There are probably a lot of people out there who have no idea this even exists. They heard it once in English class, and then they were all “meh, homework”. Honestly, a discourse on what this is only turns out to be confusing and weird. But when this is done right, telling a story in second person narration is dazzling!

How to Write in Second Person Perspective:

Second person perspective is exceptionally uncommon, and well done work with it is rarer still. Mechanically speaking, this perspective is characterized by the pronoun “you”. The other pronouns used are usually associated with first person: “You, me, I, we”. The tricky thing is that “you” is directed not at a character within the story, but at the reader.

In any other perspective, “you” is used in (A) dialogue or (B) an aside comment and thought, as addressing the audience of the narrative:

A. Chelly smiled at Tom, raising an eyebrow. “You know what that does to me, don’t you?”

B. “Shut up already!” I heard them shout it at me a hundred times, but you know how it is when you hear something enough times; you just don’t feel it anymore.

The examples above are NOT second person. If you’re super technical, the second sentence of example B is a brief dip into second person, but we’re more discussing pieces that are written fully in second person.

Also, a story in second person is deliberately addressed to the audience as though they were an integral part of the story. In fact, most second person stories are meant to place the reader in the role of the protagonist. Of course, everyone has a different knowledge base so to say “you know how it is when…”, no matter what you say, someone will have had a different experience than what you intend. So second person is typically combined with immediate present tense, which fits the conversational style.

Before I get into the pros and cons of this perspective, there are two types. Knowing these should provide some clarification and a way to imagine in what situations this device can be used.

Singular second-person is when the author’s speaker is addressing one person specifically.

Bear in mind, a letter is not second person perspective. In the framework of a letter, the audience becomes an eavesdropper instead of the recipient.

Imagine you were writing a letter to a friend, and you cut and paste out the part in it where you told them about that Friday night when you and your mutual friends were out having fun. You tell them how Beth tried to imitate that hilarious thing they did on their last visit, and how she totally failed at it. You tell them how you miss them making you all laugh. You tell them how they’re so much more appreciated back with you and your mutual friends, and you tell them their plan to leave and become a professional balloon artist was creative, but stupid as anything they ever said.

So, singular second-person is like that, directed at one person and revealing who “you” actually are as a character in the story.

Plural second-person is a little different. The audience, in this case, is portrayed as multiple individuals, and the protagonist is more often the one who is speaking. In this case, the speaker is like a speech given to a collection of specific individuals.

Go team, go!

As an example, consider the type of speech a coach gives to a football team before they go out on the field. If you write a speech like that, especially one that recalls the way the team miraculously got where they are by detailing the individuals’ participation and contributions (that is the story part of it), and take out any “he said” or action on the part of the team, then you’ve got a plural second-person perspective.

Pros and Cons:

This is difficult. This is the kind of difficult work that will paint you into a corner in a blink. First off, not every audience will like this style. It’s hard to find people open-minded enough to roll with you calling them names and telling them things they never actually did. Lets face it, people want a story that’s easy to read, and second-person is certainly not it.

Placing the tight limits on your story by selecting this perspective can make your work frustrating and no fun. Be sure this is what you want before you commit to it. Playing around with it first can help!

Second, you limit yourself immensely. There are only certain times where this perspective works, and they’re very specific. Also, the characters you create for this story will never have more description than you can fit in a dialogue form. Since this is essentially a one-sided conversation going on on the page, anything more than “You remember that girl? The blonde one who wore that T-shirt that said Unicorn Sneeze?” is going to break the flow of the dialogue. No chance to describe conventionally, as you would when you could take a paragraph to point out the dazzling sparkle of sequins on someone’s boots in a novel. People just don’t talk like that.

Third, your speaker has to be a fully developed character with some kind of relationship with the “you” character. There’s no room to fudge around here, the voice has to be well-developed to fit the story they’re in, since it’s their opinions and memories that everything comes from. We’re talking about perspective, after all, and this perspective basically takes your most chatty friend and plops them on your reader’s shoulder to babble about something they’ve done or plan to do. You only see what’s being described to you by a fallible participant in the action.

On the positive side, no one in the world would ask you to write an entire novel in second person! The majority of works using this perspective are poetry, short stories, and song lyrics. Passenger’s Let Her Go is a popular song that’s fully in the second person.

It’s great for reflection, and honestly is one of the fastest ways to get to the emotion center of the audience. Second person is fantastic for sentimental pieces, cautionary tales, and just plain heart pieces. Lift them or crush them, you can do both with a pointed second person piece.

Tips and Tricks:

Have the right story. I can’t stress that enough. The finest second person short story was one I read in school, and I can’t for the life of me find it again! However, it was so good that it stuck with me. This second person story was a woman introducing “you” into the office as a new hire. As “you” are led through the office, she gives enough gossip to make the story take shape with color and crazy and emotion you wouldn’t even believe! Really a beautiful story, and I plan to keep looking for it. But the success of this story was because there would have been no other way to cover so much ground in such a sympathetic way.

Tone will add all the color that a one-sided conversation lacks. Whatever you do, make the voice interesting to the listener. The content should be compelling, and the speaker should be engaging. Now this isn’t to say you have to make it into a comedy routine. Just know what you want the reader to feel. If you want them to have sympathy, have your speaker show either sympathy or a complete lack of sympathy where they really should have pity. Don’t make your reader wonder what they’re supposed to think.

If you want a quick guide to second person, quick and dirty tips has an excellent little guide on pronoun use and the two types.

Examples:

Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom

Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.  But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.  You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.”

Opening to Complicity by Iain Banks:  

You hear the car after an hour and a half.  During that time you’ve been here in the darkness, sitting on the small telephone seat near the front door, waiting.  You only moved once, after half an hour, when you went back through the kitchen to check on the maid.”

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