Dark Secrets of WWE: From the Writer’s Room to the Ring

From the writer’s room on the fourth floor of WWE’s headquarters to the board room and finally to the ring, here is an inside behind-the-scenes look at the beast known as World Wrestling Entertainment.

Dark Secrets of WWE - Triple H and Vince McMahon at Gorilla Position
Triple H and Vince McMahon at Gorilla Position

What goes on behind the scenes at WWE?

What is professional wrestling? Without a well-written story, it’s just two adults fighting each other in scanty clothing. With a great story, though, wrestling is nothing short of magnificent. It’s an art just like music, movies, or any other television show. Wrestlers are actors who have diverse personalities and play the part exceptionally well.

There is so much going on behind the scenes — much more than just a few moves, a finish, and a winner to each match. One of the first things people learn is that everything that plays out on camera in wrestling is predetermined, with storylines being composed like a play written for a broad audience.

Have you ever gone to the theaters in anticipation of a movie and been utterly disappointed because it was not written well? The same could be said for a wrestling match.

For the most part, trained professional wrestlers can call the action on the fly, with the talent calling what moves and scenarios will generate the best reaction from the crowd. Interviews are produced in a similar style.

Today, WWE is an entirely different animal. A televised wrestling match is now designed backstage with the help of agents and former wrestlers who have a knack for in-ring psychology. There is a team on the fourth floor of WWE Headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, that produce carefully written scripts for the talent.

"We have a whole department, a creative writing department. We have more than 20 writers at this particular time," said WWE Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative Paul Levesque (aka legendary WWE superstar "Triple H") in a 2015 interview with Bleacher Report. "They come from everywhere from soap operas to late-night television to movies to theater to former wrestlers. Storytelling is storytelling. Some of them are fans and have a wrestling background. Others don’t. They might be good at the relationship part, and somebody else must help them bring it back to the ring. … It’s a staggering job. The thing is it’s never-ending. It’s not just they write Monday Night Raw. They write about 10-15 hours on any given week of original content."

"Being part of WWE creative is a job that requires both extensive creativity and graceful willingness to meet changes head-on. A brand-new week begins Wednesday after Monday Night Raw and SmackDown has aired, with several meetings to brainstorm ideas for the next week. The rocky ideas are presented to the lead writing team and senior brass, including WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon in a large conference room."

For the main event angles, top talents like Daniel Bryan get the opportunity to put their own personal touch to the mix. While he’d normally share his opinions with road agents assigned to his matches, working with main event talent like Triple H eliminates a step in the process.

"When I’m working with Triple H, it’s easy," Bryan admits. "I just tell Triple H what I think. He’s very smart as far as what works. If he’s bringing you something, it’s usually a pretty good idea."

"He’s got years of experience working with these top-level, high-level storylines. My brain doesn’t work like that. I was on the independent scene so long, I think, in terms of matches. ‘Oh, this would be a great concept for a match, or this would be a great story within the context of a match.’… And sometimes we might not necessarily agree, and we’d go and talk to Vince."

Once the talent has been able to personalize their story, the creative has one last chance to perfect the finished project. Nothing is finished until it hits the air on the USA (and soon to be Fox) Network in front of an average of two-and-a-half to three million viewers a week.

"The last call is Vince," Triple H said. "He gets all these suggestions and ideas, and he weighs in on them. It’s a collaborative effort, but there’s one general. And that guy makes the last call. There’s never an open-ended debate between four people about what should happen on the shows. … At some point, it gets to Vince, and Vince goes, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ And that’s what we go do."

Dark Secrets of WWE - Long-time WWE referee, Charles Robinson
Long-time WWE referee, Charles Robinson

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What is the role of the referee in wrestling?

The referees of a match carry the most underrated role. Without a ref assisting a match, things certainly wouldn’t go down as smoothly. One area referees help within is the match’s pace and what goes into the match.

When wrestlers are separated during the match or down on the ground, a referee will communicate to each wrestler what action comes next. Often, one wrestler will communicate something to the other wrestler through the referee.

Periodically, fans may see the referees talking to the wrestlers. This may be after a wrestler dishes out a low blow or just doesn’t follow the rules of the ring. While it may look as though the ref is issuing a stern reminder of the rules, frequently, this is an opportunity to tell the wrestlers what moves to perform next or to end a match early if they are going long.

Opponents rehearse beforehand to produce an entertaining match for the audience, as well as to avoid injuring one other. Some moves are even choreographed as they go. However, particularly in longer matches, wrestlers can’t recognize a fully choreographed routine that will cause the fans to want more. When the ref is in the precise position, they will aid by communicating to them what moves to perform that will inspire WWE fans to rise to their feet.

When dangerous bumps occur, referees will subtly check if the opponents are okay. Next time you watch a dangerous move take place in or outside of the ring, observe how the referee will grab the hand of the wrestler who is down. If the superstar squeezes the ref’s hand, it is a way of letting them know they are okay. Things like this may not be that obvious because the camera crew does a great job of offsetting this by changing angles or focusing on the other opponent.

Vince allows the officials the right to end a match barring a severe injury at their discretion. Periodically, information is relayed by the back from the stage manager who has Vince in their ear. This info is then passed onto the ref, who decides what to do next.

We’ve witnessed countless examples of this. For instance, during a match against the Vaudevillians at WWE’s 2016 Payback pay-per-view, Enzo Amore sustained a head injury during the match. Knowing he was out cold after checking, the referee immediately threw up the "X" sign calling for the bell and ended the match. The company has taken great steps in ensuring extreme caution when it comes to an injury of a superstar, particularly if it relates to a concussion.

Long before the show begins and long after, referees play a huge role in setting up and breaking down the ring.

What role does the WWE stage manager have?

It’s quite remarkable how much it takes to put on a WWE program every week. WWE hires many employees to make sure each telecast runs smoothly. Those employed include Tom Stewart, the camera operator, Nicholas Daw, the ring manager, Jet Prickett, the stage manager, and AJ Patterson, who is responsible for the lighting.

How are finishes of wrestling matches determined?

The outcomes are predetermined, but the real flow of the match is typically committed up to the wrestlers’ discretion. Specific high spots performed will more often than not be worked out between the wrestlers ahead of time, but the significant moves leading up to big moments in the match remains primarily a matter of in-ring improvisation.

Dark Secrets of WWE - Vince McMahon interview with Bob Costas
Vince McMahon, pictured here from the heated interview he had with Bob Costas in 2001

While many fans suspected it, many of this wasn’t known until 1989. Vince McMahon, chairman, and CEO of WWE, pulled back the curtain in 1989 when he admitted wrestling wasn’t a genuinely competitive sport to keep from paying taxes in certain states. So, winners and losers are determined before the competitors even hit the ring, and punches are pulled, and kicks aren’t necessarily as vicious as they’re portrayed. But many of the moves are still high-impact, and there’s a tremendous amount of athleticism that’s required to succeed in what’s now called "sports entertainment."

So, if wrestling is predetermined (or "fake," as many ignorantly refer to it as), why do so many still love it?

For as long as we have been fans of professional wrestling, we have been asked the same question repeatedly. "Why do you watch wrestling? You know it’s fake, right?" "Of course, we know it’s fake, but does that make it any less entertaining?" Absolutely not.

Wrestling is entertainment at its very best. It has all aspects of almost every other entertainment medium. Action, drama, humor, infidelity, love stories, betrayal, overcoming adversity, facing tough obstacles, pain, mental and physical, joy, happiness, and family issues are just some aspects of pro wrestling that make it entertaining.

To anyone who says the WWE is "fake," our response has always been, what shows do you watch that are "real"? Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Friends, and The Simpsons are some of the most successful shows of all time. Are they real? No. Are they entertaining? Yes.

There is nothing like professional wrestling. The storylines are (mostly) written to perfection, and the wrestlers tell a beautiful story inside the ring. Next time you’re watching wrestling and the hairs on your arms rise, and an overwhelming emotion takes over, that truly special moment occurred as a result of an idea spawned either in a writer’s room, a board room, or a conversation between two adversaries in the back.

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Christopher King is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories as well as a writer for BodySlam.net, Pro Wrestling Post, and Cultured Vultures.