Story Lessons from Pirates of the Caribbean

My husband and I decided to do a “Pirates of the Caribbean” marathon this week, which is appropriate since we just returned from the Caribbean. As you can see, our ship was a little bigger than the Black Pearl. This view is from an outlook on St. Thomas.

As we were watching the movies, I had several thoughts about things that worked really well and could be applied to writing. For the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the first three movies, as the last one stands alone in many ways.

It’s all in the execution. Most people out there agree that Johnny Depp stole the show as Captain Jack Sparrow. He took the character and turned him into an icon. He’s so identified with Pirates of the Caribbean that they added his face to the Disney World ride that inspired the movies. Would another actor have had the same impact? Certainly not in the same way. It’s something important to remember as writers. It’s more than the idea–it’s how we execute it. No one else can write the same story we can, just as no one else would have been the same Jack Sparrow.

It’s all in the details. While the focus is of course on the main characters, there are all these little details that recur in the movies. The dog with the key–who comes from the ride–is in the first three movies (the jail, the island with the cannibals, and the Brethren Court). Jack’s hat and compass also get time in the spotlight. Then there’s the sword that Will made. It almost becomes a character, starting with Will presenting it to Gov. Swan. In each movie, we’re reminded about the sword, until Davy Jones uses it to fatally impale Will. Details are important. If you plant something in your story, make sure it has a purpose. And if it’s something vital, remind the reader about it so that it doesn’t come as a surprise when its big moment comes. If the sword hadn’t been highlighted in each movie, its significance would have been lost in the climax.

It’s all in the characters. From the moment we see Elizabeth protect Will as a child, we care about the characters. We expect to see that bond grow, and we hate all the circumstances that keep them apart, even in the end. Then there’s Jack. What a fascinating character study. Is he good or bad? He’s never totally bad–he doesn’t kill like the other pirates, but he’s never totally good either–his schemes always have his ultimate interests in mind. But then, in the third movie, he does something selfless. He’s the kind of guy you’re interested in watching but wouldn’t necessarily want as a friend because he’d probably double-cross you. He was intriguing enough he got his own movie once the first story ended, so that says it all.

It’s all in the strategy. If you’re interested in writing a series, you can learn a lot from these movies. The first movie stands alone. It wraps everything up nicely. If they’d never made another movie, you wouldn’t feel cheated. That’s exactly how you should approach a series as an unpublished writer. Even if you see possibilities for a series, the first book has to be a complete story. Publishers are less likely to take a chance on a new author if they have to buy in to multiple books as part of the initial deal. Once your audience is hooked, you can use those cliffhanger endings. The second and third Pirates movies are so wrapped up in each other you want to watch the third one right away. I’d classify the fourth movie as a spin-off. The initial story was complete, but fans still wanted more. It worked because viewers loved the world so much.

Will there be more movies? I did a quick search online, and it’s a possibility. The lesson for us, then, is to create characters that readers don’t want to let go.

Anyone else have other thoughts on these movies or others that have taught you a lesson?

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