Love Actually is one of my favorite movies, although until tonight I hadn’t seen it in years; Erin, meanwhile, had never seen it before. So we decided to tackle it much like we tackled Bridget Jones’s Diary yesterday (are we procrastinating other tasks? Maybe). So what did this jigsaw puzzle of a film teach us about the romance genre?
1. If you write something filled with pop-culture references, it will get dated. That’s actually okay.
Love Actually is intensely a testament to the moment it was made. We open with a 9/11 reference and then we’re bombarded with the awkward of cell phones and national leaders with sex lives you might actually care about. But over a decade after it was made, the film is still satisfying, and some of the dated stuff adds to its charm. This thing where writers update their contemporary novels to keep them current — well, Love Actually makes us question how necessary that is.
2. Just because your story has more diversity than the average story, doesn’t mean it’s diverse enough.
London isn’t that white (and, for that matter, neither is Marseilles — but we’ll come back to that). And while the film could have been less diverse, it really, really needed to be more diverse. Not for any political agenda, but because sad white people aren’t actually that interesting.
Also, while it was super cool that Liam Neeson’s character doesn’t assume the gender of the person his kid is in love with, the film completely lacks for any LGBTQ love story in a way that’s actually kind of awkward. London’s not only not that white, it’s also not that straight.
And the fat girl stuff was ludicrous and unnecessary. Let’s have BBW heroines, and let’s be realistic about some stuff that BBWs face, let’s give these women heroes who love them (and don’t fetishize them) just the way they are, and let’s move on.
3. Creating a rich tapestry of characters is fantastic, but don’t be surprised when your reader can’t remember all their names.
Note how I don’t mention any of the character names here? That’s because I can’t remember 90% of them. Erin and I know this is a struggle for some of our readers with some of our books, and Love Actually reminded us that we have a threshold for that too. Sometimes, stuff is just too complicated.
4. Details really matter. Until they don’t.
Love Actually gives you just enough details about real things and charms you along the way, that you don’t really care when the details are all wrong.
Porn movies don’t use stand-ins; I’m sure everything about the Prime Minister’s everything was off; and if someone could please explain to me what was up with the Portuguese girl and the Marseilles airport and everything involving locations and language in the Sad Writer is Sad plot, I’d be really grateful (my shoddy memory had dumped all of that into Italy and so I was massively confused).
But honestly, while I can pick at those things, and Erin is completely like “why was everyone on the same plane at the end?” the truth is, I don’t actually care. Tell enough truths, and I’ll happily play along with your lies.
5. Know your tropes.
This film is tropetastic. From American girls swooning for British accents to the secretary swept off her feat by the powerful boss to the guy in love with his best friend’s wife, Love Actually tells stories we know. And it doesn’t feel over-done, it feels like seeing an old friend. Tropes are not the enemy, but they are a challenge. Do them right, and you’re writing a love letter to our very genre.
6. In a huge cast of characters everyone doesn’t necessarily get an HEA.
But they should get closure. Love Actually mostly succeeds at that, but not entirely. (The point of failure, which is compelling, because I am curious about their process going forward is in the plot line with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. Frankly, her performance owns this movie).
7. In popular media there’s a fine, fine line between really romantic and totally creepy.
We know this because we are living in the age of 50 Shades of Gray, but Love Actually is also filled with stuff that would be troubling in real life — a public marriage proposal to someone you’ve barely communicated with while her entire community pressures her into saying yes? Or the dude with the cue cards swearing he’s expressing his love “without agenda or expectation?”
Both of those scenes only work (and work fantastically) because we’re at the movies. In the first one the girl says yes and had been learning English so was clearly thinking the same things as her British dude; in the second one the guy gives himself a talk to let go and stop chasing. So both those scenes manage to err on the right side of a fine, gorgeous line. Try it in your writing, but don’t try this at home.
8. Keep an eye on your patterns.
Love Actually is often criticized for how it handles power dynamics and class issues. While not a problem we felt with the film, it was certainly one we could see. If you tend to write certain types of stories over and over again, it’s worth being mindful of what you may inadvertently be saying with that persistence.
9. Farce still rules the day.
We suspect this will be a bullet point in any romance film worth our time.
10. Everyone deserves a victory march.
Sure, that’s harder to do without a soundtrack, but that feeling that Love Actually gives you when people finally get the thing they’ve been afraid to go for it romance gold. Absolute objective in terms of what we want to put on the page.
11. Never work with kids or dogs. Actually, always work with kids and dogs.
That thing about never is an old acting cliche, but in writing romances always work with kids and dogs. They’re sweet, they’re truthful, and they present opportunities to be reminded of why the adult characters deserve happiness too.
Now since our Bridget Jones post, we’ve gotten dozens of suggestions for which RomComs we should watch next to see what they have to say about writing romance. So we’re going to keep this series up. But with several novels, novellas, and shorts in progress, and a release schedule that has been positively terrifying, we can’t do this nightly.
So here’s what we can do:
Tomorrow, we’re going to post a poll of the films that have been suggested to us, and then you lot can vote on what we should enjoy (or subject ourselves to) next in a quest to understand what makes romance entertainment tick. We’ll take the films that get the most votes under the heaviest advisement (look, we can’t promise we’ll watch the winner right off, mainly because there’s only so much Hugh Grant we can take). Then, once a week watch one and tell you what we learned from it about creating Happily Ever Afters.
Sound like a plan? Good, then make sure you come back to vote.
Meanwhile, we’re still taking suggestions in the comments and on Twitter.