Every once in awhile a poll comes around on book and writers groups. “What trope do you hate the most?” the poll will inevitably ask. The responses are varied, although there are a few that are nearly universally reviled. This made me wonder — if these tropes are so hated, why do they keep appearing in fiction? Where do they come from? And is it possible, that despite our protestations to the contrary, we don’t actually hate these tropes as much as we claim to?
So, let’s start with the much maligned romantic trope “instalove.” Instalove is particularly common in Young Adult fiction, and basically, involves a couple falling in love, well, instantly. Instalove doesn’t necessarily mean love at first sight, but it does involve an accelerated relationship trajectory. Perhaps two young people who have only barely met each other are professing their deepest love by the midway mark. Sometimes they are thrown together by outside forces — a school project, a magical quest, a murder mystery — that require them to work closely. Sometimes it is indeed love at first sight — a soulmate bond or just a feeling, butterflies in the stomach, a tingling. Whatever the scenario, instalove is a popular trope.
The reason most people cite for hating instalove is that it is unrealistic. But is it really? Think back to when you were a teenager, in the throes of your first crush. I remember my first boyfriend well. We went from friends to lovers within the space of a weekend. No slow burn for us, we decided we liked each other, and by the next month we were exchanging “I love yous.” As young people we are often reckless when it comes to love, and that’s what makes young love itself such an enduring theme. Even grown adults feel nostalgic for that heady rush of first love, (which probably accounts in large part for why YA literature is popular even among adult readers), and young love would not be the same if it were the product of careful and logical planning. First love makes us irrational, it makes us impulsive, it makes us ultra-focused on our relationship, and in turn, our significant other, and magnifies their importance in our lives. First love, for many of us, may be our one and only “epic love story.” Is it any wonder that adults look back upon it nostalgically, and teenagers (those who desire romantic relationships, that is) look forward to it impatiently?
So do we really hate instalove? Of course not. Many of us have experienced instalove ourselves. When we say we hate this trope, what we are really saying is that we hate it when we are told two characters have a connection but we just aren’t feeling it. This mostly arises from an over-reliance on telling, constantly telling us that the characters love each other but never actually showing it. Consider, however, the insta-love relationship in Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. The entire narrative, which is primarily a love story (but also so much more), takes place over the course of one day. The whole premise is instalove, but The Sun is Also a Star takes the trope and flaunts it when the male lead, Daniel, declares that he can make the female lead, Natasha, fall in love with him in just a day, and proceeds to do so. Yoon makes us believe in these characters and their love. Daniel says, near the end of the book, “I didn’t know you this morning, and now I don’t remember not knowing you,” encapsulating the speed and intensity of young love. Throughout the book, Yoon doesn’t simply state that her characters are falling in love, she takes us on their journey, and as we run through the streets of New York with Daniel and Natasha, we witness their love story unfold. By the end of the book we are as “all in” as the characters themselves are.
With instalove, as with many other tropes, the trope itself is not actually the problem, but rather, the execution of it that makes the story fall flat. When instalove is executed correctly even an adult reader like myself, who is several decades removed from the experience, can easily remember those first few days in a new relationship and the intensity of those feelings. It’s not unrealistic, in fact, it’s almost too realistic. When we grow up, most of us realize that a whirlwind romance is not always the best basis for a lasting partnership, but there is still something enchanting about the idea, something that can evoke all sorts of feelings, from fondness to longing. Writers with good instincts for romance writing will create a natural feeling relationship regardless of the length of time the characters have known each other, and those without good instincts can always learn how to create more believable relationships. In short, instalove is not the problem, poor writing is.