Tuesday, January 13, 2015


So a long time ago when I first started writing seriously I was in grad school at NYU, and I wrote a play based on a poem by Mel Glenn in Class Dismissed.  In the poem a struggling girl goes to her parents, who send her to her teachers, who send her to her counselor, who sends her to the assistant principal, who sends her to the principal, and so on until she loops right back to her parents.  My play, about a disenfranchised but talented girl named Jessie, was one act, and followed this very neat structure…three scenes –in the principal’s office, the guidance counselor’s office, and her mom’s kitchen alternated with bridge scenes in which she talks to an unlikely friend.  There was a seed of something there, but readers kept asking for more, especially when we did a staged reading.
I think I just figured something out.
I just reread Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.  He has a very neat structure in this book too.  Thirteen tapes, each telling the story of how one of Hannah’s classmates contributed to her suicide, with bookend chapters at the beginning and end.  What was remarkable to me as I reread was the way Jay varied this structure.  And, of course, this variation keeps me engaged.  The thirteen-tapes-thirteen-chapters structure holds.  Really, it speaks for itself.  But within these chapters Jay creates captivating variations.
When I structure a story, there is a compelling temptation for me to find a neat, even structure and stay inside it.  If I’d been writing Thirteen Reasons Why when I was in grad school, I would have been tempted to keep the alternating stories of present Clay and past Hannah completely in line –if she was talking about Courtney in Chapter “Five” (Cassette 3: Side A), I’d have Clay at Courtney’s spot on the map, Monet’s Café, right?  Uh, Jay doesn’t do this.  Past Hannah’s experience on the tapes is always one story ahead of Present Clay’s location on the map.  This is how Jay starts new problems smoldering just before he resolves Clay’s current issue.  It creates suspense.  It propels the reader forward.
Let’s not ignore that map.  The tapes are the primary structural image, but if it wasn’t for that map, we’d still be stuck with Clay in his garage.  The map gets him moving, and in the process unearths something true about Clay’s experience.  He needs room to breathe while he listens to the tapes.  He can’t do this at home where his mother could walk in on him at any moment.
Next, near the middle of the novel, Clay veers from Hannah’s map.  On his own, he goes to the movie theatre where he worked with her in the summer.  This variation does a lot.  First, it heightens suspense, because he does this just when we’re worried he’s not going to make it to Rosie’s before his mom.  Second, it does a great deal to show us how Clay is coping with the tapes; after so much ugliness, he needs to go to a place where Hannah was safe.  Maybe most importantly, it gives Jay the opportunity to build up Clay’s past experience with Hannah, and we need that to understand where the main arc of the story is going, how these tapes are going to change Clay forever.
Additionally, Jay doesn’t let Clay wander the whole book alone.  There are several important instances of supporting characters appearing in Clay’s present day drama with the tapes.  Clay runs into Skye on the bus, and his clipped conversation with her serves as a seed for the gravity of the conclusion.  In front of Tyler’s house, Clay runs into Marcus.  Their interchange showcases a contrast of responses to the Hannah situation and gives Clay an opportunity to express his anger.  And of course, there is Tony who shows up at the diner and drives Clay to the party house where they listen to Clay’s tape together.  There is human empathy here, a decency we need to counter the despicable actions on the tape and point the way to redemption.
Near the end of the novel, Clay stops following Hannah’s instructions.  He refuses to go on to Courtney’s house, and chooses instead to spend the night at Eisenhower Park.  To me, this marks Clay’s departure from Hannah’s line of thinking.  Though he empathizes with Hannah deeply, Clay sees elements of her logic that are twisted, he sees, in the end, she was sabotaging herself.  When he veers from her directions, he also refuses to give into the danger of her logic.
Instead of Hannah telling the story of Mr. Porter, the thirteenth tape is an actual recording of her interchange with him.  This heightens the stakes.  It’s also necessary because by now we know Hannah’s thinking is a little warped, and we need to know that Porter unequivocally shuts down her attempt to reach out.
Lastly, Jay allows us to listen for a moment to the blankness of the fourteenth side of the tape.  In that static whirring we hear the distance between ourselves and Hannah, where she is now.  It is heartrending.
All these deeply emotional moments, indispensable insights into character, and plot decisions that drive us to read on would be impossible if Jay had kept things as neat as I am tempted to do.  The structure speaks for itself.  It holds everything together.  It is clear and strong.  It is in the variation of this structure that emotional discoveries are unearthed.  A lesson learned.  A lesson well taught.

Suspense and Small Potatoes

           Recently I met Jay Asher on his visit to our local, children’s, indie bookstore Cover to Cover for his 50 States Against Bullying Tour.  First of all, I have to say that Jay Asher is one of the nicest, most reflective, articulate writers I’ve ever met.  He listened to my question intently and made sure he answered every part of it.  I said to him, “I stayed up till two in the morning to finish Thirteen Reasons Why, it gave me a migraine, and it was one of the best books I’ve ever read.  How did you maintain that kind of intensity on every page?”
            He said, basically, it all came from fear.  He was afraid readers would find the book too sad so, from the beginning, he decided he wanted to write the most suspenseful story he could.  He went on to explain the key is anticipation.  The reader thinks she knows what is going to happen, and she reads on to find out if she’s right.  You want the reader to need just one more chapter.  You want, as Jay said, no bookmarks.  No place the reader feels it’s okay to put the book down.  I’d say that worked!  But Jay went on to explain how he did this, and I went home to reread Thirteen Reasons Why and analyze his suspense tactics.
            Of course, you can create suspense with foreshadowing and pitch perfect chapter endings, but Jay spoke about something else.  He said mainly he’s worried the reader knows the question of the main arc is not going to be resolved until the end of the book.  So how is he going to keep readers reading until there?  For example, the big question in Thirteen Reasons Why is: why is Clay on the tapes and when is his name going to come up?  We know we’re probably not going to get answers until the end, so what keeps us turning the pages?  Jay says…smaller problems.
            Jay actually brainstormed problems that could come up for Clay in his dilemma with Hannah’s tapes.  As he was writing he could pull from the list to get a smaller problem festering.  So for example, Clay calls his mom to bring him the tapes he left at home, and for the pages it takes for her to show up you’re worrying what if she listens to them!?!  Then, before that worry is resolved, Jay starts another little problem smoldering for the reader to worry about.
            Of course!  Of course!  Of course!  So I went back and looked for these smaller problems.  I listed them.  I found pages of them.  As I listed these small potatoes, I found I always phrased them as questions.  Bearing in mind that Jay wrote Hannah’s story first in total, then Clay’s, and then wove them together, I realized I found small potato problems on three levels of the story –Clay’s present day dilemma with the tapes, Hannah’s story from the past, and Clay’s experience of Hannah from the past.  This was an interesting discovery.  The list of small potatoes from Clay’s past was basically a list of rising stakes for Clay’s overall arc.  The list of small potatoes from Hannah’s past was the longest, but the list of smaller problems for the present day Clay dealing with Hannah’s tapes was actually the most unique and difficult to make predictions about.
            I also noticed a couple of techniques for staggering the small potato problems.  Jay overlaps them so a new problem is introduced before the current one is resolved.  In Thirteen Reasons Why, he does this by staggering the past and present stories.  The telling of the past on Hannah’s tapes is always one story ahead of Clay’s present location on the map she’s given him.  This makes it easy to start one problem before the other is resolved. 
Another way he overlaps problems is the interconnectedness of the characters.  Donald Maass talks about the importance of finding unexpected ways your cast is related to each other.  Jay clearly did this.  I can just seem him drawing web-like lines between characters’ names on the page.  Because Jay found unique connections between his supporting cast members, Hannah can allude to characters she’s discussed showing up later.  This of course drives theory-formulating readers crazy with anticipation. 
Jay also uses the simple technique of seeding.  The story of the old man Clay helps after a car accident is seeded almost inconsequentially in an early chapter about Hannah first house, where the old man now lives.  But you know it’s there for a reason, and the early appearance of the old man hits you like a ton of bricks when he reappears in one of the final chapters. 
Of course, Jay allows readers plenty of room to theorize about characters’ motivations.  As Hannah makes her way through those indicted on the tapes, she, somewhat coyly, drops references to shocking behaviors.  Readers cannot help but wonder why anyone would do such a thing, and we read on to see if our predictions match up with Hannah’s explanations. 
Lastly, Jay, probably because he is such a good listener, is very in tune with the teen experience.  Tape after tape, chapter after chapter, he hits us with discrete, unique events, very recognizable to high school students –parties, angsty poetry writing, line-crossing voyeurism, watering holes, summer jobs, cars, and school institutions like the counselors office.  So every chapter is refreshing rather than belaboring.  Beneath these external conflicts are also real examinations of internal issues teens know all too well like rumors, reputations, betrayal, trust, and navel-gazing self-analysis.  Jay’s choice of events is both refreshing and true.  Even the three parties are distinctive.
Thank you, Jay, for your openness and generosity about suspenseful writing.  Your response to my question opened up a whole new world to me.  And actually retracing Jay’s steps through Thirteen Reasons Why helped me to deeply internalize that new understanding.  Try this with your favorite suspenseful YA and see what you learn!