“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.