In the romance writing world you often hear of the term ‘Instalove’ and how it’s a bad thing. When I first tried my hand at writing a romance I was very afraid of the Instalove issue because Instalove is unrelatable. which is precisely why it's a bad thing. It’s not real. It doesn’t happen. As a reader, when I encounter Instalove I usually have one of these moments:
And when unrelatable things occur in your novel it breaks the magical bridge between your work and your reader. Now instead of willingly suspending their disbelief they are actively identifying your story as impossible, unreal, fantasy.
No one wants that. Not the author and certainly not the reader. Well, maybe Castle wants it but he's a fictional author....so yeah.
So what is Instalove, exactly?
Great question but before we get into the what it is maybe we should first establish what it's not.
Instalove is not love at first sight although some people use the terms interchangeably. Instalove is not love at first sight because love at first sight is a legit sensation (probably more aptly described as ‘lust at first sight’ or ‘infatuation at first sight’, but still). Love at first sight is real and relatable. Readers get it.
Instalove is worse.
Instalove is the reward without the work. It’s the prize without the fight. Instalove is when the Hero and heroine are in passionate, world-changing, panty-dropping, lust-love-infatuation when they have nothing in common, have barely spoken, have not bonded, etc., etc.
It’s Anakin and Padme falling for each other in that horrible Star Wars movie (Because it totally makes sense for a grown ass woman, a SENATOR no less, to fall for a child who can barely string a coherent sentence together). *shudders* In Romance novels it’s commonly the out-of-her-league ___________ (movie star/rock star/billionaire/politician/doctor/bad boy – you pick) who is willing to give up everything for her after their first kiss.
First kisses are great – I get that – but I don’t believe any well-adjusted, successful adult, a leader in________________ (movies/music/business/politics/medicine/crime – you pick) field, would give up everything for a first kiss. Come on now.
And I know what you’re going to say: “But Colleen, these books are fantasy. They aren’t meant to be realistic.”
I agree. I totally agree. There is a fantasy element to every Romance troupe and that’s okay. I’m not advocating for all-realism-all-the-time (this is fiction after all). But what I think is missing from these Instalove stories is the believability. And believability is what allows any reader off the street to insert themselves into the life of your heroine. It’s what allows the reader to connect. Without believability the story falls flat.
And how do you avoid Instalove?
Start with flawed characters. Utterly, hopelessly flawed characters and show use their flaws.
Ideally, the Hero’s flaws should complement or balance the heroine’s flaws. Same with their strengths (in fact, many times our strengths can also be our weaknesses). A heroine’s strengths should complement or balance the Hero’s strengths. Each character should be a soothing balm for the other.
Why is this important? Because characters who complement each other make sense to us. I loved the movie Enchanted. In this movie the heroine is a cartoon come to life. She is the definition of naive and believes love and marriage can happen instantly.
Her Hero is a realistic, hardworking divorce attorney in New York. He doesn’t believe in love at all and certainly doesn’t believe you can fall in love instantly.
Together they balance out each other’s extremes. They learn from one another until they are able to meet in the middle. Their flaws and strengths alone leave them unhappy but when they come together they can find happiness.
But as Enchanted so perfectly illustrates, it’s not enough to have flawed characters. They must challenge each other’s status quo. The Hero and heroine must learn and grow to earn love and happiness. It’s not enough for them to reluctantly lust after each other. The characters must be challenged.
And last, but not least, I love love love when characters show that they have changed by doing something for the other. I call this ‘the gift exchange’. It’s probably has a real name in the writing community but I don’t know it. And ‘the gift exchange’ is not a ‘must have’ and it’s not in every story but it’s so important.
‘The gift exchange’ is usually a demonstration of some kind, generally public, of the character's change or growth. It’s as if the character is admitting they were wrong. And nothing melts hearts faster than a heartfelt apology. Now, this public demonstration doesn’t have to be in the form of an apology. It doesn’t have to be ultra-public (like Heath Ledger’s character singing across the bleachers in 10 Things I Hate About You or Julia Stiles reading her private poem in front of class).
It can take the form of a concession or a small token that shows the H/h were really listening. And ideally, it would be best if both characters demonstrate this albeit at different times.
A great example of this from a non-rom movie can be found in How To Train Your Dragon. In this first installment romance is a secondary plot element.
Hapless, kind hearted Hiccup longs for the out-of-his-league Astrid. Astrid is a dragon-killing Viking through and through. The couple couldn't be more mismatched. When Astrid realizes Hiccup has been keeping a pet dragon (and a dangerous, rare kind of dragon at that) she is determined to reveal his secret. But Hiccup and Toothless kidnap her and take her for a ride that challenges Astrid’s belief system.
So now we have flawed characters challenging each other. Great. But when your heart melts is when Astrid rallies her friends to ride their own dragons and help Hiccup and Toothless. This is public commitment to her change. This is her showing us she’s changed. She’s earning Hiccups love and we are okay with that because we have witnessed the journey and believed it step by step.
Another, more general example of ‘the gift exchange’ can be found in Tangled (have I mentioned lately that I love this movie?). This is an interesting example because each character is displaying ‘the gift exchange’ in the same scene. Spoiler Alert: I’m going to talk about the ending. But seriously, if you haven’t seen this movie you should go watch it now. I can wait. *taps foot* *whistles* You back? Alrighty.
In the finale Flynn is near death. Rapunzel tries to negotiate. She’s willing to give up her freedom to save Flynn. Her freedom is the most important thing to her up until this point and now she’s willing to trade it. It’s her gift. And it’s selfless. Her gift illustrates her growth as a character.
But Flynn, being the reformed rogue that he is *swoons*, won’t let her. He uses broken class to cut Rapunzel’s hair thereby destroying its magic. His gift is giving her back her freedom. It’s selfless and sweet. His gift illustrates his monumental growth and is a real tear-jerker moment.
Now, not all gift exchanges take place in the same scene like that. And not all of them are tied to finale. Although having the gift exchange tied to the finale is a powerful tool.
So TL;DR: What do we know?
Instalove isn't love at first sight.
Instalove is when characters haven’t earned the love of their partner.
To avoid Instalove we must make the flawed characters challenge each other (and a gift exchange is nice too).
A love affair supported by character growth is a believable love affair. And believable love connects with readers. It's the magic we love to read.
Do you hate Instalove? How do you like your characters to earn the other’s love?