Trusted source Urban Dictionary defines insta-love as “when someone who just meets you thinks that you are their soul mate and they want to spend the rest of their lives with you and have kids with you.” Sound crazy? Sound familiar?
The word started popping up a few years ago to explain a rapidly growing trope in YA literature in which the protagonist meets a boy and instantly falls in love. Insta-love became so reviled on social media and the blogging world that I was certain it would disappear. And yet here I am, blogging about it today because I’m still seeing it in submissions and in published works.
To give you some context, here’s how insta-love works. Girl sees boy. This boy usually has remarkably-colored eyes, the body of a Greek god (because yeah, that’s what teen guys look like), and a brooding personality that our main character is certain is attractive instead of irritating. (For more mocking of Byronic boys, follow @BroodingYAHero on Twitter.) Girl makes eye contact with boy. Boy and girl are in love.
And that’s really not even simplifying matters. Insta-love can literally take just one paragraph. Getting to know one another no longer matters, because these two characters are star-crossed lovers destined for lots of steamy makeout sessions, a handful of banter-y conversations, and at least one giant misunderstanding that will result in the duo nearly being killed.
It is worth mentioning that insta-love is different from insta-attraction in terms of depth of feeling. Insta-attraction is a rather realistic depiction of what happens when two people meet and have that “oh, I could kiss you” feeling. Not to be confused with the “oh, we’re destined to be together and our love will transcend space and time” feeling. See the difference?
When I’m reading a manuscript, if I come across an instance of insta-love, I’m immediately turned off. I might not reject the submission then and there, but I do grow wary of reading the rest. Not only have I seen insta-love a million times, but I also know it hinders a text far more than it helps. Rather than being intriguing and dramatic, it often feels unlikely and forced.
Insta-love is a frustrating cliche for many reasons, but the first is for its predictability. Knowing who the love interest is going to be from page one doesn’t matter if the relationship develops in an well-considered, natural way. But when there are no surprises as a love develops (other than the boy is secretly a prince, which will of course upset the heroine because he lied and now she’s in love with a prince, DARN IT), we lose the tension and our investment in the romance. Why wonder will they? won’t they? when you know they will?
The second reason is because it places the value of infatuation over the value of building a real relationship. Gone are the days of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, when it takes a whole, wonderful book to understand how two characters feel about each other. Now it takes only a glance, at most a few words, and BAM! our heroines are goners. Is this really a message we want to share with teen (and adult) readers? Does our society place such an emphasis on immediate gratification that now we want love to be immediate too?
Third, I rebel against the assertion that love at first sight is A.) possible, and B.) common. We all know what it’s like to see someone we think is cute and have a daydream about them. Totally natural. But how often does that person end up being your soul mate? Maybe once in a billion. Promoting this shallow depiction of love is harmful to readers and degrading to the genre. In fact, it often feels like laziness, like a shortcut. I can hear the helpful infomercial slogan now: “Instead of developing a relationship over the course of the novel, do it in one scene and save yourself the time!”
Fourthly and finally, insta-love is an agency-stealer for our YA heroines. I don’t mind a love story. I love love stories. I do mind when a girl meets a boy and becomes inexplicably obsessed with him, especially when she has better things to do like fight for her kingdom or study for midterms. Insta-love is so rapid and all-consuming that a protagonist can only function at about half her normal capacity because the other half of her brain needs to be thinking about a boy’s arresting ice-blue eyes. Surely we can include both a love story and a plot without the main character losing sight of what’s important.
Let’s all band together and promise to erase this useless, pandering trope from YA and from any category of writing. Or, if that’s not possible, let’s at least vow to spend a minimum of three pages making our characters fall in love. I know that’s not asking for too much.
For more on the annoyances of insta-love, check out these articles: