A Writer’s Perspective On Why ’13 Reasons Why’ Gets Mental Illness Right

Everyone’s experiences with mental health are different. One story can’t portray that. It’s not possible.

I’ve read the book. I’ve watched the show. I’ve read the articles and the comments and my friends’ reactions to the story.

As a writer, I am disappointed that so many people aren’t seeing this show the way it was meant to be seen.

I’m not here to say my opinion is right and everyone else is wrong. But as a professional storyteller, and someone who has personally experienced issues with mental health, please allow me to present things from a bit of a different perspective.

For some context, 13 Reasons Why is a Netflix original series based on a book about a girl sharing the reasons why she killed herself. That’s as basic as the premise gets. Hannah records 13 tapes explaining how the actions of others affected her, and ultimately drove her to take her own life. The dramatic element is that the tapes get shared among everyone in Hannah’s life, and they’re used as a means of telling the “before.”

But pay attention to my summary of the show. One girl explains the reasons she believes she no longer wants to live.

That’s important. Because the criticisms of this show I’m seeing most often are that 13 Reasons Why assumes people kill themselves because of trauma and not because mental illness is a real thing that sometimes happens for no reason at all.

For starters, yes. Health crises like depression can drive a person to complete suicide without warning or cause. That is a fact and I’m not here to dispute it.

But here’s what people seem to be forgetting: this is a TV show. One story. About one person.

People don’t seem to have as much of an issue with how triggering the show can be for some people, or how graphic it is. Generally, people seem to understand that was purposeful.

But — as I see way too often — people seem to not understand that this show IS A SHOW, and not a complete academic summary of how mental health problems work in real life.

It’s almost like people expected this to be a TV show about a girl with depression who ends her life for no reason other than she’s depressed. No trauma, no triggers — it was just supposed to happen because of how devastating depression and similar conditions can be to a person experiencing them.

But who wants to watch a TV drama without any drama? No one.

This show was dramatic BECAUSE IT IS NOT REAL.

It is realistic, but not real. There is a difference.

Suicide is extremely dramatic, and people who deal with depression and other mental health issues suffer immensely as a result of their pain. Their pain is real, often physical, too. But in many ways, 13 Reasons Why is not a show about suicide. And it is definitely not a show about depression. It is a story about one girl’s experiences, and the events that led to her making the decision to complete suicide.

It was never supposed to be a story about how mental illness drives people to cause harm to themselves. It is not a documentary about suicide. Neither was the book a journalistic piece documenting the realities and statistics surrounding depression in teenagers. It is literally one fictional story about a girl who is bullied, who is affected so deeply by the way she is treated that she comes to the conclusion that the only way to end her pain is to end her life.

If you want to hear real stories about real people who are suicidal because of mental health issues and their many side effects and co-occurring conditions, there are plenty of resources, studies, and essays on the internet. But a Netflix show based on a fictional story from one person’s fictional perspective is not going to fill that need for you. It never tried to.

And speaking to those who have criticized this show for “glorifying” suicide, please explain to me how that’s the case. Because I have never myself been suicidal, yet that scene in the last episode (you know the one) was extremely difficult for me to watch. IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN. Hannah received zero reward for what she did. She wasn’t looking for one. She was trying to wrestle with her depression, and understand its hold on her.

If you paid any attention to the show, you’ll recall that after recording the first 12 tapes, having worked through and acknowledged all of her pain, Hannah went to an adult to ask for help. In a way, the tapes were like a journal, sort of helping her understand what led to her feeling the way she felt — which made her realize that she could not overcome it on her own.

That’s why the 13th tape is so devastating. Because Hannah wanted to live. But she felt she couldn’t anymore. At that point, her depression became the sole influence of her thoughts and her behavior. And the results were fatal.

Does that sound like a story trying to imply that suicide somehow makes you a hero?

To me, it sounds like a story about how others’ behaviors can influence a person’s view of themselves, enough to trigger any mental health thought patterns or behaviors they may have been predisposed to even if they never showed signs of them before.

If you can’t differentiate between fiction and reality, you shouldn’t be watching shows like this. I’m not saying you can’t — you can do whatever you want. But how can you sit there and complain about a story not being “real enough” when IT’S FICTIONAL?

Depression, suicide — all issues relating to mental health are real and serious. I will always advocate for stories that portray realistic stories about mental health. But what their audiences need to understand is that one story cannot portray every person’s experiences. You can’t expect one show to reflect your or someone else’s story exactly “right.” One story can only show and tell so much about one subject.

But you can expect that shows like 13 Reasons Why will not hesitate to remind you that whether someone is depressed or not, treating people like they’re less than you has consequences. Ultimately, I think that’s something the show’s writers and directors wanted to get across.

I’m sorry if you didn’t get out of this show what you were expecting, but it’s not the only story out there about these topics. Keep looking. There are more stories out there than you apparently realize. Find the one(s) that speak to you and share them. Or, if you have your own story to tell — there are supportive communities both online and off that will allow you to do that freely.

But don’t call one show a “failure” for doing what it’s supposed to do: tell a story. It may not have sent out the messages you yourself wanted to hear, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t send out the ones it was originally created to do.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

What Happens When You Send a Character Out of Their Comfort Zone?

I know good character writing when I see it.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who loved Thursday night’s midseason Grey’s Anatomy premiere, and those who wished it never happened.

Granted, this is a serial drama and I don’t expect every viewer to over-analyze characterization in every script. It’s not their fault they’re upset about not having their expectations met (do we really still expect that from TV?). But I can’t help myself. I over-analyze everything. I’m a writer. It’s what I do.

I’m not going to spend this entire post on a Grey’s rant. But I do have a point to make. Bear with me.

The majority of negative commentary following the episode related to an argument I’m not going to get into right now. But a lot of it also criticized the writing. They did not like the environment, or the characters. It was not what they were used to.

The episode took place in a prison instead of a hospital for reasons we’re not fully certain of yet (I can guarantee that will become clearer – because TV shows do random things to make you come back next week, because it’s TV).

As I expected, this drastic change of scenery meant the three familiar MCs we followed throughout the episode were completely out of their element, even in performing a medical procedure.

Especially notable was the general criticism of Dr. Miranda Bailey and how she “did not act like herself.” Many – far too many, in my opinion – blamed this on “bad writing.” Assuming that anytime a character does not display familiar behavior, it’s a poorly written TV episode.

I’m not an expert in TV writing by any means. But I do know a little something about good character writing. It would have been disappointing if, put in a completely new situation, every character acted the exact same way they always do. That’s flat, it’s unrealistic, and I’m glad they had more sense than that.

Bailey acted strange. Sure. Because this was not a typical day for her. Change changes people. It may be a fictional story, but it’s supposed to be as realistic as possible. Right?

This was not bad writing. I won’t exaggerate and call it brilliant, but it was no mistake.

We saw a character already being put through challenge after challenge pushed to her breaking point. We saw her in an environment in which she was not in control – a place where her uncertainty, long buried beneath the shell of her comfort zone, exposed. And even throughout a single episode we saw her begin to adapt to being in this position she did not want to be in.

This is called character development. Driven by plot, it shows (in this case the viewer) how a beloved character is still flawed – vulnerable – imperfect, even after 13 seasons. The moment we stop challenging our characters, they become uninteresting. We stop caring.

“This is not the Bailey we know and love.” Well of course not. This is not the place she calls home. What did you expect?

Do you think and behave the exact same way at home as you do at work? Are you always confident – or always shy, especially when put in a completely unfamiliar situation? No. And neither are your characters.

Everyone has their comfort zone, and in order to write dynamic characters, you need to take them out of that comfort zone. That is how you facilitate growth – by forcing characters into uncomfortable circumstances, over and over again until they have no choice but to adapt.

That is my challenge for you this upcoming week. Write down things that make your round characters uncomfortable. Then figure out how to launch them into a journey of development and self-discovery by putting them through the exact things that make them feel doubtful, afraid, self-conscious, etc. That is a core writing principle that we all need to implement into our stories more often.

Dynamic characters are affected drastically by the plots that surround them. Every setting should bring out different behaviors. Personalities shift – sort of – depending on where a person is, who they are with, what they are doing. That is how it works in the real world. The same thing needs to happen in stories, too – because characters need to be relatable. Realistic.

Write good characters. Challenge them. Make them uncomfortable. It’s fun, once you get into the habit.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

Gilmore Girls Is Over. Move On. [SPOILER-FREE]

This was an ending, from the beginning.

gilmore girls

Having been only 8 years old when Gilmore Girls first premiered in 2000, I didn’t first watch the series until a few years after it ended. I still consider myself a huge fan – I relate to many of the characters more than I’m willing to admit. I’ve watched the series in its entirety at least twice (that’s a lot of hours of TV, and this was pre-Netflix). I was looking forward to Netflix’s ‘revival.’ The series creator didn’t have the chance to end the show the way she wanted back then, and as soon as I learned she was finally getting the chance to give the show the ending she dreamed of, I was on board.

I’m not the biggest fan of things ‘coming back.’ I believe an ending is an ending, and that people get way too attached to stories, begging for more when there isn’t more to tell. So I was a little hesitant to hop on the Excited Train. The first trailer was enough to make me feel OK about it. And then there are the Last Four Words, which made me excited not for myself, but for Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator). Any creator who loses control of her story, especially in its final season, I’m going to support them when they get their rightful ending, no matter who it is.

I watched all four episodes (more like mini-movies – each over an hour long, the final almost two) on Friday. I watched them alone. I cried during most of the last half of the experience. Because I don’t let hypes inflate my expectations, I went in with none – and those episodes ended up being everything I had hoped for – nothing more; nothing less. I felt closure. I felt complete. And when those Last Four Words hit, I felt HAPPY, and SATISFIED, and I turned Netflix off, and other than two blog posts in a row related to the subject (sorry), I moved on.

I expected people to feel the same way I did. People don’t. There are people who are disappointed. Upset, even. Worst of all, they don’t like the fact that it’s over. They want more.

Again, I have to advocate for the writers and creators of the world here … IT ENDED. They’re not called the Last Four Words for nothing. The story has a definite end, in the sense that many loose ends are tied up, and there’s one thing that isn’t – ON PURPOSE. I can’t get into details because I really don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t gotten around to watching yet. But people are completely missing the point. It was supposed to end this way. It always was. And the fact that it didn’t happen until 9 years after the fact actually worked out in its favor, in my opinion.

I can’t stand people who keep asking for more. There isn’t any more. The creators aren’t going to give you more. If you weren’t satisfied with what you were given, I don’t think you came into this with the right mindset. This is not something that was ever meant to expand. This was an ending, from the beginning. As always, blogs and news outlets gave you pretty good reason to have the wrong expectations going in.

This was not Gilmore Girls the way you remember it. This was a tribute to what should have been, 9 years later. Things change in 9 years. Characters change. Even writers and directors change. YOU have changed. Why … why do you want more of something that shouldn’t have even happened? I loved the revival. I loved the closure. But in many ways, this was a four-part series trying to exist 9 years in the past while keeping up with the times. It needs to be put to rest. It’s done. It got the ending it deserved – and maybe you don’t agree with that, but that’s because you’re not looking at the whole picture. I think a lot of people expected this to be … a new show, in a way? No. That’s not what this was for.

Let it be done. This happens with TV shows and movie franchises and books all the time. When the creator says it’s done, it really needs to be done. We just know, deep down, when we’ve told all of a story that needs telling. In our minds, Rory’s future will play out – but we don’t need someone else to tell us how that goes. Use your imaginations. Is that so hard?

Gilmore Girls is over. I would be both surprised and upset if there was more. More would ruin it. More would be going too far. The story has been told, it’s not going to change just because you’re on Facebook whining about it. I’m sorry you got your hopes up, but I don’t know what you expected. It’s HARD to return to something you did nine years ago, for the writers, directors and actors alike. You’re being selfish, really. Be grateful you got anything at all in terms of closure. It’s done. Move on. You can do it.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

What ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ Can Teach You About Flashbacks in Storytelling

To hold you over until tonight’s season finale …

How to Get Away with Murder’s writing has always impressed me. It somehow always manages to correct its flaws about as quickly as they appear, surprise me even when I’m convinced I know what’s going to happen next, and keep my full attention every second of each episode, season after season.

I won’t spoil anything for you if you’re behind or haven’t even gotten around to watching from the beginning yet (it’s worth it, I promise). Each season begins with an intense scene (usually in which someone is dead or close to it) in which only a few small details are revealed. The episodes that follow backtrack to the “present,” showing the events that lead up to the season finale, in which all the pieces revealed throughout the season eventually come together to loop back to the very first scene.

It’s not an unheard of storytelling method by any means, but the way in which it’s executed never ceases to astound me. Whether or not you’re a fan of the show, there’s a lot we can learn from the way it tells a very complicated story. Whether you’re a screenwriter, novelist or you write a little bit of everything fictional, here are some key things to keep in mind when incorporating flashbacks into a story.

One or more of your characters is most definitely hiding something.

Or, at the very least, there’s a lot about a character’s past or past events that the reader doesn’t know, and isn’t supposed to find out about right away. There’s a way to withhold information about a character’s dark past – and create a dark past – without falling prey to cliches. It doesn’t even have to be dark, I suppose. It can be funny, it can be whatever you want it to be, as long as it matches the overall tone of your story. If your story requires flashbacks, it’s a good way to help readers slowly piece together the past.

You should never reveal every piece of background at once.

Never. Storytelling gets complicated when you weave together elements like foreshadowing, backstory and a whole lot of shady dialogue. But that’s what makes it fun … most of the time, anyway. What you don’t want to do is leave everything until the second to last chapter, or reveal too much at once and kill the momentum. This strategy literally baits the reader into reading/watching/listening more because they want to find out what happened. They want to uncover all the pieces. Don’t give them too many pieces, or they’ll lose interest.

Storytelling shouldn’t always be linear.

I tend to overuse memories and flashbacks, but that’s because my fiction tends to be (extremely borderline) psychological thriller. I like messing with people’s heads, characters included. I think it’s fun to make a story jump around in time, as long as it makes logical sense. There are plenty of stories in which a story starts at the beginning and continues on, forward in time, until the end. In those stories, it works. There are stories where time is always jumping back and forward and back again – as long as it works as a device to move the plot forward, you can’t go wrong. Usually.

Who’s ready for tonight’s season finale? I’m not. Spend some time writing today, in anticipation of whatever awful things are in store to wreck all of our minds and hearts forever.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.