5 Things All Writers Should Learn from HBO's 'Our Flag Means Death'

'Our Flag Means Death'Credit: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max
Are you obsessed with HBO's pirate comedy like we are? If not, you should be.

If you tell me a project has a few things, it's likely I'll be on board right away.

Taika Waititi is one—the writer/director/actor has a comedy and storytelling sensibility that is so unique and effortless. I'll watch anything he makes.

Naval stories is another one. It's well documented that I love season one of The Terror, which finds a doomed British expedition ship trapped in the ice with a monster. When I was younger I was obsessed with Pirates of the Caribbean, and I think Master and Commander might be one of my favorite adventure movies ever.

So when I heard about HBO's new pirate comedy, Our Flag Means Death, it was fairly inevitable that I would love it.

The show is (very) loosely based on the true adventures of Stede Bonnet (played by Flight of the Conchords alum Rhys Darby), an aristocrat who abandons his life of privilege to become a self-declared "Gentleman Pirate." He's not very good at piracy, initially drawing the scorn of his ragtag crew. But then another pirate, the infamous Blackbeard (Waititi), pursues him out of curiosity, and the two men form a surprisingly touching relationship.

The show is wholesome, hilarious, surprising, diverse, and very well-written. There's plenty we can learn from it, but here are just a few of the key lessons we can take away. (Spoilers for the show to follow.)

1. Look for inspiration everywhere.

It's really wild that a streaming comedic show about pirates got made in 2022, but here we are. Showrunner David Jenkins told Collider that he got the idea from going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole after his wife mentioned Stede Bonnet one day.

"It very quickly was like, 'Oh my God, his story conforms to act structure, almost. Like it's perfect,'" Jenkins said. "Just the idea of somebody who has a terrible midlife crisis and decides to do this, and then really hurts his family and hurts his wife and hurts his kids, and we don't know why. It's lost to history. And then the world's greatest pirate takes him under his wing, and then they have a whole voyage together, and we don't know why. It's lost to history. So all of his facts are fascinating, and then all of the questions that are unanswered are fascinating. Just trying to answer those questions to me was like, 'Oh yeah, I want to make this show.'"

If something seems interesting to you, pursue that creative spark. Sometimes it might be a random fact or historical figure you can develop into something bigger. If it's an idea you keep returning to, chances are there will be others who want to go on that journey with you.

'Our Flag Means Death'Credit: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

2. You can mash up genres and tones.

We talk about genres on the site a lot. How can you mix and match them to create something wholly new? Maybe you love both horror and comedy. Maybe you can make the next great space western. Maybe you want to do a romantic musical.

This can be tricky, however. It can be harder to pitch and market genre mash-ups because they are so unique. Sometimes producers and networks want to know what has worked already, rather than take a risk. But when these find the right audience, like in the case of Our Flag Means Death, they can really sing.

Jenkins calls the show a "historical pirate rom-com," but it's also a workplace comedy much like The Office. There is ridiculous humor, but there are also moments of grounded drama. Jenkins talks about being inspired by the tone of Hal Ashby flims, which often find characters tackling difficult situations with heart and comedy.

Try combining two or more of your favorite genres in your next script.

'Our Flag Means Death'Credit: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

3. Subvert tropes.

There is so much to do here that hasn't been done before. What do audiences expect to see happen with pirates? Probably a lot of swashbuckling, treasure-hunting, murder, etc. The show has that, but these tropes show up in surprising or subverted ways. Blackbeard, for instance, finds treasure-hunting embarrassing.

Bonnet himself is the idea of a pirate captain flipped on its head. He comes from a life of wealth and luxury. He opts for wit and passive aggression, rather than violence and bloodshed, whenever he meets an enemy. He has a full wardrobe and library in his captain's quarters, as well as an open fireplace. He wants to learn to be a better pirate but can't seem to get the hang of it.

As his foil, the show has Blackbeard (or Ed), who has grown tired of all the killing and maiming and wants to freshen things up by learning about being a gentleman. This twist on the bloodthirsty pirate trope is what brings the characters together and grows their relationship into something heartfelt and, eventually, truly romantic.

But even in the romance, Jenkins opted to avoid some common or on-the-nose tropes.

"The main thing to me was to side-step coming out," Jenkins told Decider. "I just want a romance. I want a Titanic romance between these two people. We don’t have to do the coming-out story and then the non-binary story for Jim [Vico Ortiz]. We don’t have to do the 'I am whatever,' the pronouns, however they would do that. I thought it was just really good to skip it because we’ve seen it."

Look at the genre in which you're working. If you find yourself writing what's been done before, what can you do that's unexpected?

'Our Flag Means Death'Credit: Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

4. Write big.

There are no small characters, stories, or set-pieces on Our Flag Means Death. Write your characters and your action big on the page—don't be afraid to be silly. Don't be afraid to write beyond what your budget might be, especially when you don't know what it is yet (if you're writing on spec, for instance).

One bit of advice I've heard many times is that you can always scale things back or tone characters down. It's much more difficult to make things bigger if you've started small. So write that over-the-top character. Go wild with your action sequences. Why not? You can temper it if you need to.

Also, be sure to give equal attention to all your characters. It can be very easy in an ensemble project to give one or two characters the biggest traits and forget the rest, but writers need to be able to distinguish all the individuals in a group. Everyone needs different backstories, personalities, motivations, and goals.

Maybe you have an unhinged nudist Scotsman obsessed with seagulls and the moon, like Buttons (Ewen Bremner). Perhaps one character just wants the opportunity to serenade the crew while suffering from scurvy, like the Swede (Nat Faxon). You can even create a villainous polygamist who likes to hoard the noses of her enemies like Spanish Jackie (Leslie Jones).

Have fun. Write big.

'Our Flag Means Death'Credit: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

5. Create roles for people you want to work with.

This is a show with so many opportunities for guest spots. Any time a new character is mentioned, you wonder what great actor will show up next. Rory Kinnear has a particularly good turn as a snooty British officer, but you also have performers like Jones, Fred Armisen, Nick Kroll, Kristen Schaal, Gary Farmer, and more popping up throughout.

"Everyone wants to play with Taika, and everyone wants to play pirates," Jenkins told Collider. "So it really is pretty amazing."

One way I love to come up with character details is to visualize who I would want playing them. What would they bring to a character, and how could that change the performance and behavior of the person? If you're stuck, this can be a great way to flesh out people in your story and make them more real.

All episodes of Our Flag Means Death are now streaming on HBO Max. Check out the show and let us know what you think!     

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