53. Point of View Part 5: Second-Person

Author: Nola Published: 3 months ago.
Tags: POV, second-person, point of view, narrator Category: Writing tips

In second-person point of view, the author uses words like ‘you’ and ‘your’ to make readers feel they’re part of the action (see Paragraph B in Part 1 of this series).

This is different from instances in classic literature where authors occasionally address the reader in order to provide commentary (Ginny Wiehardt). For example, Jane Eyre blurts out, ‘Reader, I married him’. Nor is second-person POV the same as simply addressing your reader in a blog post or nonfiction book (e.g. ‘You should try this wombat salad’).

In second-person POV, ‘the author is inviting you to step into the shoes of [a] fictional character and imagine that you are him or her’ (Harvey Chapman). As Ginny Wiehardt notes, readers can immerse themselves in the story and experience what the character is going through. Consider the opening sentences from Caroline Kepnes’ bestselling novel You:

You walk into the bookstore and keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you’re wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are.

In that example, both the narrator (Joe) and the girl (Guinevere/you) are characters in the story. The second-person perspective isn’t just a different method of talking about the protagonist, but an interplay between the characters.

If you imagine you’re one of the characters, it might make the story more real for you, but it can also backfire. When I read those opening lines, I immediately thought, ‘Eww, creepy guy. I don’t want to be the you he’s looking at’. The back cover blurb and some of the Goodreads reviews confirm that it’s probably not my cup of tea—‘an insane, obsessive and manipulative romance from the perspective of a charming psychopath’. But another reviewer said that it ‘really made me take a closer look at how much of myself I leave on the internet and how easy it would be for someone like Joe to worm his way into my life’. In that case, the second-person POV put the reader squarely into the story and helped her empathise with the girl.

James Scott Bell doesn’t even discuss second-person POV in his book Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, but instead warns writers ‘not to try it at home, or anywhere else for that matter’.

I would add a rider to that advice. Don’t use it if you’re just trying to be clever or gimmicky. Do use it if you have a compelling reason (e.g. if second-person POV would add something to your story or help the reader experience your story in a more profound way). Even then, maybe try it out in a short story first, as it’s very difficult to pull it off in a full-length novel.

Short stories written in second-person include Dennis Lehane’s Until Gwen, which you can read here; and Tim Winton’s Long, Clear View from his short-story collection The Turning.

Novels written in second-person include Half Asleep in Frog Pyjamas by Tom Robbins and Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. If you look up those titles on Amazon and click on the cover image, you can read an extract. For a list of other titles, click here.

Have you ever written a story in second-person POV? Is it something you'd like to try? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your comments.

Comments read 12 comments so far

Comments for this post have closed.