The Second-Person Point of View: Give Your Story a New Perspective

Second-person point of view
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You’re not someone who cares about tradition in your fiction, are you?

You’re willing to explore. You’re striving for meaning, and you want interesting experiences.

Well, that’s the second-person point of view (POV) for you: nontraditional, explorative, meaningful and interesting.

It also sounds a bit like an ad for an exaggerated travel agent or a self-help book, doesn’t it? There’s a reason for that, and we’ll get to it later. But first, I have a little riddle for you…

Is this blog post written in the second-person POV?

By now, you know I use the word “you” quite a lot. In fact, many bloggers address their readers personally as “you.” Does it make our writing fit the second-person POV?

As you may have guessed, the answer is no.

True, I’m addressing you as the audience. But there’s still a protagonist to this story, and it’s me, in the first person. I’m the one “behind” this post.

How the second-person POV works

In fiction, pure second-person POV uses the perspective of a single character, the protagonist, to tell the story. This character is well-defined, with habits and traits and a unique personality. The reader is simply placed “behind” this character, seeing and experiencing the world through his eyes, body and mind.

It sounds like this:

Eventually you ascend the stairs to the street. You think of Plato’s pilgrims climbing out of the cave, from the shadow world of appearances toward things as they really are, and you wonder if it is possible to change in this life.

— Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City

As you can see, there is no “I” in the second-person POV. There might be a “he” or “him,” whenever the protagonist is interacting with someone, but your principal pronouns are “you,” “your” and “yours.”

For that reason, it’s a bit hard to create a variety of sentence structure in this POV. Starting every sentence with “you” can quickly grow old.

If you try using the second-person POV, watch out for this issue. You can alternate pronouns by writing about items and other characters in your protagonist’s environment. For example, here’s an excerpt from from Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler:

Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes. Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you. Make sure the page isn’t in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice…

The good and evil of writing in the second person

The second-person POV casts the reader as the protagonist. That means she’s “forced” to act and think in ways that might not be authentic for her.

If you, as the writer, pull it off, this POV creates instant, complete empathy between the reader and the protagonist. It makes every thought and action her own and evokes emotional responses from her gut.

If you aren’t successful, though, reading in this POV can be a highly annoying experience for your audience.

Writing in the second person means treading a fine line. When you write in this POV, you’re very clearly attempting to manipulate the reader’s thoughts and emotions. Not all readers will take well to this strategy.

But that’s OK! All good writing manipulates a reader’s emotions; consider how we connect with characters like Holden Caulfield and Harry Potter. After watching the world through their eyes in third-person limited POV, no one can resist feeling for them — even though Holden is a fairly unlikeable character. That intimacy is emotional manipulation at its literary best.

The challenge of the second-person POV is to manipulate your reader’s thoughts and impressions without forcing feeling and emotion where it doesn’t belong. You want it to feel natural, not kick your reader out of the story by trying too hard.

How do you master this balancing act? By reading great examples of the second-person POV, testing it in your own writing and sharing your work with others for feedback and advice. A writing accountability partner or group will be invaluable in exploring this POV.

When should you choose the second-person POV?

There isn’t any perfect genre or type of work for a second-person POV story, though author Rebecca Demarest suggests that this perspective works best in short stories or “scattered chapters” of a longer manuscript.

This POV seems to work particularly well when an author is reflecting the Zeitgeist. By speaking in the second person, the author can hold a mirror to society, revealing emotions, actions and particular nuances of the times.

A prime example of this use is Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins. He captures the crash of an American dream and the economic wavering of the early 90s:

As far as you are concerned, the real fun stopped back in the eighties. Before your time. In those days, somebody in your position could earn major money. Jumbo money. You read about it, dreamed about it, all through college. How typical of your luck that when you finally arrived in a position to poach your golden eggs, the goose had a hysterectomy.

The majority of audiences can relate to these timely themes, so they’re a good bet for an exploration of character, society and empathy.

Other popular places to use the second-person POV are poetry, interactive fiction and choose-your-own-adventure stories.

Will you try writing in the second person?

Give the second-person POV a try. See what playing with this perspective can do for your writing, whether it’s in a new story or by tweaking the POV in a story you’ve already written.

It won’t be a fit for every writer or for every story, but you just might find you enjoy writing in the second person.

Have you tried writing in the second-person POV? Did you enjoy it?

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Tal Valante is a writer, an editor, and the founder of Re:Fiction, the center for fiction writers of all genres. Still in need of writing ideas? Check out our inspiration section for a wealth of options.... .

Re:Fiction | @TalValante

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Comments

  1. Hey

    A great article with an excellent idea. Is there any interactive course to really learn this art.

    Alta

    • Hi Alta,

      Narrate yourself, but through the eye of the other person. It’s simple once you grasp it. Here’s a small example.

      “Following the advise of a fellow traveler, you decided to include Kolkata, the capital of Eastern India, in your itinerary. Upon reaching this city, you requested the taxi driver (that’s how cabbies are known in India), to take you to North Kolkata, full of interesting spots, not mentioned in tourist guides or visited by the average traveler.”

      Cheers & Sunshine,

      Sanjay

    • Hello Alta,

      Thanks for reading! I’m afraid I don’t know about any courses that focus on 2nd-person POV, but reading as many books in it has to be a good start. You can find a good list here: http://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/second-person

      Happy reading!

  2. I am speechless. I love writing in (would `from the’ be better than `in’?) second-person POV. Unfortunately, many viewers, including seasoned editors hate it and avoid it like the plague.

    Cheers & Sunshine

    • Hi Sanjay,

      Yes, the 2nd-person POV is notorious, because it usually doesn’t work well for beginning writers. Viewers and editors tend to want something familiar (3rd-person POV), not something that takes them out of their comfort zone and places them in the midst of the story so intimately.

      Cheers!

  3. Great article. This is very helpful. I have a novel in work that will most likely require me to do a chapter or two in second person POV.

  4. I wrote a long series (several years) for a small magazine, telling the stories of famous people from their moms’ points of view. It was a sort of “who-done-it” guessing game, with the famous person’s identity revealed upside down at the end of the article. And it was very popular, with many readers bothering to write the editors and say they did not care if they had time to read the entire issue, but would turn to my articles first. That did a lot to boost my relationship with those editors.

    For instance, this, about T. Roosevelt. (But in reality, about his mother.):

    “Can you imagine yourself married to a hardware importer so rich he can afford to indulge in philanthropy?
    “Let’s imagine such a life for a while—the life of Mittie—a mother of four during the U.S. Civil War era.
    “You cringe at talk of politics because your family is divided over it. Some relatives have joined the armies of the South and, some, the North; some are Democrats, and, some, Republicans.
    “Your own husband refuses to enlist for combat, to prevent fighting your brothers and breaking your heart.
    “Another war tugs at your heart, also—a war for the life of one of your children. Your son is ill and spends terrifying nights unable to breathe. How you hate to watch him napping slumped in a chair! Yet, in this way, he finds some relief. His other maladies remain undiagnosed and untreated. You battle with despair.
    “In your effort to obey doctor’s orders to keep him quiet, you find your son has spunk. He enjoys discovery, so, you allow him to accompany you shopping, on occasion.”

    And on it goes, until the last line reads, “Who is your famous son?” With quite a crescendo of clues piled into each article, the reader usually developed a habit of mentally ticking off what he knew of history, trying to guess before the end of the article.

    I realize the beginning lines are sort of you/me in POV, but it transforms quickly. Anyway, a good time was had by all. Ha.

  5. Excellent article!
    Yeah, I’ve been trying to write in the second person POV. But it wasn’t that successful, so your article is very useful for me.

Trackbacks

  1. […] by testing it out. There are many tools online to help kick off a story in second person, like The Write Life, The Write Practice, and Quick and Dirty Tips. For more examples on stories written in second […]

  2. […] The Second-Person Point of View: Give Your Story a New Perspective […]

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