The Perfect Setup, Actually

I don’t think I could possibly get sick of watching the movie Love Actually. There are many things I love about this movie but the one I want to talk about today is characterization. While some movies take 2 hours to tell 1 story, this movie tells at least 8 stories in the same amount of time. Not only does it do that, it sets up all of the main characters in the same amount of time another movie might take to set up 1 character.

How does it do this? Let’s start by looking at the setup for 3 of the main characters:

1) Billy Mack. He’s a washed-up rock star whose manager is trying to get him some work. He keeps screwing it up but his manager keeps trying and keeps smiling. In this one scene, we learn what Billy needs, why he isn’t getting it and who is there to help him get it. This scene is also funny as hell which is why we are immediately engaged by his character.

2) Daniel. His wife has just died. He’s a mess and doesn’t know what to do about his step-son who may or may not be shooting heroin into his eyeballs. He turns to his only friend who tells him he needs to stop crying if he wants to get a girlfriend. So we know what his problem is, we know why he’s struggling and we know who is there to help him. In Daniel’s case, we are engaged because we feel sorry for him.

3) Jamie. He’s the ultimate nice guy whose girlfriend (and brother) are totally lying to him and, from what we can tell, they’re not the first to do this.  We like him so we are engaged in his story.

Each of these story lines uses a different technique to create engagement and yet they’re all equally successful. We want to laugh at Billy, cry for Daniel and become Jamie’s best friend (or girlfriend…cough). And this all happens in the first 20 minutes of the movie for all of the story lines. We see why Karen is so overwhelmed by the need to create a first lobster costume, why Colin will never get a girlfriend in Britain despite his big knob, why John can’t meet a nice girl in porn, why Mark is up Sh*t Creek without a paddle and not because he’s gay, why Sarah can’t just tell Carl she loves him and wants to have his babies, why Natalie thinks so poorly of herself and her tree-trunk thighs, and why the Prime Minister wishes he was Margaret Thatcher, the saucy minx.

So the next time you’re having trouble squeezing your novel’s setup into the first 20 pages, go watch this movie. Pick one character and watch their introductory scene. When it’s done, write down everything you know about that character and how you learned it and then use these techniques to tighten your own setup.

Category: On Writing