The Bookish Fox

10 Tips from Love Actually to Liven Up Your Novel

By Mikael Short 

Around the holidays, I’m a sucker for watching (ahem . . . re-watching) all of my holiday favorite films, one of them being Love Actually. Any flaws in this movie are easily glossed over because of the charm and the talent on screen.

Love Actually truly has a masterful way of weaving multiple stories together to send the point home that love can come in all shapes and sizes—and not all the love stories end happily.

By tapping into some of my favorite moments and scenes in this holiday flick, I’ve come up with a list of ten tips to really make your novel come to life—to make the story and its characters truly magical and engaging (much like the storylines of this iconic holiday film!).

Let’s get into it…

Let character flaws and quirks help tell the story. (Natalie and David)

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) is introduced to the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), and her foul mouth is mucking it up, particularly since they are in a professional setting. You’d think that the language would be total turn off for the Prime Minister, but you can see that he sees the charm in this woman from the dodgy end of Wadsworth.

Highlighting character flaws and quirks can be a fun way to develop your characters, increase tension, create possible conflict, and also add an extra dose of laughter. It’s also interesting to see how the different character quirks might conflict with or complement other characters’ quirks! See how those quirks might influence your character’s choices and behavior and how that might determine outcomes in the story.

(However, that one point constantly made about Natalie being “chubby”? Pass. The woman is gorgeous!)

Challenge your characters to learn something new. (Sam + Joanna)

One of the most heartwarming love stories in Love Actually is that of young Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and his one true love, Joanna (Olivia Olson). However, he’s convinced she doesn’t know he exists. So, hoping to get her attention and love, he decides to take up drumming so he can play in the band that Joanna will perform with at the end-of-term holiday pageant.

Growth is so important to character development. Once you know your character’s true heart desire, what will it take (or what do they think it will take) for them to get it? It doesn’t feel very exciting if the main character isn’t challenged in some way, or doesn’t have to learn something, in order to get what they want.

No one likes a character that doesn’t want to change (hello, Scrooge!). Keep in mind that that should be the goal of a good story arc—to show how a character has changed to get what they want (if they even manage to get it)!

A secret can be an amazing driver of desires and choices. (Multiple characters!)

While the storyline of a man named Mark (Andrew Lincoln) being secretly in love with his best friend’s new wife (Kiera Knightley) is bittersweet at best, there is something to be said about having a secret and keeping it from those you care about. A secret can add drama, suspense, and tension to otherwise everyday scenes. How will that secret come out of hiding, if it does? And how does it motivate your character’s choices?

Take Mark, for example. He hasn’t told his best friend about his feelings for Juliet, but when Juliet comes over to see if he got footage of her wedding, she observes that his tape is adoring close-ups of her. Once he realizes that she may have found out his secret, he has to excuse himself—and later confesses his undying love via poster board (while, in theory, romantic—in reality, dude would likely be slapped by his bestie).

On the other end of the scale, you have Sarah (Laura Linney) who thinks her love for her colleague Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) has been kept secret. At the top of her arc, she figures out from her boss (the great Alan Rickman, RIP) that her love for him is, in fact, so not a secret. And that leads her to finally take action in encouraging something more than business casual with her drool-worthy colleague.

If one or more of your characters has a secret, how might they interact with someone who either does or doesn’t know about that secret? Would the secret-holder hold himself back or go over the top to make sure their secret is kept under wraps? Something to think about as you develop your characters!

Humor is in the timing. (Harry & Store Clerk)

A lot of humor is funny because of the timing of it. There’s a beat to comedy—and often it’s quick and snappy.

What I love about the scene with Harry (Alan Rickman) and the department store jewelry clerk (Rowan Atkinson) is that it juxtaposes this by making Alan’s dialogue quick and quippy in response to the clerk’s quite deliberate attempts to elaborately (and slowly) gift wrap a necklace—that Harry just happens to be buying for his secretary and not his wife (for shame!).

The tension and the humor in this scene really can’t be beat, since you’re just waiting for him to get caught, and this person clearly doesn’t seem to understand his customer’s need to have it wrapped quickly (and quietly).

When building both tension and especially comedic relief, the timing—or I should say, the sentence structure—is something you should definitely play with. You can keep it short. Sweet. To the point. To add emphasis. Repetition can also be a tool to add humor. Oftentimes, humor can get lost in a sentence that’s too long or trying to do too much. However, you can have fun with the build-up of a punchline, as long as there actually is a punchline to get to. Keep this in mind as you develop dialogue and humorous moments in your novel.  

“Life is full of interruptions and complications”… and every choice has a consequence. (Sarah & Karl)

One thing that Love Actually demonstrates quite well is how each choice can have a good side—and a bad side (some choices needed a little more thought though, let’s be honest). It’s these repercussions that make for good drama, comedy, suspense, and helps the reader know that no one is exempt from the consequences of their actions. On top of that, every character makes choices that affect the desires and choices of other characters. You have got to consider this when developing your characters and the choices they make—not everyone will like what they choose to do (or not do).

Sarah feels a responsibility to her brother’s well-being and chooses to care for him over pursuing her own romantic interests.

Harry buys a necklace for his wife, and subsequently hurts and disgraces his wife when she finds out, and she wonders if she should stay or go.

Let your characters make choices (don’t let them be totally complacent, please), and show how that may influence the overall story arc. Sometimes those choices get interrupted by other people’s choices, throwing off everything or, in rare cases, actually helping more.

Does each choice take your main character back a few steps or forward one?

Let your characters experience their emotional low, and be with them through it. (Karen)  

I believe one of the reasons we love books is because it reminds us of our humanity, making us feel and experience things both in our experiential scope and beyond.

A bit of movie trivia here: The scene where Karen (Emma Thompson) excuses herself from her family once she’s opened her present from her husband (Rickman)and subsequently discovered that “her husband bought a gold necklace, and come Christmas, gave it to somebody else”—that was all Emma’s doing. The director just let the camera roll and let Emma process those emotions as her character would. It really is so beautiful and gut-wrenching to see this woman, who’s built a family with this man, feel like her world has broken in half. But, then, she shakes it off and tries to put on a good face until she can confront her husband.

Before the comeback, and often the climax, the protagonist often reaches a point of “What’s the point?” and a low that makes the reader question how they will move forward. I’m not saying you have to dwell in that sadness or hopelessness for too long, but let the character have that moment should the opportunity arise (odds are, it will). Don’t skip over it . . .  It keeps the emotional impact when you can relate to the down moments of a character.

After all, we are all human—and humans feel! All the time! Your characters should, too.

Allow synchronicities and foreshadowing to filter through. (Daniel & Carol)

I know I can’t be the only one to laugh and go, “Aha!” at the end when Sam’s stepdad Daniel (Liam Neeson) meets Claudia Schiffer-doppelgänger Carol at the Christmas pageant. His comments about getting with Claudia Schiffer (all over the house, I might add) should she call, and how his late wife said he should bring Claudia Schiffer as his date to her funeral, makes this payoff absolutely perfect and adorable.  

It’s okay to drop crumbs for your audience to nibble on before the big reveal. It’s not always smart to keep your reader completely in the dark about what’s coming up. You don’t want to blindside them. However, slowly setting the stage with nuggets here and there can lead to a more satisfying reveal or conclusion.

Also… You may not know the message when you start, but by the end, you may realize some themes emerge from the little crumbs that have trickled through your story. Recognize them and see how you can drive that point home now when you do. Another obvious thing in Love Actually is how everyone and everything is weaved together. You may also notice how the comeback of rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nigh) is witnessed by just about every other storyline, but it has no direct relation to any other character arc (other than inspiring Sam to take up being a musician to get his love’s attention). Look at what ties everything together!

Location, location, location! (Throughout!)

I love that London feels like a true character in this film. As a backdrop, London provides some beautiful scenic places for the characters to convene and concoct their truest desires into plans of action. With the backdrop of Christmas in London, all the stories tie in together amidst lovely holiday sights and sounds to help enhance this that “love actually is all around.” What better than the season of joy and love to hammer that point home? Also, from what I’ve heard, London sounds like it does the holiday season up right, and Love Actually shows that: the decorations, the shopping, and the coming together of people and communities. The movie even begins and ends in Heathrow Airport, which is a lovely touch in itself as it shows real people greeting their loved ones as they arrive.

I recommend letting the setting for your story play a similar role. Subtle but powerful descriptions of where your characters are, what people around them might be doing, and other details of setting and location can enhance thematic elements for your novel. Setting isn’t just something to throw away. Look at how the location you’ve chosen lends itself to story on its own. What if it wer set some place totally different? It would make for a bit of a different story, wouldn’t it?

All in your descriptions, baby!

In terms of setting, music can also play a role. The soundtrack for Love Actually is a good album. However, I did notice that in the whole film, there are only two true Christmas songs: Billy Mack’s “Christmas Is All Around,” which is constantly played, and then “All I Want For Christmas” at the Christmas pageant. For a Christmas film, the Christmas music is really lacking. It might be fun to play with how music might seep through your own novel in helping get messages across or in motivating characters to behave in certain ways.

And on that note…

Grand gestures sell! (AKA: Show, don’t tell… I know, I know!)

This film is nothing if not chock-full of grand gestures. From Mark’s poster board cards, to Jamie’s (Colin Firth) public arrival and proposal to his former housemaid Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) in her home country of Portugal, to the Prime Minister knocking on many, many doors to track down Natalie on Christmas Eve, and to little Sam who darts through airport security to say goodbye to Joanna at Heathrow before she goes back to America for the holidays. Heck, even Colin Frissell (Kris Marshall) jumps across the pond to America because he thinks he’s on the wrong continent to find love.

And, in these grand gestures, the characters put their heart on their sleeve, and it makes the audience root for them even more. These characters decide, they might tell someone their plan, but then they do it.

Actions say a lot more than words, and that’s especially the case in books. Show your characters taking action towards their desires, or at the very least to avoid their fears. Dialogue can be had along an activity or an outing might inspire a certain conversation based on what the characters see and experience. There can be quiet moments and lulls, certainly, but let actions speak for themselves. Even that quiet moment of Karen feeling hurt and disappointed by her husband’s affair shows so much without saying a word.

What actions can characters take that can show the reader without telling getting mired down in their mind processes (particularly for those stories told in close first-person perspective) but move the story forward? Or what actions, habits, or ticks might give away a character’s true feelings more than they might reveal out loud?

In terms of showing and not telling, in particular, Love Actually also has a strong moment of that during the poster board confessional by Mark. “And my wasted heart will love you until you look like…” BOOM! A mummified corpse picture. Charming, funny, and he didn’t have to say “mummified corpse” on his poster board. Granted, in a book you will have to show by writing these things out, but there’s a way to do it without “telling.” Personification, metaphor, and using active verbs can help you show rather than tell the reader what the audience is experiencing/seeing (rather than relying on “There is/was, I saw, I heard, etc.” all the time).

And finally…

Resolve what you start.

At the end of Love Actually, you see a glimpse of where each story has left off—all in the same location, which also began the movie. I’m such a sucker for bookending stories with similar themes, locations, what have you; it helps bring everything to a cohesive close.

Whatever intention you set for your characters, let it have some sort of pay-off or resolution at the end. Note that it doesn’t all have to have a happy ending—not all of Love Actually’s storylines end so happily.

Harry comes home to his family after a business trip, with a not as warm reception from Karen, as she’s resigned herself to admitting her life might be a little bit worse because of her husband’s indiscretion.

Sarah and Karl leave things back in their business casual, but pleasant, place while Sarah celebrates Christmas with her brother who adores her (he certainly calls her enough).

You have Colin who went off to America because he couldn’t find any love in England, and he comes home with two knock-out American sisters—one for him and one for his filmmaking bestie.

Jamie brings home his new bride Aurelia, introducing her to his friends. The Prime Minister’s new relationship with Natalie is now public as she leaps into his arms. Joana returns to England and has a reunion with young Sam while his dad appears to have started a relationship with Carol.

So you see… In finding a little inspiration from Love Actually, you might find ways to incorporate some quirks and secrets, some setting, some synchronicity, and some emotional moments, plus a little extra dose of your own personal magic to brighten up your novel.

Be like Rowan Atkinson and add the bloody holly.

Happy holidays, all!

Want to work with Mikael? Head on over here if you want her to make your book as magical as Love Actually.

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