The release of the second "Pirates of the Carribean" movie reminds me of a quote I heard on the DVD of the first movie. Jerry Bruckheimer was talking about the making of the movie and he made an offhand comment that went something like:
"Just keep throwin' 'em curveballs, that's all you gotta do".
Which is a really sharp observation. One of the best ways to structure your story is to find a way to constantly surprise your audience by doing the unexpected (which is what Jerry was saying). Hey, if your audience can figure out where the story is going, why do they need to pay you $10 so they can see your movie? They can stay home and imagine their own movie for nothing, so you have to give them something better than that. You have to find a way to surprise them and give them something that they can't see coming. And it has to be organic...it doens't count to just reveal that everything was a dream in the end. Or to suddenly have a romantic comedy turn into an action adventure movie for the last five minutes. The surprises have to feel like they come naturally from the story and characters, and yet the audience can't see them coming, or else they lose the element of surprise. Trying to do this well is hard work indeed.
Another thing that both the original and sequel do well is another basic key to making movies work. It's so simple really, that it's probably obvious to everyone already, but basically it's creating an anticipation about where the story is going.
You want the audience to be drawn in and be constantly wondering what is going to happen next. This may sound stunningly obvious but many movies fail to do this well. You want to be constantly creating questions in your audience's head about what will happen next. How will the characters get out of this jam? How will they reach their goal? How will they react when they find out their lover has died? Stuff like that. Your audience will only remained glued to their seat to the extent that they need to know what happens next. You need to create a situation where they care about the characters enough and the situation is compelling enough that they need to know what will happen next. And as you answer one question along the way, another question arises that needs to be answered. So the audience always has a clear question in their mind that they are wondering about, on the edge of their seat because they can't wait to find out the answer.
"Pirates 2" did this well: the constant posing of questions (some big, some small) to help pull you through the movie. It gives you a sense of where the movie is going: the movie won't be over until these questions are resolved. And it gives your audience that eagerness, that anticipation to wonder when they'll get their answers. And it gives them a sense of satisfaction when the questions are resolved in a satisfactory way. Ever leave a theatre feeling "unsatisfied"? Probably because the film didn't answer all the questions that it posed, or answered them in a way that didn't feel quite right.
I don't watch "Lost", but my sense is that they use this technique all the time: plant a question in the audience's mind, then answer it. But the answer leads to another question, which then gets answered, which leads to another question...
Personally, I can't take that kind of thing in TV form, because there's no end in sight. If the show goes on for 15 years, then you're never going to get a definitive answer until 15 years from now. And what if it's an unsatisfying resolution? Then you invested 15 years in a disappointment! At least with a movie, you've only wasted like 4 hours at the most.
I know, the journey is the thing and all.....I just can't get into "Lost". In any case...
On a very basic level, a filmmaker's job is to generate interest in the mind of his audience. Without that you have nothing else to build on. If they're not interested, nothing you throw at them will have any impact.
If you're one of the 3 people left in America who didn't see "Pirates 2" yet, stay through the end credits when you go. There's more after the credits.
Just like there was in the first movie. If you haven't seen what comes after the credits in the first movie, go take a look at it on DVD, because it explains something that's potentially confusing in the new one.