What makes a story “next”?

By Kathryn O’Donnell 

The Netflix adaptation of “You” has gained popularity since its premiere Sept. 9.

Our mission at Long River this issue was to find and publish pieces that are next, not now

“Next” shouldn’t be reserved solely for ideas that have never been discussed before. “Next” could be looking at a story that’s already been told from a new perspective. The parameters of “next” are defined by the audience and their mindset. As a journal, we discussed that pieces that were “next” made some of us feel uncomfortable, and challenged our existing beliefs. Other pieces featured original characters that brought the story to the next level. “Next” can be anything that stands out from the crowd.

According to EMC, the digital universe is doubling in size every two years. This year, the data created in the digital universe will reach 44 trillion gigabytes (in 2013, less than a decade ago, it was 4.4 trillion gigabytes). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that more than 2.2 million new books are published worldwide each year.

Looking back, it’s easy to find stories that were next. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird tackled racial injustice and inequality in a way that was hardly mainstream. Her courage in bringing it to light sparked conversation and awareness about prominent social issues. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series challenged the idea of a set genre, drawing readers from Children’s, Young Adult, and Adult Genres. Finding a story that will be next, however, comes with more challenges. 

A recent piece that has acted as a catalyst to new trends in fiction is Caroline Kepnes’ 2014 novel, You. The story follows the romantic life of a bookseller, Joe Goldberg, in New York, who hides obsessive, stalker tendencies while pursuing a relationship with a graduate student he meets in his bookstore.

There are endless reasons why Kepnes’ novel is popular. The plot is captivating, disturbing and addicting. The recent Netflix adaptations have swept audiences off their feet (even though it was dropped after the first season by Lifetime for low ratings). The prose draws audiences into the story, despite the unsettling premise. The story blurs the lines between the genres of thriller, romance, suspense and comedy. There are a few key devices that take the story from interesting, to “next.”

One cover art design for Caroline Kepnes’s novel “You”

The Point-Of-View

The most fascinating device Kepnes utilizes in You is the point-of-view. It’s rare to see a novel told from a second-person point-of-view, and even more rare for it to become so popular. The perspective forces the reader into two very uncomfortable realities: the first being that they become the object of Joe’s affection, making his stalking and obsessing feel even more personal. The second reality places the reader inside Joe’s mind. This insight shows the audience how his thought process is corrupt, but also helps readers to justify Joe’s actions and humanize him. 

The second person point-of-view tells a relatively familiar story from a new perspective. It leads its audience to empathize with Joe, the true villain, while writing off the characters who fall victim to his manipulations. 

The Narrative

The premise behind You is something that has been heard before. Stories featuring characters who stalk and obsess over a romantic interest have been told over and over again (just look at this list over over 100 movies that center around stalking and obsession). Kepnes takes this familiar plot and reinvents it, with the story no longer focuses on the victim, but the villain. 

The story latches on to the reader in a way that can really only be described as uncomfortable. The prose is graphic and visceral, making situations as simple as checking out in a bookstore or updating your social media accounts feel private, crass or morbid. Conversely, the narration takes situations that are in essence private and crass and portrays them as romantic or heroic. This alteration of reality sets Kepnes’ novel apart from others. 

A second cover design for “You”

The Impact

After reading, Kepnes’ novel never releases its grasp on you. Even after the story ends, the characters leave a lasting impact. The story warns its audience of how vulnerable anyone can be to stalking and manipulation. In November 2000, the National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAW) reported that 8.1% of female respondents (about 1 in 12 women) and 2.2% of male (about 1 in 45 men) respondents reported being stalked at some point in their life. 

With the rise of the digital universe, there is a strong chance this number has increased. Featuring a protagonist who, despite being a seasoned criminal, blends in with society, Kepnes’ novel brings this harsh reality to the surface. It reminds its audience that they might be more vulnerable than they think.

The idea of being “next” extends across genres, generations and themes. Even with so many ideas being shared every minute, content that can be considered “next” is all around. Expressing your thoughts and opinions will help you create a piece that will leave a lasting impact on your readers.

Kathryn O’Donnell is the Long River Review scholarship contest chair and a fiction panel reader. She can be reached at kathryn.odonnell@uconn.edu. 


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