It’s that time of year again when people are more likely to to watch the 2003 film Love, Actually, since many people believe it to be a Christmas film. I am grateful to this film not because I like it but because it is one of those films that taught me an important lesson of writing. It has such a bad case of a certain problem that when I encounter other films that have this issue, I will say the other movie has “Love Actually Syndrome.”
The problem is that Love, Actually has so many unrelated plotlines going on that it forces audiences to pick favorites. It has roughly 9 different plotlines? I think?
– Laura Linney has an office crush but also has to take care of her mentally ill brother
– Alan Rickman is being seduced by some chick in his office and his wife (Emma Thompson) grows increasingly suspicious about it.
– Some dude named Collin who’s played by a non-famous person travels to the United States to cash in on his British accent.
– Hugh Grant is Prime Minister and crushing on some pretty girl in his office.
– Some dude has a crush on Keira Knightley which presents a problem since Keira Knightley just married his best friend.
– Liam Neeson has to deal with the death of his wife while trying to bond with his young stepson.
– Bill Nighy tries to get a Christmas #1 song.
– Colin Firth tries to write a novel while falling in love with the housekeeper who does not speak English.
– Martin Freeman is a porn stand-in and falls in love with the chick he has to pretend to have sex with.
None of these stories are really BAD. Each one has everything it needs in order to be the cute little love story it’s intended to be. The problem is that NO ONE is going to watch all 9 of these stories and become equally invested in all 9 of them. No one is going to be just as curious about all plot lines. No one is going to find all protagonists equally likable or all antagonists equally despicable.
Whenever I watch the movie, I always have moments of “Yeah, Colin Firth is cool I guess, but what’s happening with Hugh Grant?” There’s an adverse effect on the viewing experience when you have to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for the movie to go back to a plot line you actually care about.
If you want to juggle several different plot lines, it’s not completely impossible, but I definitely think you should stop short of 9, and I also think it helps to make a more obvious connection between them. One movie that I think does this decently well is Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here. There’s several different plot lines happening but all the different characters are still part of the same family. It’s hard to have a “favorite” plot line, because each plot line has an obvious impact on the others. It’s hard to just not care about how much Kate Hudson hates her job because that job is directly connected to Zach Braff’s ability to stay home and homeschool the kids.
That’s different from Love, Actually where the characters are TECHNICALLY connected, but one mini-story often doesn’t have a direct impact on the well-being of characters outside that mini-plot. Sure, Collin the dude who can’t get laid in the UK was invited to Keira Knightley’s wedding, but it’s not like his excursion to the states has any real impact on anyone other than himself. Sure, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant are siblings, but how does Grant’s ability to woo his subordinate actually affect Rickman and Thompson?
As a writer, I think you have somewhat of an obligation to tell your audience who their favorites should be. Yes, those feelings can evolve over the course of a story. Yes, sometimes it can be interesting to have intricate ethical dilemmas where reasonable people can disagree about who’s “right.” But don’t just throw a bunch of characters at your audience and let the chips fall where they may. Don’t give your movie Love, Actually syndrome.