Storytelling Tropes: Insta-Love

A series looking at common tropes in storytelling. This essay looks at Insta-Love and how to use, avoid, or subvert it.

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© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

Romance is a tricky beast to write. For many authors, new and veterans alike, it is an element of a story that is often struggled with. Not only does one have to think about the two characters (or three or more), but also the impact and place said romance has within the story, and whether it will resonate with audiences.

There are many tropes relating to romance, but few can be as divisive as ‘Insta-Love’. This is, quite simple, when two characters instantly fall in love with one another. Their eyes meet (often across a crowded room) and, well, the rest is history. Sometimes the story seems to be keeping them apart, and there may or may not be other characters – whether passive, jealous, or in love/lust themselves – involved, but the message is clear: they are fated. No love is as strong as theirs.

Except, that isn’t true.

Firstly, whether one can truly fall in love with another person the moment you meet them is still widely debated. People claim to have experienced this, and one shouldn’t deny others their feelings; that’s not how to win audiences. My advice on writing an Insta-Love is to not make it so blindingly obvious. Put it out there that they’re attracted to one another, but then make sure you put effort into the relationship beyond that. A relationship requires work, even an Insta-Love.

The reason Insta-Love often fails to impress audiences is that it comes across like an adolescent ideal. It reeks of lust, of superficiality, and sometimes unapologetically so. It screams to some as their love is better than your love, and that can be a good way of irking your readers. Not only this, it is a slap in the face with an instruction. You, as a writer, are telling your audience to love this couple. Naturally, this inspires rebellion in your readership.

Good romances – the ones that work and stay with readers long after they’ve finished the book – are the ones that let the readers fall in love too. It is a slow, delicate and precise process to design a romance that an outside observer enjoys and cheers for, but it is possible. The way for a reader to feel the romance is genuine is to let them fall in love with your characters as they themselves do. The moment you try to force the reader’s hand is the moment it is often shirked away, and then the romance loses all its credibility.

Insta-Love can have its appeals. This includes the idealism that it brings to the table, and it is a good way of mimicking that feeling teenagers get when they experience love. The thing is, however, that when we experience love as teenagers, it rarely lasts into adulthood, let alone forever. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – as it is often portrayed to be – but an experience that one keeps and takes with them when moving forward.

The issue is that Insta-Love may come across as either lazy or insecure writing. It may seem that the author has no real investment in the relationship, and as a result couples that have Insta-Love often bewilder the audience as they cannot tell why they have fallen for each other. Or the author is worried that the audience may not work it out for themselves and therefore decides to beat them to death with cliché signs. There must be no doubt that this story is theirs, and all other love is just feeble in comparison.

There are ways to subvert this trope, but some writers may not like how. For example, Romeo and Juliet is a classic tale about Insta-Love…and the dangers of it. It was almost a warning for those who may be interested in a time when romance was considered a dirty word. In fact, marrying for love is a fairly new concept. If you want a bittersweet tragedy with Insta-Love, then Romeo and Juliet may have already beaten you to it. This kind of subversion is great if you have a specific moral to your tale, but not so much if it is open to interpretation and then twisted by literature enthusiasts centuries later.

This kind of subversion works well on a tragic scale. It feeds what we as humans know of electrifying, obsessive, kick-you-in-the-chest kind of love. Most people have experienced a crush, or an unrequited love, or a love that we know just feels devilishly good. It is in this shared experience that we find comfort in reading about it, knowing we can safely experience this kind of love again and move on. It can break our hearts, but because we let it – unlike the real kind.

We know it is toxic, and there’s a satisfaction in the end when the characters don’t get together. Insta-Love suffocates on its own fumes and dies; this kind of love isn’t to be celebrated, it is to be learned from.

Another type of subversion can be found in Disney’s Frozen. Anna and Hans have spotted each other during a royal ball and instantly connect (much like Romeo and Juliet). Their eyes light up, they finish each other’s sandwiches and basically have it all mapped out after one well-choreographed spur-of-the-moment duet.

Yet (Spoiler alert!) Hans isn’t as invested in Anna as he claims. But one could argue that Anna isn’t in love either, but merely desperate to escape the castle. She’s in love with the idea of love, and Hans feeds into this ideal. To the audience it is Insta-Love, but it is subverted at the end to reveal that final twist. This Insta-Love then plays out into Anna’s character development, as she falls in love with Kristof, and she only does so because she isn’t looking for it (since she thinks she already has it in Hans).

For the most satisfying romance novels, particularly because Insta-Love has started to grate on audiences, the best method is to work on writing a believable romance. You can admit they’re attracted to each other or have them hate each other, but they need to go through the trials and tribulations of love in order for the audience to be invested in it by the end. That first kiss needs to have readers screaming “FINALLY!” instead of a groan of disappointment.

In short: Love must be earned.

Everything in a book needs to feel deserved and not slapped on. Characters need to achieve things, not just reach them as if they are the next natural step in a predictable story. Accomplishments are not a reward for the audience for reading this far and paying attention, but rather an integral part of a story that need to be worked for.

Whether the beginnings of love can be obvious to the reader or hidden as a Chekhov’s Gun; as with all parts of a story it must be somewhere. They could’ve accidentally held hands when sleeping, or their body language has started to shift towards each other from one chapter to next with each conversation they share. Maybe they sit closer now, maybe she leans to him a little, or when he’s sad he looks to her to just feel something nice. Maybe they’ve always been friends, and always had that intimacy, but something – anything – changed that. Now it’s got romantic undertones and neither of them knows what to do with this sudden electrical charge in their relationship. These are all subtle signs that can be shown instead of told, and the audience will be invested in this. It is in these moments and signs that we learn of these characters, their wants and needs. Of course, they need to be characters in their own right, but through each other we can learn more, and we want to.

The more we build, the stronger it feels. If it feels strong, we feel safe closing the book and knowing it was a relationship that lasted. That is the beauty of writing romance, and it is also a good reason to avoid writing Insta-Love – you miss the best bits.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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