Balancing Meet Cutes and Cynicism

As much as I would have liked for this post to overlap with something like Valentine’s Day or Sweetest Day, it just so happens that, as my current work in progress Familiaris does have a romantic plot or subplot (I’m not sure how much of the novel it will really take up), that I just wrote one of these scenes. Meet cutes are fresh on my mind right now.

You know what I mean when I say “meet cute.” Boy meets girl in a particularly memorable way that all but guarantees that they’ll be together forever (with a misunderstanding resulting in a breakup around book two, but you know they’ll get together again by the end of the trilogy). It’s the moment that shippers live and die for and the trope that romantic comedies all rely on as an inciting incident. These can actually be really sweet, and as much as I try to be above it all I’m a sucker for adorable meet cutes.

The thing is that, frustratingly, I have a hard time reconciling this with my thoughts on the “love at first sight” trope, which is one of those things I tend to roll my eyes at.

With standalone movies that need to tell a story within the space of two hours, I can see the merits of love at first sight from a narrative standpoint simply because there isn’t time to tell a longer story. In a fantasy setting, I can buy a sufficiently justified prophecy of two people meeting, laying eyes on each other, and their relationship being important in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes you just need to get things set up quickly so that your story can move forward without giving me all of the minute details, and I get it.

Cynical as I am, though, I don’t believe that love at first sight exists under otherwise ordinary circumstances. Lust or infatuation at first sight, definitely: I’m of the opinion that this is what crushes are. To get truly mushy on you folks, the thing about love is that it needs to be mutual, deep-seated, and while aesthetics and that one thing you were doing when you first locked eyes can help, relationships are multifaceted and cannot survive on those two things alone. You can get general “good vibes” about a person from interacting with them, and while the stories about people identifying who they’re going to marry before even speaking to them can come true, I also thought I was going to marry my crush from when I was 12. Let me tell you that I dodged a bullet with that one, but I digress.

Me being me, I’ve been thinking too hard about this. Can I have a meet cute without implying love at first sight? At this point, I’m not sure that it’s possible.

When you’re presented with a romantic plot or subplot, you have certain expectations of what’s going to happen. You need the two characters to meet, and you need to make it memorable. You might have limitations on how long your story can be because of the medium (a two-hour movie, a 75,000-word young adult novel, etc.), so maybe you can’t fit in as many scenes of the two characters developing a friendship that gradually evolves into something more. Maybe your main plot is getting all of the focus and the romance is an afterthought, or you didn’t originally plan on writing a romance plot at all but were persuaded to add one around the existing story. It could just be a conservation of detail thing: the story wouldn’t be showing us these two characters meeting if it wasn’t going to be important later, and a particularly cute interaction does suggest romance, or at the very least subtext, rather than platonic friendship. Sure, we know that romances take more time and effort than fiction implies, but we’re here for the story, not the time spent on any of the boring but important stuff between the honeymoon phase of the relationship to the wedding day. In order to satisfy the expectations of readers of this genre as well as effectively tell the stories that I need to, I must invoke love at first sight by way of the meet cute.

I’m having problems reconciling that both because of my thoughts on romance and because of my story and characters. Aside from the fact that Familiaris involves lycanthropy, I’m trying to stay as grounded in reality as possible. Jake, my leading man, is even more cynical than I am on account of his nonexistent relationship with his biological relatives, the lycanthropy condition that’s functionally a debilitating illness, and his rough, post-college financial situation and inability to hold down a job. He’s just trying to survive in a world that has a track record for being unkind to him, and the only reason he meets leading lady Anna at all is because one of his friends forces them to interact at a housewarming party.

Considering where I am in the revision process, I think this is actually one of the better scenes, and I had a lot of fun working on it. They hit it off in that they spend the rest of the evening with one another. There’s no kissing, expectations of sex, or even physical contact beyond what would be customary in their situation. While they liked each other, and there could have been chemistry, it’s way too early in context to tell if anything’s going to develop. And, like any good romantic lead, Jake is reluctant to pursue Anna any further because romance is at the bottom of his list of things to do: he’s trying to take care of himself financially, but emotional health is his blind spot, and one of his journeys in the course of the story will be him finally admitting that he needs help and should let other people—and possibly even a romantic partner—provide it.

All of those elements are up in the air from the perspective of the characters. Audiences will likely know exactly where this is going because it’s the same story you’ve heard dozens of times before, but with a slightly different coat on. The main plot might be a bit more of a mystery, but the romance can’t be because your reader becomes that friend that says “I saw this coming from a mile away” when two people officially start dating. I’ve talked before about thinking about romance as a reader, but it’s a totally different animal when you’re trying to write something that just can’t feel new without making decisions that don’t make sense for the sake of being different.

What are your thoughts?