How to use theme to drive your story.

How Dead Poet’s Society renders theme.
How Dead Poet’s Society renders theme.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger reminds us that one of the many ways a writer expresses the theme of a story is through an either-or-statement. She provides several examples, but let’s look at one in particular nested in one of my most favourite films!

In Dead Poet’s Society the theme is conformity versus creativity. This clash is expressed through the characters battling over their beliefs. More importantly, exploring the theme through conflict lays bare the consequences of each belief system.

The principal of the school represents steadfast tradition, which is not wrong in itself, until it collides with the creative spirit and tries to crush it. Todd (Ethan Hawke), on the other hand, is transformed by the creative spirit at the end of the film. He has literally learnt to stand up for what he believes in. The unforgettable line, “Oh, Captain my Captain” is his stirring and rebellious affirmation of the open-minded creativity represented by Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). Ultimately, Mr. Keating’s plea to his students is to keep examining the world from different perspectives in order to flourish as people and artists.

“The theme of the story is what shapes its characters, actions and events. It is the story’s meaning.”

Opposing the value of creativity, Charlie (Gale Hansen) represents the sort of person who thinks creativity promotes chaos. He can’t admit that balance is perhaps the way to allow both sides to flourish. The result is reflected in Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) who tragically can’t sustain his creativity against the overwhelming weight of his father’s wish that he become a doctor. The result? He commits suicide in hopeless despair.

The film explores the theme of conformity versus creativity by encasing it inside separate characters whose views and choices result in specific outcomes. Perhaps the lesson here is that an accommodation ought to be sought between binary beliefs. Mr. Keating is an example of how to navigate these seemingly incompatible poles: He is a creative soul who does not reject the value of tradition out of hand, providing it does not become an obstacle to one’s hopes and dreams.


The theme of a story is the point of the tale and is embodied in the actions and character of the players that people it.

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