A few weeks ago, I watched a movie that involved a man and a woman reluctantly paired up on a quest, and my immediate thought was “Yes, this is what I like,” but then I couldn’t think of that many others — and I realized I’d worked on a book that was essentially this, but I did it wrong.
So, since it’s my firm belief that if it’s worth analyzing, it’s worth overanalyzing, I went back and watched the movies I could think of that seemed to fit the trope (and realized that a couple I thought fit the trope actually didn’t and I was remembering them wrong).
It was a little eerie seeing just how well all these things fell into a pattern. And so, I present the stages of the fantasy romantic journey. I’m drawing upon Stardust (the movie, though I plan to reread the book to see how it works), Anastasia (animated version), Tangled, Frozen, plus that The Crown and the Dragon movie that kicked off this musing. Spoilers for all of the above below (though I am trying to avoid giving away the actual endings).
1) The Deal — character A needs to get somewhere and needs character B to do so (or will need character B at the destination). Character B isn’t keen on the idea, but character A has something character B needs, and so a deal is struck.
For instance, in Stardust, Tristan needs to bring the woman he (thinks he) loves the fallen star, who happens to be Yvaine. Yvaine has no interest in being brought as a prize, but Tristan has a Babylon candle that can return her to her place in the sky, so she reluctantly agrees to go with him. Or in Anastasia, Dmitri needs a girl who can pose as the lost grand duchess so he can take her to Paris and collect the reward. Anya needs to get out of Russia and to Paris to follow the only clue she has to find her family. They make a deal to help each other.
2) Bickering — they may have struck a deal, but at least one person still isn’t happy to be there as they set out on the journey. The two people generally have very different worldviews and different ideas about how things should be done. One person may be able to see past the other’s facade and figure out exactly what’s going on with them, which doesn’t go over well. Or person B, who doesn’t want to be on this trip, tries to talk person A out of it. All of this results in conflict and bickering.
Rapunzel refuses to return Flynn Rider’s satchel unless he takes her to see the lanterns, so he tries to scare her out of facing the outside world so he doesn’t have to take the trip. In Frozen, Kristoff criticizes Anna for getting engaged to someone she met that day and says she doesn’t know anything about love. Tristan and Yvaine are on different schedules, and he doesn’t grasp why a star would want to sleep during the day. Meanwhile, she needles him about the idiocy of giving a captive woman as a gift to try to win someone’s love.
3) Attack — Their first encounter with the enemy or with the forces against them. They have a narrow escape, either by teaming up or by one of them taking a risk to save the other.
Tristan and Yvaine are caught by the witch who wants Yvaine’s heart to restore her youth and power, Rapunzel and Flynn are chased by the guards, Kristoff and Anna are set upon by wolves, the train Anya and Dmitri are on is sabotaged.
4) Bonding — In the aftermath of their narrow escape (possibly starting during it), the two start to overcome their differences. They see each other in a new way after seeing each other in action. There’s some vulnerability as they open up to each other.
This is where Flynn confesses that his real name is Eugene and he’s a nobody orphan who created the persona of Flynn Rider while Rapunzel reveals her magic powers to heal his wound. Yvaine gently tells Tristan that she doesn’t think he should have to do great deeds to earn someone’s love.
5) Resuming the Journey — Once they’ve rested and recovered, they continue on their way, now functioning as a team instead of bickering. There may be some element of training going on, either them learning from each other or one or both of them getting instruction from someone else.
During this phase, we get The Dance. Yeah, that’s a weirdly specific thing that doesn’t seem to fit, but there always seems to be a scene involving dancing around this point. I don’t make the rules. I just observe them.
Tristan and Yvaine dance on the deck of the sky ship, Dmitri and Anya dance on the deck of the ship taking them to France. Rapunzel and Eugene are part of a big group dance at the festival, Kristoff and Anna are surrounded by dancing trolls, and the main characters in The Crown and the Dragon spend an evening at the castle of an old friend of his, where there’s a celebration going on and they end up dancing. She realizes her feelings when she gets jealous about him dancing with someone else, and then they have a moment while dancing together.
In most of these cases, the dance is part of a larger community rather than a totally private moment and is when someone else notices that there’s something going on between them, even if they’re not ready to admit it yet.
6) Departure — At or near the end of the journey, one character leaves or seems to leave the other character. Generally, it’s either a case of not getting in the other character’s way because that person is a princess/the chosen one/promised to another/has some greater role to play. Or it may be that person needing to wrap up some unfinished business from their old life before committing to a new life with their traveling companion. Sometimes, the person who left gets captured, so it looks like they abandoned the other person.
So, we have Kristoff dropping Anna off with the hope that her fiancé Hans can save her with a true love’s kiss, Dmitri skipping out because he’s realized Anya really is the lost princess and can’t be with someone like him, Tristan ducking out to ditch Victoria before being with Yvaine for good, and Flynn handing the stolen crown over to his partners in crime before giving up the life of “Flynn Rider,” only to be captured and imprisoned.
7) Return for the Final Battle — The character who left has a change of heart or realizes the danger the other person is in and returns, just in time to join the fight against the enemy, or at least help make victory possible.
One thing I found interesting is that the Attack is generally the midpoint of the story, even though it’s fairly early in the sequence. That’s because if you slot these stages into the hero’s journey format, the Deal comes during the “Tests, Enemies, and Allies” part of the hero’s journey. The hero has already been seen in the Ordinary World, has had the Call to Adventure and Refusal of the Call, has met with the Mentor and has Crossed the First Threshold before running into person B as the first ally they meet. There’s also a pretty lengthy prologue giving the backstory in all these movies. It’s in the book of Stardust, too, but that’s Neil Gaiman. I’m not sure most novelists would be able to get away with taking that long to get to the meat of the action. Then again, that may be me thinking in romance terms, where you want the hero and heroine to meet as soon as possible. If things are happening and there’s conflict, you may be able to delay the part where they team up for the journey.
The Attack equates to the Ordeal in the hero’s journey, and the Bonding is the Reward segment. The rest matches up pretty well to the hero’s journey, with the departure/return equating to the Resurrection.
For more action, you can repeat the Attack/Bond/Resume the Journey sequence a couple of times (maybe more in a long book), escalating each time. Frozen has Anna and Kristoff fending off the wolf attack before resuming the journey as a team, then escaping from the snow monster before having a moment of awareness before he takes her to meet his “family” and they’re surrounded by the dancing trolls who think they belong together. Anastasia has Dmitri and Anya escaping the train disaster, then her accepting his teaching before they dance together and have a moment, and then Rasputin tries to lure her into jumping overboard, but Dmitri saves her, and then they go on to Paris together (and are out on the town with dancing).
There’s no consistent pattern in which person — A, the one who wants the journey, or B, the one “hired” for it — is the one to depart and return, though it does always seem to be the guy who leaves and comes back. The departure and return may be part of that character’s arc, but isn’t always the main character’s symbolic death/resurrection. For instance, Rapunzel is the main character of Tangled, the one who gets the call to adventure and crosses the threshold, etc., but it’s Flynn/Eugene who literally becomes a different person as a result of her influence as he drops his fake persona and goes back to his real name. Unless, I suppose, you flip the story (and ignore that this is a Disney Princess movie) and consider Flynn to be the true protagonist, with his opening theft his “ordinary world” and his call to adventure being her request to take her to see the lights.
The pattern also seems to fit the road trip romantic comedies like It Happened One Night or Leap Year, but instead of an Attack, they have some sort of travel disaster, and the Departure/Return thing seems to be a back and forth between the characters, with the guy doing the initial departure at the end of the journey, since the journey has been about reuniting her with the person she loves, so he completes the journey and walks away, but then at the end she’s the one who realizes she’s with the wrong person and comes back to the guy she traveled with. I bet Romancing the Stone fits, too.
And now I need to figure out how to use this in the story I’m playing with. You’d think that having this structure would make it easier, but in a way it makes it feel harder because I have to figure out how it might fit each of these things. What does one have that the other needs? What will they bicker about? Who’ll depart and come back? Why?
What remains unsolved is how this trope ended up on the Evil Overlord List that was developed in the mid-90s, since the earlier films I thought might have been the source ended up not fitting the trope at all. I’d mis-remembered how much of the movie Sorsha spent traveling with Madmartigan in Willow. It’s a journey movie, and there’s romance, but it’s not really a romantic journey movie. And Dragonslayer ended up having almost no journey component, and though there’s romance, it’s not a case of the bickering pair forming the team that defeats the villain (though a dancing scene is pivotal in their relationship developing). I guess the bickering couple that teams up to defeat the Evil Overlord started in books (I can think of a few pre-90s examples) and in romantic comedies, and then was adopted into fantasy, which was known for quests. Why not a romcom road trip quest?