Over the weekend, Netflix finally released its highly anticipated mini-series Thirteen Reasons Why. Based off the Jay Asher novel of the same name and produced by starlet Selena Gomez, it centers around the story of Hannah Baker, a teenage girl who kills herself and leaves behind several cassette tapes detailing the thirteen reasons why she took her own life. It takes an unflinching look at the issues facing teens today, including suicide, depression, bullying, and sexual assault. I suggest you check it out if you get the chance. As someone who loved everything about the book, I feel the series lived up in every way to Asher’s original work.
The release of Thirteen Reasons Why got me thinking about the art of tackling tough topics through fiction writing. Some of the richest stories come from the darkest corners of humanity, from the things we often can’t talk about about out loud, from the things that are uncomfortable to think about. The emotions stirred up in us as readers/viewers are powerful, and transcend things like age and background. Many times, these are the kind of stories that remain long after the last page is read or the credits roll.
However, these same subjects can also be just as difficult to write about as they are to talk about. Where do you start? How can you keep things from getting to melodramatic? Are your characters reacting right? Does your story feel honest?
If you are thinking about tackling some tough issues in your writing, here are a few tips to help you out.
Do your research.
When dealing with sensitive topics, such as self harm or depression, it is vital that you do your research, especially if you don’t have any personal experience with what you are writing about. Being able to paint the picture accurately in essential to telling your story well. There are tons of websites and organizations out there dedicated to recovery, symptoms, and signs. You can even look for ones that focus on specific age groups. Hit the library. Pick up some pamphlets. Do whatever you need to bring some reality to your fictional world.
Characters matter. A lot.
One of the big reasons Thirteen Reasons Why has worked its way into the hearts of millions is the powerful characters of Clay and Hannah, who put a face and a name to suicide and its ramifications. Your characters can make or break your story, especially when you are writing about a tough subject. Make them feel real and relatable. You want your readers to care about them, root for them, and empathize with them. However, don’t make their anxiety or disorder the only important thing about them. Real people are more than the issues they are working through, and your characters should be too.
Maybe you have a message you want to get out about sexual assault. Maybe you want raise awareness about depression. It’s great you have something to say. As writers, we want our work to have a profound impact on the world. However, don’t sacrifice story for sermon. People will be turned off if you try to preach at them. Trust your reader. They will get it. Let your characters and plot do the talking for you.