In honor of Valentines, I’m reposting this blog for my writing on Wednesday feature.
Disney handles romance well.
That may be the most controversial sentence I’ve ever written. But when it comes to crafting romances from a plot perspective, they know what they’re doing.
The romantic plot arc is a simple one. That’s why it tends to run as a subplot. That doesn’t make it less important, it just means that the plot points of a romance line up with the plot points of the external conflict.
Like it or not, this is the basic plot structure for every romance ever. “But what about–” you may protest. No, seriously. This is like the monomyth for romance. If a story has a romantic element in it at all, ever, it follows these points, maybe not in this order, but they’re there. Even if the author didn’t do it consciously.
Disney used to get to simplify the attraction stage. Boy sees girl, girl sees boy, boom. Expectations set. Because the early days of Ariel just happening to spot Prince Eric on the boat were done so well, they’ve become cliche. So lately they’ve been poking fun at that expectation with movies like Enchanted or Frozen. Oddly enough in doing so, they created the best example of the initial attraction yet in “Love is an Open Door” simply because they didn’t have the rest of the movie to develop it.
Love is an open door meets all the best requirements for the initial attraction. The characters don’t just connect on a physical level, they see each other. The name of the song has meaning to Anna in that this relationship embodies everything she’s been denied growing up. It’s simultaneously an escape and the thing she’s been missing from her life. Ignoring the whole marriage thing, by the end of the song the audience is rooting for this couple.
The next stage, conflict keeps them apart tends to be where the main plot line rears its ugly head. Ariel is a mermaid not a human, Aladdin is a street rat, not a prince, Anna is already engaged, the spell wears off at midnight, or my favorite, they disagree on fundamentally different levels. Best example of this, the absolute best version of Peter Pan ever made (not disney but included due to awesomeness).
Wendy loves him, she’s pretty sure he loves her, but fear and a fundamentally different outlook on life keep them apart. You’ll notice all my favorite examples come out of movies that did something different with the scenes. Like I said, they can be in different order or be used for a different purpose. Understanding the plot points that are being changed makes those choices stronger.
First kiss is often tied into the resolution of children’s movies and many YA books because true love’s kiss has become a symbol of finding your one true love. Once you’ve established the characters are together, the tension for that subplot is gone. It’s no longer a building romance. But there are some examples of this. However there are no examples of first kiss coming before the discovery/growing closer stage and few in YA for obvious reasons so I’m gonna tie those together. My favorite example is Aladdin. Their initial attraction was when they were both in Aladdin’s hovel. Their initial conflict keeping them apart was a difference in station, resolving that conflict led to another when Aladdin just kept screwing up, and he finally fixed it by finding common ground in their growing closer scene which was the magic carper ride, which ended with their first kiss.
Worsening conflict is Wendy being taken by Pirates, Aladdin almost drowning, Ursula impersonating Ariel, Kokoum getting shot, Anna discovering Hans betrayed her. In the children and YA romance structure, there’s almost no breathing room between worsening conflict and black moment, because one leads to another. Aladdin finds himself helpless, powerless and flung far from Jasmine, Ariel finds herself alone on a dock while she watches her love go off to marry another. Anna is freezing to death behind a locked door, Pocahontas hears her love sentenced to death. Pan falling out of the sky. It’s in these moments the characters find their inner strength or break completely. The dark moment leads straight to the climax because finally the characters have what they need to fight and in romance that strength comes from each other. The movie that handled this the best romance wise is Tangled. You think her darkest moment is when she thinks Flynn betrayed her, but that was just worsening conflict. She finds her inner core of strength “Did I mumble, Mother? Or should I even call you that?” But none of that matters when Flynn is stabbed. She breaks. She sacrifices her newfound backbone, her ability to fight to save him and she does it in a strong way. But what makes this scene great is that it’s not just her moment of strength. It’s his. He arcs. The selfish thief is every bit as willing to sacrifice his life to save hers as she is to save his. And for a romance, that’s pretty awesome.
The happily ever after in most romances is true loves kiss, wedding bells in the future, and a happy resolution on all plot points. But sometimes that’s not the case. Peter Pan has Wendy growing up while Peter stays behind and her knowing a part of her will always be with him. UP’s romance ends with the knowledge that Ellie (symbolically the house) is waiting for Carl in paradise and he’ll always miss her but he still has things to live for. Pocahontas ends with John Smith sailing away. Sometimes the best romances are bittersweet.
The ending is never, should never feel like a given. That’s what makes a great romance.