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.