What's your favorite movie-going experience? Did it have to do with the movie or where you were in your life? I was a sophomore in high school when the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie debuted and I was instantly hooked. I remember packing into a theater on a Friday night, waving to people I knew, expecting this to just be a few hours away from home. Away from life.
Instead, I got to experience the high seas.
The movie was a swashbuckler. It felt like a story Hollywood had forgotten to tell. Every moment was primed with this energy. There was a thunderous score, characters who bristled with chemistry and life, and direction that was controlled but somehow wile. Like director Gore Verbinski was reining in a horse who wanted to run.
Or a ship that wanted to sail.
So, let's talk about some lessons writers (really all of us) can take from this film. Watch this video from Lessons from the Screenplay to kick things off.
5 Writing Lessons from Pirates of the Caribbean
1. The opening scene matters.
One of the most impressive things about the initial Pirates movie is the opening scene. It's misty, you can't see anything on the water, and all you hear is the haunting chorus of "Yo-ho." This is a rather reserved opening for an adventure movie but it sets the tone and mythos of the story up right away. These are dangerous times on the high seas. And it also allows the writers to give us exposition plus plant and payoffs: pirates are outlaws, women don't get respected, Will Turner wears a pirate necklace and doesn't know it, and you can be attacked at any time.
2. We need to feel your characters.
The reason this movie became such a breakout hit was that every character popped off the screen. We give Johnny Depp a ton of credit for his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow, and rightfully so. This is an award-worthy performance. He becomes that wildly inventive pirate of folklore but takes it to the next level. He has cunning, sword skills, and was perfectly crafted as the "fun" person. He's the wildcard character who actually embodies the lost map they'll follow.
And what a character intro he had.
Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann are our romantic center. They have the classic Lady and the Tramp storyline, but instead of making her a damsel in distress, she gets herself into trouble and fights out of it as well. This character was really groundbreaking at the time and made the romance all the more fun when they both could have witty chats and battle.
The movie excels in balancing all these stories and motivations with excellent villains.
We have tow sets. One is the British monarchy, which really just is a function to keep Will and Elizabeth from romance as well as antagonize Jack. The other is Barbossa, the true villain of the story, as well as his ghost pirates who are trying to end a curse.
The real thing that makes this breadth of characters work is that they have very clear motivations.
Will wants Elizabeth, The Brits want Elizabeth and Jack to hang, Jack wants the doubloon and his ship and Will, Barbossa wants Jack dead, the doubloon, and thinks he wants Elizabeth's blood...and so on.
These motivations make every decision clear and the plot engaging.
3. Expect the unexpected.
What I love about the first movie, and what is in the other movies as well, are the twists and turns. The writing here is stellar. We are never quite sure how Jack Sparrow, and everyone around him, will get out of their situations. Characters are always backed into corners.
Take Jacks's initial escape: he saves Ms. Swann, is then almost killed, escapes by using her as a hostage, and delivers his famous lines.
That happens over and over: they sail out to get a ship, trick the audience, and switch from the big ship into the smaller one and get away.
This is not easy, but every set piece takes the story into account. They think about how each action scene can build character and how they can back people into such a corner that the audience is dying to know how they will get out.
Another unexpected thing in a movie like this is the humor. We have swords stuck to walls, sconces falling off the Mayor's mansion, and a rolling eyeball. These jokes keep the audience guessing and make every twist and turn all the more fun.
4. Keep it simple, stupid.
Here is where so many writers fail. You need to keep the story you have VERY SIMPLE. It's not about complicated legends and stakes. this is also where Pirates fails, in my opinion, in some of the future movies. But in Curse of the Black Pearl..it's actually simple.
The deposit of the lost doubloon along with blood from the lost crew member will restore Barbossa and the other pirates to life.
That's the whole thing.
When you tackle a big adventure, think about the simple goals. Make the set pieces and characters complicated. The audience always needs something to hang onto. And the development execs pitching to their bosses will thank you later as well.
5. Always leave them wanting more.
Look, we know this movie got tons of sequels, but the lesson here is that if you do the first 4 tips right, you're going to have a successful franchise on your hands. What this movie does best is show the adventure will continue. It ends the way it started, with a pirate ship escaping. This time, Jack Sparrow stays afloat long enough to promise a future for the story.
We talk about worldbuilding - but sometimes showing that the world is huge matters a lot more than telling the audience. There are undiscovered seas out there. Places you could never imagine in your wildest dreams.
This movie provides the elbow room for the studio to look into continuing to explore these places.
What's next? Get our free screenwriting eBook!
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Source: Lessons from the Screenplay