Celebrating Young Adult fiction by UK authors

In Defence of Instalove by Ruth Warburton


You can’t read many online reviews of YA fiction without certain terms cropping up again and again (particularly in critical reviews). Mary-Sue is one. Love triangle is another. Instalove is a third. They kind of pop up as catch-all critical terms, and it’s easy to see why, as they’re all overused tropes in YA fiction.

Many bloggers have had their say on these topics (particularly the first one) and you could write a whole PhD thesis on the Mary-Sue and whether she really exists, or if the term is mainly a form of condescending misogyny against (mainly) female protagonists (and writers).

However I don’t have time for a PhD thesis, so I thought I’d say a little something about instalove, particularly as it’s a topic very pertinent to my debut novel A Witch in Winter.

(Instalove, in case you don’t know, is where the hero and heroine meet on page 2 and are professing eternal love by page 3, usually without any interaction other than having brushed forearms in the canteen. It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot, particularly in paranormal YA, and yes, I’ve had it levelled against me in critical reviews. It crops up in everything from Twilight to Romeo and Juliet.)

Though I’d never heard of the term when I started to write it, my own book is, in a way, a deconstruction of the phenomenon of instalove. My heroine, Anna, meets a guy, Seth, and is strongly attracted to him in a purely fancies-the-pants-off-a-stranger type way. She knows nothing about him, apart from the fact that he’s pretty. It’s not love – nothing like it – and she knows it. During a sleepover she and some friends experiment with a spell book and Anna casts a love spell over Seth for a joke. To her shock and horror it works – and he turns up at school declaring his undying love. At first it’s clearly bogus – he can’t be in love with Anna; he knows nothing about her and he’s acting like a crazy person anyway. But as time goes on the lines become more blurred and Anna starts to question what’s really going on.

The questions Anna asks herself are at the heart of the instalove phenomenon. Is this love? Does a feeling based on nothing but blind hormonal impulse count as love? How long do you have to know someone before you can truly call it love? What is love anyway?

And after writing the book, and reading a fair bit of paranormal romance, I am none the wiser to the answers. Does instalove exist in real life? Well, it depends what you call love. A strong, instant attraction – yes. I think we’ve probably had that feeling of locking eyes with a stranger and wanting to jump their bones. It’s not love – but it could be the start of love. But none of us are psychic (well, no-one I’ve ever met, anyway) so whatever it kindles, that initial spark can’t be based on anything more than physical attraction. You can’t love someone for who they are when you don’t know who they are.

So is that what instalove is really – is it actually instalust? Well, yes and no, because one of the hallmarks of instalove is the declarations of eternal undying adoration – the insistence by the characters that they do know each others’ heart and soul, that this is love, even though by all the known laws of the universe it can’t be really. But is there a rule about how long a couple should know each other in order for it to be real love? Days? Weeks? Months?

I know when I was a teen I fell in love – or thought I did. And I didn’t have to be going out with someone for long to have fallen head over heels. Time moves faster as a teen – and in a school environment you spend a lot of time with someone in an intense way. I mean, I live with my husband, and I don’t spend as many waking hours with him as I did with my schoolfriends.

But perhaps most importantly, as teens, we haven’t been burnt. We haven’t learned not to trust ourselves. If our heart says it’s love, we’re prepared to believe that. And as a writer, I’m telling you what my characters believe – not what I believe, or what’s true.

Do teens fall head over heels and consider themselves in love after a few short weeks? Yes. I think they do. I did.

But are they actually in love? Is it real love? That, I don’t know. Like a character says in A Witch in Winter, there’s no diagnostic test – you can’t pee on a stick and get one line for bogus or two lines for love. Let’s face it, if we all knew the true nature of true love, there’d be a lot fewer divorces in the world and a lot less heartache. My characters may cast spells and invoke demons but they still inhabit the real world – in the real world things are messy, people jump the gun, they make mistakes, they say what they want to believe and believe what they want to be true.

Just because one of my characters says something, it doesn’t make it true. And it doesn’t mean it’s what I believe. At the end of the day, it doesn’t even really matter what I believe. As readers, you have to decide that for yourself.

If nothing else, the instalove phenomenon has got us asking questions about love, about what love means and how you define it – which is a pretty important philosophical question in life. If instalove can accomplish that, it’s no bad thing in my book.

A Witch in Winter by Ruth Warburton is out now with Hodder Children’s Books.

Book two in the Winter Trilogy, A Witch in Love comes out July 2012.

Author: K

YA writer. Voracious reader. Feminist. Home educator. Addicted to tea and Twitter.

10 thoughts on “In Defence of Instalove by Ruth Warburton

  1. I think this is an excellent article and raises some very interesting points. While at times I find the instalove technique boring, I’ve read some books that use it and loved them.
    Let’s not forget that when you’re a teenager (and by the way, writing that and admitting I am no longer one makes me want to sit down and weep) everything can be extreme and intense. I remember my first crush was a guy I was really good friends with. When he got a girlfriend I sobbed in my room to Katy Rose, barely ate or left the house for days and was utterly bereft. We lost contact when I was 18, it’s the way it goes though.
    I remember my first boyfriend when I was 12 saying he loved me pretty much right after meeting me (after we were going out, which was like 4 hours after I first met him, I think, I can’t remember)
    I’m 22 and I don’t think I’ve ever been in love properly. Sure, I’ve thought I was, see above friend and the Katy Rose tears, but I’m a guarded person and I haven’t had that can’t bear to be without you love, it’s something I’m in fact using in my writing at the moment as what do you do when you’re dating someone and it’s not like the movies? If you were me, you decide you’re doing romance wrong.
    I have waffled on a bit here, but what I’m saying, I think, is a lot of it comes down to the writer and I think your article definitely should be considered along with the criticism of instalove too.
    Lucy 🙂

  2. I’m not a fan of instalove but the kind you write about here, Ruth, is a different kind then some I’ve read in YA novels 🙂 I could perhaps have bought instalove if the couple actually went to school together but in several novels the guy is just showing up. Like out of the blue and not attending school with the girl.

    I remember myself deeply in love when I was 13/14(after that I meet the father of my two children so no time for more instalove for me ;)), but then as you said we were together several hours five days a week 🙂

  3. A really fantastic post. I thinnk there’s such a thing as instant chemistry/attraction that isn’t necessarily wither instalove or instalust, but it takes time to fall in love.

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  5. Being a teen myself, I agree that teens do fall head over heals quickly, and it makes sense that a teen character in a YA book would do the same. A lot of people say insta-love in YA is unrealistic, but when you take time to think about it, it’s actually very realistic. I try to avoid books that might contain ‘insta-love’, because it can get annoying, but you’ve given me something to think about. Great post! 🙂

  6. A very interesting post. When I was writing my first book instalove was an absolute requirement, because I was writing for young teenagers (actually, just for one as I wrote that book for my daughter’s birthday present), and that’s what (I felt) they wanted. There’s no time in their lives to develop a deep and meaningful relationship. Everything is instant, and their decisions can be brutal. Further on in the book I had my heroine questioning her decision, but I can understand when the critics say it’s not possible. My only response is to say that I’m writing fiction to appeal to 12 year old girls, and that’s what they like!

  7. Great thoughts. And by the way I really enjoyed A Witch in Love! And Twilight 🙂 It’s the same with films, you only have a short space of time to tell the story and it’d be pretty boring to write “A year passes with them together then they were in love”. To have to happen fast, is exciting to read and watch even if it might take longer in the real world. But I agree, teens are more likely to fall hard and fast. And who knows, maybe love at first sight exists!

  8. Great post – brilliantly argued. I hadn’t heard of Instalove before so thanks for educating me.

  9. Thanks for all the great comments – I’m sorry I’m so late in replying! Some really great insights here – I love it when the comments give you more to think about than the actual blog 🙂

    Zoe Marriot also pointed me in the direction of a post on the same topic by Veronica Roth which is excellent, and I highly recommend a look if you haven’t read it. (hope the link works).

    I particularly agree with the point that sometimes the cry of “instalove!” can be a shorthand way of saying “this book didn’t work for me”.

  10. Really great post with an interesting take on ‘instalove.’ What annoys me about some examples of what I would consider ‘instalove’ in YA is that the relationship is not developed past the initial physical attraction – the ‘instalust’ as you put it. We get endless descriptions of how beautiful/gorgeous/handsome the characters are, but nothing deeper to convince us that they are truly in love.’