Ever since Susan Wiggs introduced me to The Hero's Journey, over ten years ago, it remains one of my most valuable storytelling tools. It guided me through a sixth major round of revisions on a manuscript that had washed out twice in the Golden Heart, turning it into a GH winner and first sale that led to fifteen more in the next five years.
Sound easy? It wasn't! I could see where some elements of the Journey applied to my story and romance fiction in general, but others were almost impossible to wrap my head around. Part of the problem arose from the terms Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler had used for the journey steps – they sounded much more suited to epic action or fantasy than romance. Also, few of the films Vogler used to explore the Journey were true romances.
So I decided to analyze some of my favorite romance films, to see if I could get a better handle on The Lover's Journey. I chose The Runaway Bride, Return to Me and While You Were Sleeping – all pure romances without suspense or other elements to muddy the waters. This exercise gave me a much better appreciation for the mythical, magical, endlessly adaptable structure at the core of satisfying romance fiction. Here is how I came to see the twelve stages of the Hero's Journey in romance terms:
The Ordinary World: This is the part of the story where you explore what kind of lives the hero and heroine are living before they meet or reconnect. What is missing in their lives? What are their problems? In order to hook your reader quickly, you may not have much time to lay this groundwork, but it is vital to convey it in some way
Call to Adventure: In classic Three-Act structure, this is often called The Inciting Incident. It is the event that begins a chain-reaction of change in your characters' lives, bringing them together. The Call to Adventure makes a great opening hook because it's usually something pretty dramatic and charged with narrative potential. In While You Were Sleeping, a transportation worker saves the man of her dreams from an oncoming train only to be mistaken for his fiancé while he lies in a coma.
Refusal of the Call: Characters may sense this new relationship has the potential to turn their safe Ordinary World upside down. Naturally they put up a fight. This may be the initial conflict, where the hero and heroine have reason to dislike or mistrust one another in spite of a sizzling mutual attraction. Resistance may also be expressed by other characters who warn the hero and heroine not to get involved with each other.
Meeting With the Mentor: This one is sometimes difficult to see, especially if you're expecting a Yoda-like character to step in for a pep talk. In romance the mentor is more likely to be the hero's best friend or the heroine's small daughter. Any person, event or force that prompts your hero to take the first tentative steps toward change qualifies for this step. In the historicals I write, the mentor is often a code of conduct – the knight's ideal of chivalry or the cowboy's Code of the West that demands he help the lady in distress, even when he has good reason to be wary of her.
Crossing the First Threshold: This part of the story is often called the first plot point. It is the event that really gets the ball rolling, when the hero and heroine have overcome their initial reluctance and embark on a new course of action together. Perhaps she takes a job as his bodyguard or they wed in a marriage of convenience.
Tests, Enemies and Allies: These are the events that make up a large part of the story – the first half of the middle. This is when the hero and heroine get to know one another, adjusting to their new roles, perhaps still working through some reservations. What twists and turns test them in their new relationship? In a romance, the enemies are forces of conflict – the circumstances or character problems that stand in the way of the relationship. Allies are forces of deepening feelings as your character discover special qualities in one another that intensify early physical attraction into love.
Approach to the Inmost Cave: I understand this stage much better since studying those romantic films, and it has given me a valuable tool to combat sagging middle. On the surface it may seem just a continuation of the previous stage. But there has been a subtle shift in energy at the midpoint of the story, perhaps not even consciously recognized by the characters, when love starts to gain the upper hand. I think of this as the courtship phase, when the characters prepare for a big step in trust or intimacy.
The Supreme Ordeal: This is a major event in the third quarter of the story that has far reaching consequences. Often the Supreme Ordeal will answer the plot story question posed at the beginning of the story. In While You Were Sleeping it is the moment when Peter wakes from his coma, with the potential to expose Lucy's act as his fiancé. In The Runaway Bride, the ordeal comes when Maggie realizes she cannot go through with her wedding to Coach Bob because she is falling in love with Ike.
Seizing the Sword: This step used to give me fits. What sword? Unless this was some sort of naughty double entendre, I was lost. What I discovered is that the sword represents the consequences of the Supreme Ordeal. Sometimes the consequences are good and your characters reap the rewards. Sometimes the dirty stuff hits the fan and they are forced duck and cover!
The Road Back: This is a somewhat quieter time in the story, between the dramatic events that come before and after. It's a chance for the reader to catch her breath and for the characters to reassess their priorities or strike out in a new direction. This step usually culminates in a story element romance writers call The Black Moment, when the character's chance for true happiness seems lost. In The Runaway Bride , the Road Back is the lead-up to Maggie and Ike's wedding. Though all seems well and happy on the surface, tension is maintained as viewers wonder whether Maggie's bridal jinx will ruin this wedding and break Ike's heart. In the Black Moment, Maggie's problem gets the better of her and she leaves Ike at the altar.
Resurrection: This is the heart of romance, where your characters confront disaster, battle their demons, and emerge from the ritual death of their hopes as changed people. Often there is a separation in space and/or time, and a quiet, profound moment when they must make a conscious choice to destroy the obstacle that stands in the way of their happiness, even if it means giving up the thing they used to want most in the world.
Return With the Elixir: I believe the enduring popularity of romance lies is our willingness to embrace and celebrate this final step of the Journey. It is the Happily Ever After, the emotionally resonant ending, when you show how the lives of your hero and heroine have been enriched by their struggle to build this new relationship. Often that happiness is contagious, affecting your whole community of characters. If you're not sure what I mean by that, watch the endings of The Runaway Bride and Return to Me . And keep a tissue handy!