Shortcuts to Love in YA

“Insta-love” has a bit of reputation among YA readers.  The heroine (usually it’s a heroine) meets a cute boy and, suddenly, they’re in love!  They don’t need to get to know each other, to see if they’re compatible, to date.  They just know from the first moment they lock eyes that they would die to be with each other.  However, though insta-love is well-known in the YA community, there is another trend in YA romances that is less commented upon–something I personally think of as the shortcut to love (or, perhaps more accurately, lust).  This is when the heroine and the cute boy are somehow thrown physically together in an unusual but kind of sexy situation–one where their bodies are smushed together in a tight space or they’re forced to share a room or a bed or to pretend that they are married.  As a result, their hormones heat up and, once again, they are very suddenly madly “in love.”

This seems like a clever alternative to insta-love.  It gives a reason for the heroine and the cute boy to be very suddenly in love.  They’ve spent intimate time together!  They’re essentially already acting like a couple, so they might as well become a couple.  Examples can be seen in Mary E. Pearson’s Dance of Thieves, where the protagonist and her love interest are physically chained together by kidnappers.  As a result, they fall in love.  Or we can look at The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer Nielsen, where the heroine and her love interest first really become attracted to each other when they are forced to hide together in a small closet, their bodies pressed up against each other.  Even though they are professed enemies, things start to get hot in there.  Or we can look at Somaiya Daud’s Mirage, where the protagonist must pretend to be engaged–and starts to fall in love with the boy she’s been “pretend” kissing.  In each case, chance throws two people together in a physical situation and they start wanting each other as a result.  But it is unclear how different from insta-love this YA trope is.

I call this trope the “shortcut” to love because it is a kind of condensed version of two people being thrown together by chance and falling in love.  For instance, YA protagonists often go on journeys together (like in The Girl King by Mimi Yu) and, as a result of all that time spent with one another, they develop mutual attraction.  Or they may be trapped together for an extended period in a house, like in retellings of “Beauty and the Beast.”  In these cases, it seems that the heroine and the boy fall in love because they are spending an unusually long time together, often alone.  But the relationship still takes time to progress.  In contrast, the “shortcut” to love causes the attraction to happen much, much sooner–and it’s usually born of a physical encounter that raises the question of whether the characters actually love each other or if their hormones are just screaming for them to jump in bed together.  After all, they don’t know each other yet.  They just know they think the other is hot.

I think the shortcut to love is trendy because it allows authors to fast track a relationship without seeming to be writing insta-love.  Because the characters get so physically intimate so early on, their relationship seems to be at a later stage than it really is.  As a result, they can fall in love, get into bed together, break up, and maybe even get together again, all in one novel.  In real life, these things could take months or even years.  But in YA, they can happen in weeks or sometimes days.  (It helps that timelines in books are often vague or easily overlooked.)  Romeo and Juliet gets a lot of criticism for its three-day arc, but what’s happening in popular YA novels is often not much different.

Personally, I am not a fan of the shortcut to love.  I prefer relationships that develop over time and that are, as a result, grounded in friendship with and knowledge of the other person.  To me, that’s way more romantic than hopping into bed with someone just because you  previously happened to be squashed in a closet together.  But as more and more YA books seem to be seeking ways to cram as much drama as possible into 400 pages, I expect that the shortcut to love will continue to be a popular strategy.

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27 thoughts on “Shortcuts to Love in YA

  1. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    I’m not a fan of insta-love and I think these shortcuts are pretty much the same thing. It’s quite rare for me to be convinced by a relationship that starts with insta-love because it’s just too convenient. I guess my suspension of disbelief stops there.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think the shortcuts are supposed to make readers forget it’s insta-love. Insta-love is often mocked as locking eyes across the room, but if you can conjure up physical proximity in increasingly unrealistic ways, I guess that’s somehow “better”? I don’t like it, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    I’ve noticed these shortcuts to love in YA as well, and am honestly not a fan of it. I personally consider love to be a choice, not a feeling that can simply come and go with our hormones. So, this trope honestly seems far closer to lust than love in my opinion, but that’s just me. Haha!

    Great discussion, love! ❤️

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    • Krysta says:

      I do feel like it’s actually more like they’re experiencing physical attraction or lust and we’re expected to believe that’s enough to carry the relationship. But sometimes they don’t know each other very well. Or now I’m seeing a lot of “we knew each other as children.” Yeah, well, people change in ten years? He was cute as an eight-year-old. Why does that mean you’re in love with him now after not speaking for years? I think authors are trying to use that as a variation on friends to lovers, but….are they really friends at this point? Or more like strangers? So, yeah, I”m not really a fan. It would be great to see characters have actual conversations with each other while falling in love and then “dating.” Not that people in fantasy ever date. They just save the world together. Maybe it’s a really long date?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. dreamingofcats says:

    I haaaate insta-love, and insta-lust isn’t much better, but it is more believable. I don’t know what’s wrong with crushes! characters can think someone’s cute and want to be around them without being willing to DIE FOR THEM after being acquainted all of TWO DAYS.

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    • Krysta says:

      Right? I have seen people argue teens have heightened emotions when experiencing love for the first time. But I don’t know that the average teen would actually act like YA characters.

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  4. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I think Romeo and Juliet gets too much criticism for the insta-love. Love at first sight is a theatrical convention that occurs in many plays, and audiences just roll with it. You don’t have time to build a relationship in Romeo and Juliet, or The Tempest, or Rent, or Swan Lake, or whatever else without killing the action of the rest of the story. With books, though, you can build it up, so when authors just have two people falling madly in love with each other over night, it feels lazy and unrealistic.

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    • Krysta says:

      People seem annoyed primarily by Romeo and Juliet because the timeline is specified as three days. In plays where time isn’t really mentioned, I think people are more likely to accept a fast romance. Also, I think Romeo and Juliet gets a lot of criticism mainly because a lot of people have read it for school. Other plays aren’t quite the same cultural touchstone and a lot of people aren’t as familiar with them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

        I’ll grant you that, but it’s still a common theatrical convention, and it’s not really fair to judge a play by the same standards as a book. We don’t judge poetry in the same way as prose, so why judge a play in the same way?

        I suppose my teacher had an advantage when she taught R+J to high school freshman, as she was also one of the directors of the school’s theater department. She knew how to pull the various elements off the page and make us see how it was more than a story of two infatuated teenagers who kill themselves because they can’t be together.

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        • Krysta says:

          I think most people aren’t really accustomed to reading plays, which is why they judge them like books. I think that’s what happened with Cursed Child. People didn’t like it because it wasn’t HP, but it was never going to be. Reading a play, arguably, requires more imagination. You need to stage the characters in your head, imagine the setting, take note of any implied stage directions. It’s an acquired skill, but students aren’t taught a lot of drama in general, at least in the U.S,, so it’s not really a skill many people have needed to develop.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think we are supposed to buy into it as teens feeling everything more passionately. But I find it odd there are teens depicted as ready to die for someone they barely know. I don’t know that the average teen is quite that far gone when falling in love.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Grab the Lapels says:

    The thing about insta-love is that I felt it ALL THE TIME. Oh, goodness. So many guys. So many different types of guys. But here’s the thing: NONE OF IT EVER WENT ANYWHERE. The insta-love was in my head, and I kept it there (though had a reason to get up in the morning–I might see him at school that day!). So my problem with insta-love in fiction is that it always ends up in a relationship, and the way the book (or movie) plays things out, you would think this teen couple will be in love forever and ever (amen).

    One thing I really liked about the YA fantasy trilogy I just finished for a read along is that the characters will have sex because they want to. They’re safe about it, and no one expects this to mean forever and ever (amen) or even dating. They characters are mostly likely to remain friends.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes! I think the term “insta-love” maybe came about because of what you’re observing? Before we might say characters had a crush. Okay, fair. Main character sees cute boy across room, has a crush, imagines their wedding in her head, spends rest of semester trying to cross paths with him. Totally believable. But “insta-love” is more than this obsessive crush. It is TRUE LOVE. You lock eyes across the room, you imagine your wedding, and it’s completely not unhealthily obsessive because IT IS MEANT TO BE and marriage WILL result. Even though I imagine that, statistically, the majority of teens do not end up with the first person they dated. Maybe wise. People change. Teenage crush might not be so great in ten years, you know?

      I think it would be interesting if people used series to give characters multiple love interests. No more of this wiping the memories of the guy so they couple has to fall in love all over again for drama. They break up because it wasn’t working and the sequel introduces a new love interest. Ta da! No more brainwashing needed!

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      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I think that is what happened in that book about the girl whose letters she had written to crushes just for fun were delivered to her crushes. I think the boy she ends up with doesn’t stay forever; they break up. I also like how in the Princess Diaries second movie that the main character didn’t stay with the boy she liked. It was an amicable break-up and they are still friends. I liked that.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. MoMo @ Remnants of Wit says:

    I was actually thinking about this the other day. I agree that this trope is annoying, and the closet example you gave is pretty extreme! However, once I read a book where the heroine only realized her feelings for the hero after they hugged. This didn’t bother me, I think because at that point they’d already known each other and been friends for a while. So I think that even though this situation is similar to the ones you described above, it’s much more believable, especially for teenagers.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think it makes sense to have feelings for someone after hugging. I just think it’s getting a little silly to have SO MANY young adult books where the main characters get physically close and then have a serious relationship directly after. And the romances aren’t ever presented as, “Maybe you had initial attraction because you were physically close, but this will eventually end when you get to know the person and you realize you have nothing in common.” Nope. You get chained to a guy by kidnappers and you’re clearly destined for marriage! A few of these would be entertaining. But why so many in YA??

      Liked by 1 person

  7. MetalPhantasmReads says:

    Great post as always! I’m definitely in the same boat as you with not always being a fan of the quick romance that you mentioned. Occasionally, depending on the writing style and how I like the characters can make it more enjoyable. Fiction does need a bit of suspension of belief anyway so I always try to remember that fiction doesn’t have to mirror real life to be enjoyed 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s the sheer number of romances like this that make it annoying. I could suspend my disbelief for a few, but I wish we could have a littler more variety in YA sometimes. It seems like one person does something, the book sells, and suddenly EVERYONE is doing the same thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Miri ♪ Book Dragoness ♪ says:

    Great post! I’ve seen that lots and lots of times.

    That’s the reason I’m a huge sucker for slow-burn romances (romances spanning weeks, months, even years) and the ‘friends-to-lovers’ trope. That kind of “shortcut” is fun to read for me but I also want to see the slow ones where I fall in love with the characters themselves as slowly and surely too. I know a great recent slow-burn is Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa – that’s a quest story too and the romance builds over it. Also, I’ve never dated anyone but for me, the most important part of building a relationship is to get to know each other really well.

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    • Krysta says:

      I really love romances where the characters get to know each other and friends to lovers! There’s something really satisfying about seeing a relationship naturally grow. And I love that you can see the commitment. They know each other’s flaws, but they still accept each other.

      I haven’t read Shadow of the Fox, but I’ve seen so many rave reviews!

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    • Krysta says:

      I don’t read as much contemporary YA, but what I have read usually has a longer period for the characters to get to know each other. They’re usually working a summer job together or going to school together, so there’s no need to shortcut the relationship.

      Liked by 1 person

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