Smarter Story Structure (online course)

Write Addictively Entertaining Stories—Faster

With my online course, Smarter Story Structure, you’ll learn practical tips for overcoming plot problems like these in your screenplay or novel:

  • the story starts too slowly (according to a Goodreads survey, 46.4% of readers abandon novels for this reason)
  • the story doesn’t get going until halfway through (this happened in almost a quarter of scripts read by a studio reader in a year)
  • the middle “runs out of gas” (even John Grisham admits this is a tricky issue)
  • the climax doesn’t deliver fireworks, merely sparklers
  • the story is the right length…but isn’t a good read (uh-oh)

Enroll today and learn how to use story structure to get on audiences’ good side. Click on the button below to learn more:

Screenwriting Structure: Lessons from Pirates of the Caribbean 2–Dead Man’s Chest

The plot of Pirates of the Caribbean 2

Today’s plot points are from the pirate adventure Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest starring Johnny Depp and written by the very talented screenwriting duo of Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. Like RED, this is a standout movie to study for screenwriting structure lessons. While the movie is 2+ hours, the screenplay is a 110-page zippy read, which solidly hits all of the 8 essential plot points.

If you want a link to the Pirates of Caribbean 2 screenplay, you can find it, along with other screenwriting tips learned from the movie, at Screenplay vs Film: 7 Screenwriting Tips from Pirates of the Caribbean 2–Dead Man’s Chest. Here are just a sampling of screenplay structure lessons you can learn by studying Pirates of the Caribbean 2:

Divide and Conquer: Basically, this screenwriting technique involves dividing up your group of heroes, showing them conquering a bunch of obstacles, and then reuniting them at your screenplay’s climax. It seems easy, and sure it’s easy in theory. But it’s a little trickier than you might think. First, you have to get the audience to care about your heroes individually, otherwise they could care less when you divide them up. POTC 2 was blessed with a predecessor dedicated to that task. By the end of the Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, the audience was heavily invested in Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s happy ending.

The other tricky thing about dividing and conquering, is that it’s very easy to drop a character’s plot line and pick it up way too late, by which point the audience could’ve forgotten about him (or her) entirely. Lastly, each plot line has to be connected somehow in order for your screenplay to make sense…unless you’re trying to create an homage to Robert Altman, and even then, his multiple storylines connected thematically. So if you want to see how A-list screenwriters tackle this gargantuan task, then study Dead Man’s Chest carefully.

Cutting Away in the Midst of Peril: This is a cool screenwriting trick you can use if you’re partaking of the divide and conquer tactic. End a scene with one hero in danger, then start a new scene with a different hero. Put the second hero in danger…then return to your first hero and show how he extricated himself from peril. This is a time-honored storytelling tradition–and for good reason. You may think that screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio overused it a bit in Pirates of the Caribbean 2, but I think it was used so effectively, the movie would entrance even the most hyperactive, attention-deficited child (or adult).

I remember the first time I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I wanted to stop at a certain point because it was getting far too late, but I was compelled to read more and more because JRR Tolkien was a master of leaving one member of the Fellowship of the Ring in danger…and then launching into a saga of an entirely different character. It’s a very effective way of keeping a reader flipping the pages of your screenplay–even when all they intended to do was read a few pages before falling asleep.

Balance of plot and subplot: so this already got mentioned in the divide and conquer section, but the screenwriters did such a masterful job of it, it merits its own description. If you have a story with multiple heroes, it be a good idea to choose ONE character’s journey as your main plot, and make the stories of your other heroes the subplots of your screenplay. The reasoning behind this screenwriting choice is two-fold. One, you don’t want to dilute your audience’s emotional investment by giving them too many characters to deeply connect to, and two, if you do have multiple heroes and give them equal weight in terms of screen time, your screenplay will be far too long.

In POTC 2: Dead Man’s Chest, Jack Sparrow’s storyline forms the main plot, while Will and Elizabeth’s stories form the subplots. They’re woven together quite skillfully (for more on that, see below), so if you’re trying to master the plot-subplot balance, then definitely read the screenplay or rewatch the movie.

Goals & Stakes: The main characters in Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (Jack, Will & Elizabeth) each have their own high-stake goal to achieve–which they NEVER lose sight of. Will is searching for Jack Sparrow in order to retrieve Jack’s compass because that is what he needs to free Elizabeth from prison. Unbeknownst to Will, Elizabeth escapes prison and seeks the compass as well, a means to the end of validating Will’s marque of freedom.

Jack needs to recover both Davy Jones’s chest and the key to that chest in order to escape eternal servitude on the Flying Dutchman. All three goals (and therefore plot lines) become intertwined through Jack’s clever manipulation. He ropes Will into his scheme by promising him the compass if Will finds the key, and also entangles Elizabeth into it by tricking her into believing that finding the chest will free Will from Davy Jones.

This rather intricate plot could’ve easily fallen apart but it doesn’t because each character’s decisions are made in service to their goal. Whatever path they choose, they choose it believing it will take them closer–however small the increment–to the goal they desperately seek. THIS is how you plot a movie. If you think that your screenplay plot is rather weak, study Pirates of the Caribbean 2 carefully–and then study it again.

Plot Points from Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest

  1. Rippling waves followed by rain pouring over a tea set, credenza…and a crying bride, Elizabeth Swann. Soldiers in red coats gather together and bring Will Turner, Liz’s fiance, in chains to her. The Governor, Elizabeth’s dad, protests.
  2. Lord Beckett arrives and arrests Elizabeth too! The charges? Conspiring to set free a man who conspired against the Crown, Jack Sparrow–Captain Jack Sparrow.
  3. Gibbs sings the pirate chanty, “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest…” on the deck of the Black Pearl.
  4. Near a prison, a coffin is thrown into the sea. The top suddenly explodes–shot through by a pistol, wielded by none other than Captain Sparrow. He rows himself to the Pearl, where the crew demands “something shiny” for their efforts. He produces…a drawing of a key.
  5. Beckett negotiates with Will: recover Jack’s compass and Beckett will release Elizabeth.
  6. In search of rum, Jack stumbles upon an old, barnacled sailor, Bootstrap Bill, an emissary sent by Davy Jones who will soon claim his debt of Jack’s soul. Bill leaves a black mark on Jack’s hand before vanishing.
  7. Jack rouses the crew to steer them to land, any land, as fast as possible.
  8. A sailor finds Jack’s hat in the ocean…picks it up…his ship suddenly is toppled by massive waves, created by Davy Jones’s beast, the Kracken.
  9. Will bids Elizabeth (in jail) adieu.
  10. Will interviews lots of sailors to locate Jack, and finally speaks to one who’s seen the Pearl.
  11. Will finds the ship abandoned on an island–inhabited by cannibals. He is tied up and brought to their “king.” It’s Jack! Will pleads with him, but Jack pretends not to know who he is.
  12. The Governor releases Elizabeth from prison and plans to send her to England to ask the King for pardon, but his ship’s captain is killed by one of Beckett’s men. Liz escapes…
  13. …and threatens Beckett to secure a marque of freedom for Will. Beckett says the marque will mean nothing unless he receives the compass.
  14. Two pirates, Pintel & Ragetti, row to Cannibal Island, to steal the Pearl for themselves.
  15. The Pearl’s crew has been divided into two groups, each enclosed in a sphere made of bones. Meanwhile, the cannibals tie Jack to a spit, preparing to kill (and eat him) in order to set free his kingly spirit.
  16. The Pearl’s crew races each other to escape from their bone cages. Will’s group is successful, but a sentry observes everything.
  17. The sentry warns the rest of the cannibals, who abandon Jack–still tied to a spit, above a lit pyre. He manages to escape the pyre, but not the spit.
  18. Still in a bone cage, the crew runs from the natives. Finally, the cage shatters. The cannibals throw spears at the crew, until they learn Jack has escaped.
  19. To take him down, natives throw tropical fruit at Jack–they get speared by the bamboo spit, turning Jack into a giant fruit kabob. He uses the spit to pole vault between two cliffs. The spit finally breaks, and he rushes to the Pearl, where the rest of the crew is making ready to set sail.
  20. Jack makes a deal with Will: he’ll give Will his compass, if Will finds the key shown in the drawing we saw earlier.
  21. Liz stows aboard a small vessel.
  22. As they navigate a swamp, Gibbs explains to Will why Jack is afraid of the open oceans–the Kracken can get him!
  23. They visit Tia Dalma, who tells them the key opens a chest containing Davy Jones’s heart. Jones carries the key with him at all times, so to find the key, they must find his ship, the Flying Dutchman. She also gives Jack a jar with dirt in it, so “land” is with him at all times.
  24. Alone, Will rows to the Flying Dutchman. He battles Jones’s crew and is captured. Jones recruits another prisoner to serve his crew for 100 years to stave off death before quizzing Will and learning that Jack sent him in his stead.
  25. Jones apparates on the Pearl, confronts Jack, before agreeing that he’ll accept 100 souls in exchange for Jack’s–Will’s included. The crew heads to Tortuga, because there’s no better place to find lost souls than that pirate’s port.
  26. Elizabeth manipulates the captain of her vessel into docking at Tortuga as well.
  27. Gibbs finds 4 recruits, including a very dirty and drunk Commodore Norrington. Norrington tries to shoot Jack and starts a massive brawl. Elizabeth gets the best of him.
  28. Will and his dad (Bootstrap Bill) come face to face. After an accident, Bill volunteers to take Will’s punishment himself, but instead, Jones makes Bill inflict it. Despite this, Bootstrap and Will reconcile and Will shares his mission to find the key.
  29. Elizabeth confronts Jack. He recruits her to find Davy Jones’s chest. She only agrees because it’ll save Will. Because this is her heart’s desire, when she holds Jack’s special compass, it points towards the direction of the chest.
  30. Beckett informs the Governor that Elizabeth is on the Pearl, and the British Navy will chase them down and kill everyone. Governor Swann exchanges his power and influence to save her.
  31. Jones’s crew plays a dice game called Perudo, betting not with money, but with years of service. Will challenges Davy Jones to a game–an eternity of service against the key to Jones’s chest. Bootstrap joins their game, and loses on purpose to save Will. But the game was never about winning, it was about knowing the location of the key.
  32. Will removes the key from Jones’s tentacles when Jones is asleep, and promises his dad he will rescue him.
  33. Jack steals the marque of freedom Elizabeth intended to give Will. The compass seems to indicate that Jack’s heart’s desire is…Elizabeth. Norrington observes all.
  34. Will leaves the Dutchman and ends up on the vessel that Elizabeth stowed away on.
  35. Jones discovers the key is missing and unleashes the Kracken, which destroys Will’s vessel. He falls out and grabs ahold of a raft, finally sneaking onto the Dutchman.
  36. Jack proposes marriage to Elizabeth, who rejects it emphatically…although she flirts with him and calls him a “good man.”
  37. The Pearl reaches land. Elizabeth uses the compass to locate Davy Jones’s chest which Jack opens. Will arrives and exposes Jack as a lying manipulator to Elizabeth. He’s about to stab Jones’s heart to free his father when Jack pulls a sword on him. (If Jones dies, Jack is still cursed with the black mark.) Then Norrington whips out his sword–he wants to sell the chest to Beckett. They engage in a 3-way sword fight…as Pintel and Ragetti sneak off with the chest–and Jones’s crew storms the island.
  38. Norrington and Will spar on top a forsaken church, and desword Jack, but he tricks himself out of death. They all end up on an unhinged water wheel.
  39. Pintel & Ragetti threaten Elizabeth, but are interrupted by Jones’s crew.
  40. Jack jumps off the wheel, key in possession, reclaims the chest, removes the heart and stuffs it into Tia Dalma’s jar of dirt, now strapped to his back.
  41. Elizabeth fends off Jones’s crew as Pintel and Ragetti run away with the empty chest. The water wheel rolls into the water. Will resumes fighting with Jack.
  42. Everyone leaves the island except Norrington who steals the heart from the jar of dirt and runs back onto the island to distract Jones’s crew. They follow him, but cease pursuit when they reclaim the chest.
  43. The Dutchman draws alongside the Pearl. Thinking he has the heart, Jack taunts Jones…but the “thump-thump” is missing. Jones shoots canon balls into the Pearl who sails away, out of range.
  44. The Kracken approaches the Pearl. Will takes over the ship. Under his orders, the crew gathers together all their gunpowder and rum…as Jack rows away. As he leaves, he looks at his compass.
  45. Elizabeth is captured by a Kracken tentacle before she can shoot at the gunpowder to create an explosion…but Jack returns just in time to take aim. Gunpowder kegs explode and injure the Kracken.
  46. Everyone abandons ship. As they do, Elizabeth kisses Jack. Will witnesses this infidelity…but doesn’t see her shackling Jack to the Pearl. The kiss was just a ruse…
  47. Jack frees himself from his cuffs and faces the Kracken alone. It swallows him whole.
  48. Witnessing Jack’s death, Jones declares Jack’s debt to be settled. Jones is furious when he learns his chest is empty.
  49. At Beckett’s headquarters, Norrington exchanges Jones’s heart for a marque of freedom.
  50. The Pearl’s crew returns to Tia Dalma’s shack. They all vow–Jack and Elizabeth too–to go to the end of the earth to rescue Jack and the Black Pearl, and they’ll have Captain Barbossa, now mysteriously come back from the dead, to lead them on this journey…

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