Dialogue: “Love Actually” for romance writers

Posted on December 1, 2015

aka Playful Heartbreak

I’m a big Richard Curtis fan. Be it his television work or his feature films, the man knows where my emotional jugular is and exactly how to manipulate it. As a romance writer, I know practically zip about acting, cinematography, set design or scripts–all those things and more that come together to make screen magic–but I do know words, and it’s the words I tend to focus on when a moment in a film brings forth a huge emotional response from an audience. I look for those moments and the words involved. I covet them. Wallow in them.

After the popcorn’s all gone, I usually rerun the scene and look to the words and the subtext beneath, and then rewind some more to see if I can spot key moments when the subtext was being built into those words. What’s the story theme? Do those words somehow encapsulate, build or illuminate the story theme? The answer is usually yes.

Which brings me to Love Actually, a film I watch every year. I watch it for the acting, for the dialogue and for theme. Nine different, interconnected storylines, each exploring a central theme that ‘love actually is all around us’. It can be the platonic love between old associates. The love of a father for a child, of sister for brother, of one friend for another, the love of a long-married couple, of newlyweds, or the bright new infatuation of one person towards another. Look to the literal definition of the word love. That’s what this film is exploring. All of it.

We’re forewarned that love comes with its share of heartache, and the dialogue used to do it is deliciously playful.

Daniel: So what’s the problem, Sammy-o? Is it just Mum, or is it something else? Maybe… school – are you being bullied? Or is it something worse? Can you give me any clues at all?
Sam: You really want to know?
Daniel: I really want to know.
Sam: Even though you won’t be able to do anything to help?
Daniel: Even if that’s the case, yeah.
Sam: Okay. Well, the truth is… actually… I’m in love.
Daniel: Sorry?
Sam: I know I should be thinking about Mum all the time, and I am. But the truth is, I’m in love and I was before she died, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Daniel: [laughs] Aren’t you a bit young to be in love?
Sam: No.
Daniel: Oh, well, okay… right. Well, I mean, I’m a little relieved.
Sam: Why?
Daniel: Well, because I thought it would be something worse.
Sam: [incredulous] Worse than the total agony of being in love?
Daniel: Oh. No, you’re right. Yeah, total agony.

It’s a subtle clue (or a hammer to the head) that not all of these storylines will end happily.

Richard Curtis has a favourite film moment–It’s the scene where Karen (Emma Thompson) listens to Joni Mitchell in the marital bedroom after having been given the CD for Christmas instead of the shiny gold necklace her husband bought for someone else. Coincidentally (or not) my favourite line of dialogue comes just before that moment in the bedroom.

Karen: One present only each tonight. Who’s got one for Dad?
Bernie: I have.
Harry: No, let Mummy go first.
Bernie: I’ll get it.
Karen: No, no, no. I want to choose mine. I think I want…this one.
Harry: I have bought the traditional scarf as well but this is my other, slightly special, personal one.
Karen: Thank you. That’s a real first.
Kids: Rip it!
Karen: What is it? I’m going to… All right, I’ll rip it. God, that’s a surprise.
Daisy: What is it?
Karen: It’s a CD. Joni Mitchell, wow.
Harry: To continue your emotional education.
Karen: Yes. Goodness. That’s great.
Harry: My brilliant wife.

Karen excuses herself and goes to the bedroom. Emma Thompson utterly nails wordless heartbreak and agony. Harry’s one liner, ‘To continue your emotional education’ crushes me every time. That line has layers.

Yes, Joni Mitchell’s music may indeed prove emotionally instructive but it’s Karen’s heartbreak that’s being punctuated here. It’s the moment she realises her husband is involved with another woman. Nobody deserves this kind of emotional education, Richard! Hand in hand with a Christmas present? In front of the kids? Why don’t you just tap a vein? And then … Richard … somehow, you made that line playful. Cheeky, even, and now romance-writer me is admiring the utterly shameless collision of dialogue, story theme, and playful heartbreak. Playful heartbreak? Is that even a thing? I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the two could coexist so beautifully until that moment.

I’ve had playful heartbreak on my to-do list as an author ever since.

So what about Love Actually and you? Do you have a favourite storyline? A favourite scene? A favourite line of dialogue? Because I’d love to know what it is.

If you’ve stuck with this post this far, I’ve a plan to look at a favourite piece of dialogue on the first day of every month, be it from film, song, a book or whatever popular entertainment form I happen across. I’m calling it a craft building exercise (as opposed to frivolous procrastination–which it also is).


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  1. I actually love, Love Actually. I have watched it so many times and find something new and wonderful every time. I love the line Prime minister says Who does one have to screw around here to get a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit, then Natalie backs into the room with her tea trolley. That cracks me up every time. I also love the start of the movie when you’re shown the arrivals at the airport, and see all the people, laughing and kissing and tears. It makes me cry. I love airports.

    • Supposedly, those are real-life airport shots. Aren’t they great?! Love the meet Natalie lead in as well.

  2. Cathryn Hein

    This was brilliant, Kelly. Thanks so much. I’m currently reading A Bad Boy For Christmas and am in awe of YOUR use of dialogue. It’s so, so good.

    I adore Love, Actually too. It’s the Hein household’s favourite film and gets a run every three or four months. I never get sick of it because it seems like there’s something new to pick up from it every time. Do you know I never realised the emotional punch of Harry’s “To continue your emotional education” line? I mean, I love that scene. It’s fantastic, but only now have I realised the pain of those words for Karen. Clearly I have not been paying enough attention!

    • I agree–I always get something new out of it, no matter how many times I watch!

  3. Louisa Mack

    Brilliant post, Kelly. Thank you. I think I’ll dig out that movie and watch it again.

    • It’s the right time of year for it, at any rate :). I’ll also watch with an eye these days towards the film ageing and whether the satire’s holding up. That’s fun too.

  4. Jenn J McLeod

    ONE of my fave scenes has no words. It is the best man who leaves Keira Knightly in his house after she watches the video and it ‘clicks’! I love how his ‘almost walking back again’ works. ie Was he going back to confess his feelings and embrace her or did he want to go back and apologise – say something appropriate. I like that it is up to the viewer to choose. This is great, Kelly. I’m a big deconstructor too. I find it so beneficial to em, as a writer.

    • Jenn, I love talking films and TV episodes with other writers–all the different perspectives. The best man plot isn’t my fave–possibly because I DO fill those wordless pauses with anticipation that he’s going to ruin his friendship and (potentially) her marriage. It’s such a no win setup. I keep waiting for him to be selfish, I keep building catastrophe into those silences until all the best man has to do is turn up on screen and I start thinking “Noooooooooo. Go away”. And then Richard Curtis–evil genius–gives me exactly what I want and breaks my heart in the process.

  5. Madeline Ash

    Oh man, this film. It covers all the love. I adore the lines you two have mentioned, and also when the PM intends to knock on every door of Harris Street just to find Natalie. So sweet, and funny: “Part of the service, now. Trying to get round to everyone by New Year’s Eve.”

    Also gotta mention the voiceless declaration of love, using cardboard messages, followed by the defeated stance when you just KNOW he’s weeping on the inside. My heart curled up into a ball there.

    Playful heartbreak? Don’t do it to us, Kelly.

    • Chances are it’s a challenge that will not be met, although not for lack of trying on my part. I love Natalie’s swearing. And when the PM tells her he could have her ex boyfriend killed and that the SAS are absolutely charming and only a phone call away. Perfectly silly. Stupidly perfect?

  6. Rachael Johns

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE Love Actually and like you, think it’s one of the most amazing pieces of writing ever. I’ve actually got a copy of the screen play in book format and it’s one of my prizes possessions.

    I can’t remember the exact dialogue but my favourite scene (or one of many, it’s so hard to choose) is not spoken, but written dialogue when the gorgeous best man holds up signs for his best friend’s wife confessing his love and then walks away and says ENOUGH. Unrequited love gets me EVERY time.

    Can’t wait for the rest of this series.

    • It is so hard to choose a favourite scene or line of dialogue from this film. “Enough … enough now” is a gorgeous line. And hopeful too (I think).

  7. Amy Andrews

    Ooooh, you’ve hit on one of my faaaavourite topics and movies of all time :-)
    I agree the dialogue is utterly brilliant and Richard Curtis is a god. I can pretty much quote the whole movie from start to finish. I love the dialogue between Jamie and Aurleia so much too. Given their language barrier, you wouldn’t think it would work but it just does. “This is my favourite part of the day, driving you” – happy sigh.

    But there’s also power in the moments where there is no dialogue, I reckon. Like the bedroom scene with Emma Thompson crying and I think the scene where Juliette finally understands that her husband’s best friend is in love with her and he leaves the apartment and he’s mentally kicking himslef and torn between going back and running – that scene is incredibly powerful! And when Laura Linney has the bloke in her house and she asks him to give her a minute and then she does that excited little jig. Also that moment, that look, that passes between the PM and his girl when the US president is being a total letch – grabs my heart and dies. There’s soooo much in that look.

    Can you tell how much I adore this film and how many hours of analysis I’ve done on it ??
    But anyway, I digress. We were talking about dialogue….

    One of my favourtie pieces of dialogue (and you’re not allowed to laugh) is from Die Hard 4 which I freaking loved! After such a big break I think they could really have screwed it up (like they did with #5) but I love it so hard. The line is, and it gets used by both Bruce and Justin Long – “That’s what makes you that guy.” I watch that movie specifically for that line and it gets me everytime.

    • “It’s the saddest part of the day, leaving you.” Probably shouldn’t put us and Jamie/Aurelia dialogue together in a bar.

      You realise I now need to watch Die Hard 4. Or all of them.

      • Amy Andrews

        Oh but what fun it would be, Kelly :-)
        You realise now I want to watch them with you?

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