Editor Roundtable: Dead Poets Society

Learn How To Tell A Story That Works

Get my 5-day video course on how to tell better stories with Story Grid.

Enter your email below for a free Story Grid course!
Roundtable Editors tackle the Society genre

The Roundtable team waxes lyrical over the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir with screenplay by Tom Schulman. What we thought was a Global Worldview Story could actually be a Society Story that ends negatively. Leave a comment below or visit us on Twitter @StoryGridRT to let us know what you think of our analysis.

You can find the Foolscap Global Story Grid here (sheet 11).

You can find the movie on iTunes or Amazon.

The Story

Here’s a synopsis of the movie adapted from Wikipedia.

In the autumn of 1959, shy Todd Anderson begins his senior year of high school at Welton Academy, an all-male, elite prep school. His roommate is Neil Perry, one of Welton’s most promising students, and Todd is quickly accepted by Neil’s friends: Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks, Gerard Pitts, and Charlie Dalton.

On the first day of classes, the boys are surprised by the unorthodox teaching methods of the new English teacher, John Keating, a Welton alumnus who encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary,” a sentiment he summarizes with the Latin expression carpe diem.

Upon learning that Keating was a member of the unsanctioned Dead Poets Society, Neil restarts the club, and he and his friends sneak off campus to a cave where they read poetry and verse. Neil discovers his love of acting and gets a role in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, despite the fact that his domineering father wants him in the Ivy League (and ultimately medical school).

His father discovers Neil’s involvement in the play and demands that he quit. Devastated, Neil goes to Keating, who advises him to stand his ground and prove to his father that his love of acting is something he takes seriously. Neil’s father unexpectedly shows up at the performance. He takes Neil home and says he has been withdrawn from Welton and will be enrolled in a military academy to prepare him for Harvard. Unable to find the courage to stand up to his father, Neil commits suicide.

The Headmaster investigates Neil’s death at the request of his family. One of the boys, Richard, blames Neil’s death on Keating to escape punishment for his own participation in the Dead Poets Society, and names the other members. Confronted by Charlie, Richard urges the rest of them to let Keating take the fall. Each of the boys is called to Nolan’s office to sign a letter attesting to the truth of Richard’s allegations.

Keating is fired, and the headmaster takes over teaching the class. Keating interrupts the class to collect his personal articles. Before he leaves, Todd shouts that they were all forced to sign the letter that resulted in his dismissal and that Neil’s death was not his fault.

Todd stands on his desk and salutes Keating with the words “O Captain! My Captain!”

Half the class stands on their desks as well. Keating is deeply touched by their gesture.

The Six Core Questions

Read about an Editor’s Six Core Questions here.

1. What’s the Global Genre?

Worldview > Education

Valerie

Dead Poet Society’s global genre is the internal genre: Worldview > Education (Mini-Plot). The Global Value is Meaning to Meaninglessness. The range of value is Meaning to Cognitive Dissonance to Meaninglessness to Meaninglessness masked as Meaning. The Global genre and theme are intricately linked in this film. It’s impossible to talk about one without the other.

  • Neil, Todd, Knox, and Charlie are searching for happiness, belonging, and purpose (much like Billy Elliot). None of them wants to be in that school, or wants to do what their parents have dictated they should. So when Mr. Keating challenges them to “seize the day,” they each set out on their own journey to find meaning. Each of their stories is very different and each has a different take on what seize the day means.
  • Neil-Knox pairing: Both characters know what gives meaning to their lives and both go after it. For Knox, it’s about doing the thing that scares him. He calls a local girl he is attracted to, and she had been thinking about him. PRESCRIPTIVE TALE. Contrast this with Neil’s story, which is a CAUTIONARY TALE. He finds what gives his life meaning, and he defies authority to go after it. This is an enormous act of courage, and he succeeds. He’s a fabulous actor. But when the thing that gives him meaning is taken away, he dies.
  • Todd-Charlie pairing: Neither of these characters knows what gives their lives meaning, and so they flounder. Todd does nothing at all until it’s too late. Charlie acts randomly, without a goal or direction. Neither “seizes the day.” By the end of the film, both are on the path to finding meaning, and they take with them the lessons they’ve learned from Neil and Knox.
  • Richard: The anti-hero. He denies the need for life to have meaning and so remains (and perpetuates) the status quo. (Note the scene when Keating has the boys march in the courtyard. Richard leads, but has no clue that he’s doing so.)

External (secondary): Society > Historical This story is set in a very specific point in time: It’s 1959 and the end of the “father knows best” era, before the rebellion of the 1960s. Here we see that father most definitely did not know best. Escalation of the Vietnam War is right around the corner, with many young men dying. Note that Neil’s father is like the military in this microcosm. “Do what you’re told. Period.” Society is a fantastic pairing with the Education plot because it creates a great environment for the boys to rebel against.

Additional Comments 

Kim: It feels like Maturation to me because the boys learn that it’s not easy to change and that freedoms doesn’t happen right away.

Leslie: I agree that the internal genre is Worldview > Education because there isn’t a Maturation shift in Todd. In a way, he doesn’t see the world differently, but finds meaning in what he sees. Literary critic Norman Friedman describes the Education plot as a sympathetic character who undergoes a threat of some sort and emerges into a new and better kind of wholeness at the end. That sounds like a good fit for Todd’s journey.

Update from Leslie: After rethinking the story, some of us concluded that the Global Genre is the external, Society> Historical, which ends negatively. The feeling of triumph when the boys stand on their desks in solidarity with Mr. Keating led me to believe that Dead Poets Society ends positively, but although there is some level of satisfaction at the end of the story, the underclass (the boys) are defeated by the tyrants (parents and headmaster) because Richard Cameron is co-opted. Also, the internal genre is mostly likely Worldview > Revelation because Todd and the others come to realize that their revolution cannot be successful, but they can gain a level of satisfaction by seizing the day from a different perspective.

Check out this post to learn more about Global Content Genres.

2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?

Obligatory Scenes

Leslie

  • Inciting opportunity or challenge: In a visionary speech, Mr. Keating encourages the boys to seize the day.
  • Protagonist denies responsibility to respond to the opportunity or challenge: Todd Anderson skips a study session with Neil and his friends and chooses to study alone because he doesn’t want to read anything aloud.
  • Forced to respond, the protagonist lashes out against the requirement to change behavior: Todd tells Mr. Keating he hasn’t completed the assignment to write a poem.
  • Protagonist learns what external antagonist’s Object of Desire is: The antagonist wants conformity, and Mr. Keating tells them in the scene when they march in the courtyard.
  • Protagonist’s initial strategy fails: The secret of the Dead Poets Society is out (Nuwanda/Dalton reveals it, so they can no longer hide beneath the radar with their private rebellion).
  • During an All Is Lost Moment, Protagonist realizes that there is/can be meaning in the world: Neil’s death brings home Mr. Keating’s initial lesson: we’re all going to die. What will Todd do with this information?
  • Action moment when the protagonist’s gift is expressed: When Mr. Nolan tells Mr. Keating to leave the classroom, Todd protests and says it wasn’t Mr. Keating’s fault that Neil died.
  • Protagonist is rewarded with a deeper understanding of meaning in the world: Many of the other boys stand on their desks in solidarity with Todd and Mr. Keating.

Click here to learn more about Obligatory Scenes and Conventions.

Conventions

Anne

  • Strong Mentor Figure: Mr Keating, an iconic example of the Great Teacher type.
  • Big Social Problem as subtext: Class plays a huge role in controlling the boys’ behavior and choices because they believe their futures depend heavily on their being part of this school. Class divide is also mildly at play in the relationship between Knox and Chris–Chris goes to the public high school–though this would have been more of an issue in 1950-whatever if the gender roles were swapped.
  • Shapeshifters as hypocrites: secondary characters say one thing, do another: Cameron is the most hypocritical character. Starts by making fun of the new kid, but wants to join the club. Doesn’t join in till he’s sure everyone else has, is the last to rip the pages out of the poetry textbook, the first to remind everyone else that they’re breaking the rules. He’s the brown-noser who is first to give in to pressure in the end.
  • A clear Point of No Return: The moment when the Protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be. If Neil is the protagonist, his point of no return is either when he lies to Keating about his father giving him permission to be in the play, or when he accepts his father’s decree about going to military school and decides he’d rather die. The literal PONR of course is when he pulls the trigger.  

    BUT my difficulty with this film is that it’s hard to decide who the protagonist is supposed to be, since Neil, who appears to be the POV character, dies before the ending, and the final convention seems to pass to Mr Keating. Or Todd. I couldn’t decide.
  • Win-but-lose, lose-but-win bittersweet ending: The bittersweet ending belongs to Keating, who loses his job and his career over his unorthodox methods, but goes away with proof that he has made a positive difference in the lives of most of the boys.

3. What is the Point of View? What is the Narrative Device?

Valerie

  • Multiple points of view, which makes sense given that it’s a mini-plot.
  • There are quite a few shots from up high (emphasizing Keating’s standing on the desk): It’s a reminder to look at things from a fresh perspective. There are other ways of doing things.

Additional Comment

Kim: It feels a bit like The Great Gatsby in terms of the POV, with story being mostly about Neil, and Todd being an observer, but ultimately Neil dies and Todd is changed by the events of the story.

Anne: Because it’s mini-plot with a shifting POV, I feel that the Worldview message or theme worked less well, which is why I fell out more on the side of Society

Check out these posts to learn more about Point of View and Narrative Devices.

4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?

Valerie

Wants: Neil (to act), Todd (to blend in), Knox (get the girl), Charlie Dalton (does he even know? Random acts), Richard (to do what’s expected of him)

Needs: to find meaning and learn to think for themselves

Click here to learn more about Objects of Desire.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?

Valerie

Everything in this film is on theme. Brilliantly done.

  • Note similarities to Billy Elliot. A young man (young person) striking out on his own to do the thing he loves, even when (especially when) peers and power structure try to force them down another path.
  • Note Keating whistling Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” (written to commemorate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon, and is also played on Independence Day to celebrate the US going its own way and leaving the Commonwealth).
  • Even seemingly small issues on theme: Todd’s not wanting to join the Dead Poets Society because he doesn’t want to read out loud (but he can participate without reading: “it’s not how it’s done.” Neil “forget how it’s done.”).
  • The fact that they meet in a cave: “It is by going down into the abyss
    that we recover the treasures of life.” —Joseph Campbell

Additional Comments

Kim: Protagonists mature when they recognize the power stacked against them and that freedom or change is not instant or easy, but in spite of that, continue to embrace small actions of revolution.

Anne: Good take. You’ve conveyed how this movie sits right on the line between Worldview and Society. How about “Tyranny reigns until young people empower themselves through meaningful acts of rebellion.”?

Update from Anne: On further reflection, we think the Global Genre is more likely Society and that it ends negatively. He’s another crack at the Controlling Idea / Theme: Tyranny prevails when the underclass accedes to its demands.

Update from Leslie: Piggybacking on Anne’s expression of the Controlling Idea, I suggest Tyrants prevail when leaders of the underclass are co-opted, but members of the underclass can derive a level of satisfaction when they speak up and declare the Truth.

Click here to learn more about Controlling Ideas and Themes.

What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?

Kim

Beginning Hook

Mr. Keating’s avante garde teaching style challenges the boys to look beyond Welton’s four pillars and leads them to start their own Dead Poets Society.

  1. Inciting incident: Boys experience their first class with Mr. Keating, “We are food for worms, lads” and carpe diem!
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Every class with Keating feels like progressive revelations! Ultimately they are so intrigued by him they look him up in his old annual and find out he was part of the Dead Poets Society. They ask him about it.
  3. Crisis Question: Neil says, “We should do it,” and then it’s about convincing the others. Irreconcilable goods question: Freedom of expression VS. following the rules/safety
  4. Climax: They decide to sneak out that night.
  5. Resolution: The boys hold their first Dead Poets Society meeting in the cave.

Middle Build

The boys continue to grow in independence and free thinking under the radar, each has a personal turning point until the existing power gets wise and doubles down. (This was tricky because it’s a mini-plot, and each character has their own moments, so I decided to focus on Neil’s commandments because his lead us into ending payoff.)

  1. Inciting incident: Neil decides he wants to be an actor, and he tries out for a play without telling his father.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Neil’s father finds out about the play, and tells him he has to quit.
  3. Crisis Question: This is a Best Bad Choice: Talk to his father, be honest, and face his wrath and consequences or stay silent and lose his spirit?
  4. Climax: Neil tells Mr. Keating he spoke with his father, and that he’s going to let him finish the play. He even thinks his father will let him stay with acting (but he’s not very convincing).
  5. Resolution: They all go to the play, and Neil performs beautifully.

Ending Payoff 

Instead of going along with his parents’ plan for his life, Neil chooses to take his own life. An investigation pins his death on Mr. Keating, and the boys are forced to sign a statement or be expelled. The boys are not able to fight against the powers that be or save Mr. Keating’s job, but they gain new perspective about life and show Mr. Keating that his work was not in vain. Though they are bound on the outside, inside they are changed.

  1. Inciting incident: Neil’s parents are withdrawing him from Welton and sending him to military school: ”You will be a doctor, so help me” / Neil kills himself.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Neil’s family and the headmaster blames Mr. Keating. The boys are questioned and told to sign a statement saying Mr. Keating is responsible.
  3. Crisis Question: Best Bad Choice: Tell the truth, don’t sign, and be expelled or lie, sign, and betray Mr. Keating and everything he’s taught them.
  4. Climax: Todd sees that all the others signed the statement and, feeling powerless with his parents and headmaster there, signs it too.
  5. Resolution: Todd and others honor Mr. Keating by standing on their desks and calling out “Oh Captain, my captain”, despite headmaster yelling for them to sit down.

Additional Comment

Kim: It’s interesting the way it felt like the beginning hook ended positively, the midpoint ended positively, not many antagonistic forces at work, just fun progressive revelations, until after the midpoint when Knox gets punched, Charlie gets caught, and Neil gets caught. It’s as if they are learning a new way of thinking but are still naive because they think they can go unchallenged by the existing power structure (administration / parents). Maturity doesn’t come until they experience being overpowered once again, and then in that place, find a way to hold on to their inner hope and beliefs with the exception of Neil who chooses death.

Click here to learn more about the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff.

7. Additional Story-Related Observations

Jarie: It is only fitting that we include a poem from a dead poet. This one is not in the movie, but is one of my favorites and captures the struggles that we as writers and editors sometimes go through.

Invictus
William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
     Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
     For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
     I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
     Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
     Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
     How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
     I am the captain of my soul.

Anne: This movie belongs to a class of teacher-and-student stories that includes To Sir With Love, Mr Holland’s Opus, Stand and Deliver, and Dangerous Minds, where the Mentor figure is central. They’re often Performance genre stories—which even this one has some elements of—but they’re always Worldview, too, with a great teacher opening the minds and expanding the horizons of young students. A lot of these stories involve underprivileged kids and underfunded schools. Here, we have an elite boys prep school where the limitations are imposed by rigid class standards and expectations.

Valerie: Expression of Theme: It permeates every aspect of a story. Every scene, every character, every action. Even when Richard tears out the introduction to the poetry book, he does it with a ruler. 

Leslie: On the subject of Human Need Tanks, Genre, and the connection to parenting: The parents and most of the faculty seem stuck in self-esteem or self-respect level of need, whereas the boys and Mr. Keating are working in the realm of self-actualization. Although this is set in 1959, it feels quite reminiscent of Boomers vs. Generation X kids. And, this reminds me of modes of parenting explained in Robin Grille’s book Parenting for a Peaceful World. In essence, socializing mode parents believe their children will be successful (which they equate with happiness) if they fit in and are socially acceptable; helping mode parents support their children’s emotional development and foster autonomy and self regulation. The midpoint seems to demonstrate this tension really well when Mr. Keating has the boys do a marching exercise in the courtyard.

Since this is a Society story, I can’t help but talk about two topics that are raised by the film. Knox’s interactions with Chris and his touching and kissing her while she is sleeping/unconscious at the party would have been typical in 1959 or even 1989. It’s worth mentioning that when Knox, a likable character we’re rooting for, does this, only the unreasonable and unlikable Chet and his football friend protest. Hopefully this wouldn’t fly today.

Tweens and teens need to rebel as part of their individuation from parents—it’s part of growing up. They need a safe way to take risks and make mistakes to learn who they are and how to make decisions. Keating recognizes this and supports risk taking, and even gently brings Dalton into line when he goes too far (“sucking on the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone”). Raising Cain (book and documentary) is a great resource on this point for boys in particular.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

Join us again next time when we investigate the claims of Double Indemnity, the 1944 film noir classic about murder and insurance fraud. Watch it with us and follow along next week. You can find it on iTunes or Amazon.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Comments (0)
Author Leslie Watts

Leave a Comment

Story Grid has helped thousands of authors tell better stories.

Now it's Your Turn

I’d like to send you a FREE 5-day video course on how to tell better stories with Story Grid.

The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

Resources

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.