sell a product to the fans. If you hire good female wrestlers, and then book them like proper wrestlers, the fans will treat them like proper wrestlers. More than that, most fans want to see good female wrestlers and support them. Sexism and misogyny limits your audience. If you want to throw that money away, you have no business booking matches at all.
- Finally, a booker should cultivate interests outside of wrestling, specifically mainstream interests that have nothing to do with wrestling or other Rated M for Manly pursuits. If you become too obsessive about wrestling, you will be unable to see the forest for the trees, and your booking skills will decline. You will become convinced that certain actions are completely the right ones to take, simply because you lack the perspective. In the same way that you must be ruthlessly honest about your workers' abilities, you must be honest with yourself about your own. Both arrogance and excessive humility lead to errors of judgment. Just try to see the truth (and don't rely on others to provide it; have trusted advisors — preferably ones with no conflicts of interest regarding storylines — but always follow your own vision). It is your job to be enthusiastic, but not blinkered, and it's very easy to get lost in the minutiae of a thing. Ultimately, and as with so much in life, everything in moderation.
- And as Vince McMahon has also taught us, just because you have interests outside of wrestling does not mean you should try to use your wrestling business-savvy to try and become say, a football or a bodybuilding promoter. Stick to what you do best, and maybe hire other people to run your attempts at branching out.
- To add to this, try to keep up on what's popular with your target demographic at the moment. Use this as fodder for storylines and characters, and to determine which celebrities might draw attention to your product (but always make sure they will actually contribute to your core business; see Business Ethics, rule #3). For example, if pirates happen to be popular at the moment, try packaging a wrestler in a tongue-in-cheek pirate gimmick; if they can get the character over, it will draw attention immediately, and if they really make it their own, it will remain over long after the fad has passed (see The Undertaker).