Now onto today's post which hopefully doesn't read like a rant - because it's actually the result of a lovely and interesting discussion between me and the writer R.J. Anderson (author of ULTRAVIOLET, KNIFE, REBEL and other wonderful books which I heartily recommend). R. J. takes 50% of the credit for this post - basically it's a series of emails we exchanged which I then edited together and typed up (and R.J. edited again. We're writers, what can I say?).
The topic of this discussion: Insta-love.
Yep, I can already hear the chorus of retching noises, frustrated screams and face-palming.
Yep, I can already hear the chorus of retching noises, frustrated screams and face-palming.
What is this fearsome thing? It's a trope that's become pretty common in YA (especially in paranormal and fantasy novels), in which a couple meet and almost at once fall deeply, irrevocably and passionately in love, quite often without knowing much about each other at all. Usually the main component of this love seems to be either an extreme physical attraction which causes the POV character to ramble on endlessly about how hot the object of his/her affection is, or else some kind of irresistible force of destiny written into both their DNA which means the pair are now mated for life (whether they like it or not). Its major feature is that the POV character is convinced that what he or she feels is no mere attraction, liking or lust. It can only be love. Capital letter Love. TWU WUV. The most extreme example of insta-love is probably the 'imprinting' in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight.
Now, a great author can do a lot with love at first sight. It's a classic plot device, and the results of this kind of headlong plunge into emotion (requited or otherwise) can be moving or hilarious or tragic or all three. It doesn't have to be done badly or unrealistically, by any means.
But a lot of novels seem to use this concept as... shall we say, a shortcut. Creating two characters who are destined to be in love, and who feel an instantaneous, unbreakable bond of devotion the moment their eyes meet, relieves the author of the need to do the heavy lifting. They no longer have to actually show how this particular pair of individuals fall in love, and the ways in which they fit with each other and work together, because they've already explained to the reader that this couple are Meant To Be. Which means you get a bit of talk about dizziness and shock and irresistible forces and BOOM! Two attractive near-strangers are vowing to die for each other within a chapter and macking like crazy within two.
So yes, this trope can be pretty annoying. In fact, I think we've all seen quite enough of the lazy version of love at first sight. There aren't too many readers, writers or reviewers who'd admit to liking this plot device anymore.
But the tide of insta-love stories seems to have swept another, equally baffling phenomenon along with it: a growing tendency among readers and reviewers to apply the term 'insta-love' to romances which... well... aren't.
Romances where the couple don't fall in love at first sight. Romances where the couple hate each other at first, or are friends first, or have a spark of attraction and then gradually get to like each other more and more, and trade furtive glances and quick touches for half a book before either of them even asks the other one out. Romances which aren't insta by any reasonable definition.
You wouldn't think it would be so easy to get these two kinds of fictional relationships mixed up. The the sketchily justified passion at first sight and the spark of attraction that takes a while to develop are pretty different. But apparently, just as everyone and their cousin Betsy hates insta-love, everyone and their cousin Betsy has a different definition of insta-love, too.
When R.J. and I were discussing this we each brought up several books that we, as fans of repressed, slow-burning romance, adored... and then later saw labeled by other readers and reviewers as insta-love. Both of us were clear on all the ways in which each of these books avoided insta-love and it puzzled us exceedingly to see them called that. However, rather than mentioning any other authors' books or names, I thought the fairest thing would be to use myself as an example.
I've seen a few reviewers say that they thought Daughter of the Flames was an insta-love story. On the strong likelihood that you've never read this book, I'll tell you that I deliberately wrote the story in order to use one of my favourite plot devices, which is that of an arranged marriage or marriage of convenience. (Which is also one of my favorite tropes, specifically because it forces the author to do the very opposite of insta-love -- RJA) When I wrote it I was clear in my own head that the couple, although initially attracted to each other, don't really fall in love until late in the story. And even then the heroine isn't aware of her own feelings until pretty much the end.
Well, I mean, that's my interpretation of events. And of course other interpretations are just as valid as mine. (No they aren't, because I've read DotF and you're right. :) -- RJA) But it's always baffled me to see this story called insta-love because it doesn't fit the definition. Or, at least, the definition which I assumed we were all working from. The two characters don't instantly fall in love at first sight. They meet, they're attracted, and they go their separate ways. Later circumstances and desperation bring them back together and they team up, but there are no declarations of love, no obsession with each other, or with saving each other, or with each other's looks.
But clearly, as far as some readers are concerned, there *is* a definition of insta-love which fits there. There's another one which fits with a whole slew of other books that don't seem to have much 'insta' in the romance either.
So I don't know what reviewers mean by insta-love anymore. If I see a book criticised for having insta-love in it, my immediate reaction is to assume that there's a cheap and rather unnecessary romance jammed in there, something unrealistic and tawdry which reflects badly on the author and their attempt to jump on the YA romance bandwagon (yes, I'm snobby and judgmental - Zolah). But then I have to stop and remind myself that this might not be what the reviewer is actually saying at all! It's highly possible that what they really meant was that there's an entirely different kind of romance in there which simply did not work for them for whatever reason.
It's pretty obvious that every reader has a different idea of what constitutes romance - that what we look for in a romance, and the things we find attractive or sexy or romantic are highly individual. For some, scenes will not read as sexy or romantic unless it's spelled out; unless there is actual, unequivocal sexy touching or kissing involved, or the POV characters are confessing their romantic and sexy feelings. So even scenes where two characters share significant personal information or physical contact don't necessarily count to those readers as romantic, because the characters haven't declared their mutual love or kissed yet. Meanwhile, others (RJ and I, for example!) are fanning themselves and groping for the smelling salts.
So one person's insta-love is another person's slow-burn romance, and one person's swoon is another person's yawn. All part of life's rich tapestry.
The problem is that when readers say 'insta-love', it makes the whole thing sound like a cheap, tacked-on, superficial romance, when it's entirely possible that it's just a romance that failed for them for whatever reasons romances fail for them. And how can anyone work out why that is, if all they get in the review is a phrase which, by now, is starting to feel extremely dodgy and inexact?
The more R.J. and I talked about this, the more we started to feel as if 'insta-love' was never a very useful term in discussing YA novels anyway. After all, the main reason people sneer about insta-love romances, or books which utilise love at first sight, is that they're supposed to be unrealistic and convenient. But are they?
In real life people meeting and feeling a kind of 'spark' of instant attraction is all too common. It used to happen to me (Zolah) everytime I was put into a new class at school, and very inconvenient I found it, especially when within a few weeks I'd nearly always had it forcibly born in on me that the object of my young passion was a right little berk. Even as an adult you're not immune. Sometimes this spark of attraction is mutual, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it goes somewhere and sometimes it doesn't. But that's the way people generally react to each other when they first meet: they assess each other for attractiveness. Even where people have been platonic friends for ten years before they ever kiss, they'll usually admit that they fancied each other like crazy for about thirty minutes when they first met, before they ended up being mates instead.
Then there's this idea that it's too convenient for young people who've only known each other for a week, two weeks, a month (whatever) to confess true love. But I (Zolah again!) can't remember many occasions when I had a relationship as a teen when I wasn't saying 'I love you' after a couple of weeks or even less. Sitcoms and films might depict this confession as a moment of immense, life-changing significance and imply that people should only say 'I love you' after dating for a year, sleeping together, and possibly moving in together, but real people, especially young ones, don't hold to that standard at all. Why should characters in books?
It occurs to us that what some readers may be complaining about with the 'insta' label is the pacing of the romance. It's not that they necessarily believe the characters fell instantly in love or rushed into love at the beginning of the story, but rather that at first the romance was extremely subtle and moved at a very slow pace - slow enough that the reader didn't realize it was a romance. Then all of a sudden it seemed to speed up and things became intense and serious. Which - again - actually does happen in real life (including for R.J and her husband!). So here you have what *we* would call a slow-burning romance... but because the reader hasn't picked up on the developing relationship earlier on, it seems to come almost out of nowhere. And it gets an insta-love label even though it doesn't really fit that definition of an instant romance.
If a romance seems unrealistic or too convenient, then that could be about a failure in the writing, or something in the individual taste of the reader, or a mixture of both. But it doesn't necessarily make it 'insta-love'. And the current level of hatred for anything that might be called insta-love doesn't mean that love at first sight as a story device is worthless, or that no one should ever use it again.
What we decided between us, in the end, is that while we should all feel free to critique romances and examine why they work or don't work for us in reviews - and call out the ones that do feel cheap and unnecessary to the heart of the story - the phrase insta-love is now so widely used to cover such a huge variety of different kinds of romances (even ones which aren't instant at all) that it's become kind of like that infamous term Mary-Sue.
A term that hides more about your opinion than it actually reveals.