13 Reasons Why and how not to do suspense

13 reasons tapes

Warning: some light spoilers for Thirteen Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why is a teen Netflix drama based on the YA novel by Jay Asher. It was a hit with its target audience, but caused a whirl of controversy over its no holds barred portrayal of teen suicide and rape. That aside, the thing that bothered me most was that an otherwise decent show used false suspense to pad episodes, when it should have just been shorter. 13 Reasons Why is a lesson in how not to do suspense.

13 Reasons Why starts with  our protagonist, Clay Jenson, finding a box full of cassette tapes waiting for him on his porch, one day after school. Turns out they were recorded by his friend Hannah Baker, who recently killed herself. On the tape she explains the titular reasons, with each side of a tape being dedicated to a person and the things they did or didn’t do, which culminated in her demise. The big question is, if Clay was her friend why is he on the list to receive the tapes?

At this point, it’s worth saying that mental health organisations complained that the premise of the show and book oversimplifies the reasons for suicide. At no point does anyone question Hannah’s mental health, they just accept that a perfectly healthy person could kill themselves over school bullying and sexist micro-aggressions.

In addition, the show doesn’t shy away from the suicide scene, which shows Hannah in the bath with a razor blade. I have to say that I thought the scene was effective in making slitting your wrists look painful, lonely and nasty. However, I do question the choice of the anthemic Vienna by Ultravox during the scene where Hannah walks through the school door for the last time, deciding to go through with the suicide. The music made it feel as if suicide was a heroic thing to do, which was more disturbing that the actual suicide scene, which had no music, as far as I can remember.

Thirteen Reasons Why cast

A diverse cast with strong performances and characters makes 13 Reasons Why compelling in spite of its slack pacing

Among the things the show does really well is its great cast. Dylan Minette plays Clay and lends him a real gentleness that drew me straight in, whilst Alicia Boe as Jessica is the other star turn. Boe is Norwegian Somali and she joins one of the most diverse casts since The 100, featuring Latin, black and Asian actors in main parts. The story line also deals with homosexuality, but refreshingly doesn’t cast actors of colour in order to tackle “race issues”. In fact, it’s the attractive white kid who’s from the wrong side of the tracks with a violent step dad and a mother with substance or alcohol dependency issues, so in many ways Thirteen Reasons Why is really progressive – it just needed to get a move on when it comes to pacing.

I read the book so long ago that I couldn’t remember what happened, so the show was compelling at first, but it started to drag. It’s quickly revealed that Tony is the custodian of the tapes and knows the whole story, but promised Hannah he wouldn’t tell anyone before they listened to the cassettes. Clay figures this out and then has numerous scenes telling Tony that he can’t bare to listen any more because it’s too painful and awful. Then something compels him to continue.

This is all fine until the third or fourth time Clay is having the same conversation with Tony. By around episode 8 (there are 13 episodes), it’s clear that the writers don’t have enough story. At this point nearly an entire 45 minutes is dedicated to Clay saying he can’t go on and Tony saying he must. And then Tony drives him to a rock face and makes him climb it as some painful metaphor for being able to do things you never thought you could, if you face your fears. Basically, the writers were stalling for time.

Stringing the reader or viewer along in order to drag your story out isn’t suspense, it’s frustration. If you have something interesting to say, just say it. Never ever stop the action to have your characters wonder if they should do that thing because it’s boring and your audience will lose interest.

Clay’s reluctance just wasn’t believable. If your dead best friend put you on a list of people who they claim caused them to kill themselves, you’d either burn the tapes from the start or listen breathlessly until you found out why. It’s unlikely that you’d start listening, find out a bit of the story and then give up halfway, especially after all of Hannah’s revelations. Humans are naturally curious and vain, so give them intrigue that concerns them and they won’t rest until they know the story.

Hitchcock famously said that drama is life with the boring bits cut out. Unfortunately, Thirteen Reasons Why put the dull moments back in. Clay could have had a little wobble and then ploughed on with us all gasping in relief because we want to know the why of this ‘why dunnit’. In short, the writers should have just cut to the chase and forgotten the neat conceit of having 13 episodes for the 13 reasons and tape sides.

Despite its failures regarding pacing, 13 Reasons did draw me in with its great cast and otherwise good writing. As a result, it is up for a second season. The TV show significantly expanded on the original book and free from the novel’s confines in season two, I’m hoping it will learn its own lessons. Recognise how long your story needs to be, but don’t try to stretch it out to fill a word count or time slot if you’re writing a screenplay. Every scene should serve the narrative, not put it on hold and risk boring your audience.


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