Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When it comes to choosing the point of view for your book, the second person is unlikely to get much consideration. Volumes have been written on the emotional impact of the first-person ‘I’, and on the scope and flexibility of the third-person ‘he/she/it’. In comparison, the second-person ‘you’ rarely merits more than a paragraph.
Don’t misunderstand me – for most projects, the second person simply isn’t as viable an option as its stablemates. In fact, it’s a high-risk choice that can backfire just as easily as it can succeed. With that said, authors shouldn’t forget that it can succeed, and when it does, there are huge rewards for those bold and skillful enough to pull it off.
Grabbing attention with the second person
The first of these rewards is the immediate engagement and attention offered by the second person. Addressing the reader directly – making a statement about them – grabs the attention like nothing else. Not only that, but the second person is so rare that it has the instant value of novelty.
Writing something in the second person almost guarantees that, at least initially, you have a reader’s attention. If you need proof, look no further than advertising. Here, persuasion is the goal, space is limited, and second-person writing is the default. How (and if) you monopolize on this immediate attention will decide how long you keep it, but this is a powerful weapon to have in your author’s arsenal.Advertisers use second person writing to immediately engage the reader.Click To Tweet
Andrew Hankinson’s You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] puts the reader in the shoes of real-life murderer Raoul Moat, using various personal documents and authorial prerogative to piece together an upsetting portrayal of a dangerous mind as seen from the inside.
The book begins by forcing the reader into Moat’s position as he/they fill out a form intended to provide support for mental health issues.
A few days later a letter arrives. You’ve got an appointment with a trainee clinical psychologist on April 29, 2008.
You don’t attend.
Another letter arrives. It says they don’t normally reschedule appointments, but they know this is hard for you, so they’re offering you another appointment. It’s on May 13, 2008.
You don’t attend.
You are discharged from the waiting list.
Two years later you shoot three people and shoot yourself. You will be called a monster. You will be called evil. The prime minister, David Cameron, will stand up in Parliament and say you were a callous murderer, end of story. You have nine days and your whole life to prove you are more than a callous murderer.
– Andrew Hankinson, You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat]
It’s a baldly challenging opening – as close as an author can get to daring the reader to continue – and incredibly effective in achieving its goals. I’ll talk later about what Hankinson does with that attention, but for now, it’s enough to marvel at how effective that second person introduction is in practice.
This is also seen in The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, which takes the form of a series of questions addressed directly to the reader.
Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you lie down and take a rest on a sidewalk? Did you love your mother and father, and do Psalms do it for you? If you are relegated to last place in every category, are you bothered enough to struggle up? Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw? Could Mendeleev place you correctly in a square on a chart of periodic identities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many push-ups can you do?
– Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?
No third-person cliffhanger or first-person reveal can quite compare with being able to grab the reader by the lapels. Hannah wrote recently about ‘starting with the action’, and this is that principle in its purest form. Second-person works hurl themselves at the reader, hollering their thesis. That buys a lot of attention and investment, and there’s a lot you can do with those qualities if you know they’re coming.
“Like what?” you ask.
Both of the introductions above are masterclasses in establishing mood. The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? sets out to intrigue and challenge the reader – the initial questions rapidly establish and then undercut ideas. The reference to Mendeleev is deliberately high-brow, but is followed up by an inquiry about physical fitness. The first questions are clear, though existential, but derailed by the potato reference. The Constantinople question could genuinely be about political knowledge or just a jab at the reader’s sphere of understanding.
More than anything, Powell plays with the reader’s perception of what their answers mean. Some questions seem meaningful, others seem facile, but it’s hard to tell one from the other. This is the exact mood Powell wants – his introduction leaves the reader engaged but disorientated, stripped of their certainties and willing to find more in the pages to come.
In You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat], Hankinson does something equally clever. One of the key facets of Moat’s personality is his unwillingness to accept any blame or responsibility. By saddling the reader with his acts, Hankinson actually gets them into the perfect mindset – they pull away from the narrative’s accusations in exactly the same way as Moat.
Both works move fast, forcing the reader to take a position and then using that position to fuel further engagement. In both cases, this engagement uses the reader’s resistance to great effect, but the opposite can also be true.
Involving the reader
It’s easy to use the second person to invite a reader to relate to experiences or opinions. Just as confusing or challenging the reader prompts them to push back, asserting facts in the second person can invite them to dive in.
The first time you meet Donald Trump, he’s an older male relative who smells like cigarettes and asks when you are going to lose that weight. You’re 9 years old. Your parents have to go out and buy a bottle of vodka for him before he arrives. His name is Dick. No, really, it is. At dinner one night, he explains to you that black people are dangerous. “If you turn around, they’ll put a knife in your back.” Except Bill Cosby. “He’s one of the good ones.” Turns out he’s wrong about Cosby and everything else, but the statute of limitations on Dick’s existence on Earth will run out before that information is widely available.
– Wendy Molyneux, ‘The Four Donald Trumps You Meet on Earth‘ from The Atlantic
The experiences that Wendy describes aren’t exactly true for the reader, and that’s thrown into sharp contrast by the use of the second person. Cleverly, though, Wendy is actually talking about the core experiences on which the fictionalized accounts are built. The reader is asked to process the fiction as their own reality, and in the process of shucking off what doesn’t apply, they find a deeper truth that does.
This is key to engaging second-person writing: always understand the parts of your account that the reader is intended to discard. A second-person piece tells the reader that they’ve had, are having, or will have an experience, and the strange thing is, part of it’s the truth.
This is best shown via ‘choose your own adventure’ books like Steve Jackson’s The Citadel of Chaos. These books are halfway between book and game – the reader makes choices, flicking to different pages to take different actions, but also often accrues ‘item’s which are written down in a dedicated inventory section.
You hear muffled gruntings as you approach, and two misshapen creatures step forward. On the left stands an ugly creature with the head of a dog and the body of a great ape, flexing its powerful arms. Its opposite numbers is indeed its opposite, with the head of an ape on the body of a large dog. This latter guard approaches you on all fours. It stops some meters in front of you, raises itself on its hind legs and addresses you.
Which story will you opt for?
Will you pose as a herbalist? Turn to 261.
Will you claim to be a tradesman? Turn to 230.
Will you ask for shelter for the night? Turn to 20.
– Steve Jackson, The Citadel of Chaos
In works such as this, the reader is often positioned as a warrior on an adventure. Notice the juxtaposition here: they’re definitely not a warrior, but they are on an adventure. Writing effectively in the second person is about letting that initial claim fall away (or act as a veneer) while bringing the truth to the fore. Keep telling the reader that they’re really a warrior and you’ll lose them – they know it’s not true – but build up the adventure and you’ll have them gripped.
In this model, it makes little sense to focus on ‘death’ as a real threat in a ‘choose your own adventure’ book. The reader knows they’re not going to die, and they don’t have the usual reticence to lose a character if that character is them. Instead, good ‘choose your own adventure’ books focus on resources and the journey. The reader isn’t worried about death, but they don’t want their adventure cut short and they don’t want to miss anything. These are the threats to foreground if you’re trying to make the narrative fit the reader’s emotional experience.
Likewise, Wendy Molyneux’s article focuses on presenting relatable, familiar feelings and emotive moments. The details she uses aren’t about putting the reader in a convincing scene (or at least that’s not their primary purpose), but about evoking the more recognizable and universal feelings that come attached. ‘You haven’t lived this exact moment,’ she seems to say, ‘but you still recognize it.’
Involving the reader through the second person is about appreciating the emotional responses actually in play. The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? can’t ‘receive’ your answers, but it can manipulate how you feel about them (and how you approach the questions). You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] can’t make you feel directly responsible, but it can turn your resistance into a sort of empathy. The Citadel of Chaos can’t convince you that you’re actually in a citadel, but it can make you encounter a monster as a genuine threat to a resource you care about – done right, it can make you dread what happens next as something that really is happening to you (just not physically).Great second-person writing is about understanding which emotional responses are really in play.Click To Tweet
Traditional stories fare poorly with the second person because the intended emotional experience is often at odds with the point of view. Find an experience that suits the second person, however, and it’s a whole different ball game. This is why the second person works so well for ‘choose your own adventure’ books – the emotional experiences of failing, missing something, or losing a resource are heightened. If a character loses their sword in a first- or third-person story, you might be slightly worried, but if you lose your sword in a second-person story, you panic.
There are many types of story and reader reaction that work best with the second person, but there are also some unique stories just waiting to be told.
The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? is a book which quite simply wouldn’t work from any other point of view. It’s a unique artistic work that utilizes the second person to do something special.
The same can be said for Grant Morrison’s trippy The Multiversity: Ultra Comics and Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina. Both publications break the fourth wall, acknowledging the reader’s presence and giving them a role in the story without casting them as the protagonist. In Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina, this involves Morrison appearing in the story, banishing the titular protagonist from sight in order to address the reader. His role is both factual and fictitious – his protagonist greets him as a wrathful God, but Morrison is there as the author, and he’s more interested in wrapping up the story and saying thanks to some friends.
The Multiversity: Ultra Comics is even more aggressive in how it involves the reader. Here, the protagonist is presented as existing solely in a realm of imagination, ‘powered’ by the reader’s attention. Too late, he realizes that the publication itself is a trap, allowing a malignant ‘living idea’ to take root in the reader’s brain. On the cover, the character points out at potential readers, declaring ‘YOU MUST NOT READ THIS COMIC!’ One could argue it’s not even a fictional work.
Morrison embraces the second person in a way that allows him to write novel, unique fiction that’s also completely honest about the reader and author’s place in proceedings. It’s different from almost everything else on the shelf, and it’s only possible thanks to experimenting with a relatively overlooked device.A unique approach can produce unique art. Consider writing in the second person.Click To Tweet
Your own experimentation with the second person might yield similarly impressive results, but if you’re not sure where to start, there is one more benefit to trying out the second person.
Revitalize and transform ideas
I wrote recently about how A Fairy Tale Retelling Could Be The Best Thing For Your Career, arguing that people are always looking for a new angle on familiar stories. The second person can provide this, and it can also revitalize flagging works in a similar fashion.
Ryan’s North’s To Be or Not To Be and Romeo and/or Juliet are ‘choose your own adventure’ versions of Shakespeare’s works. Readers are free to follow the path that Shakespeare took before them, or to wander off into tangents, alternate endings, and enjoyable adventures and puzzles.
North uses this gimmick to draw new enjoyment from old stories, turning the reader’s pre-existing knowledge into a tool for enjoying his work. Not only that, but the second person allows the reader to explore the story in a new way, focusing on the inner lives and motivations of different characters. North even allows the reader to hop between characters as their plots progress in tandem, forcing the reader into a deeper but more blinkered experience.Does your story lack kick? Ask yourself if it would suit the second person POV. Click To Tweet
It’s a new approach, and a great way to tell a story in a different way. You might use that to make a familiar story your own or to breathe life into a project that was missing a certain something, but either way, it’s worth considering whether the second person offers a new perspective on your work, especially if it centers around the idea of choice or predestination.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many drives and ideas that come alive when the second person is applied. Imagine, for instance, a zombie story where the reader takes on the second-person role of a dying consciousness in an undead body, their inability to exert control emphasized by the point of view. It’s an otherwise run-of-the-mill story given new life by its point of view.
The forgotten perspective
The second person is a tricky tool suited to very few jobs, but find a place for it and you’ll be amazed by the results. It has arguably the most direct line to a reader’s emotions, and if you can learn to harness that power, you can write the kind of work that stays tucked away in the reader’s mind forever.
Do you have a favourite second-person work, or do you think it’s a useless device? Let me know in the comments, Or, for more on point of view, check out Does The First Person Point Of View Make People Care? and Is The Third Person Point Of View Too Impersonal?