“Why would I want to write in second person?” you ask.
“Well, maybe because you can capture a voice, mood and tone with it that no other viewpoint can,” I reply.
Before I answer that in detail, let’s first understand exactly what the second-person viewpoint is—and what it isn’t.
The excerpt below is from the first, and most famous, novel to be written in second person: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney.
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. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two A.M. changes to six A.M. You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail pf white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush. Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long march through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed. They need the Bolivian Marching Powder.
A vaguely tribal flavor to this scene—pendulous jewelry. face paint, ceremonial headgear and hair styles. You feel that there is also a certain Latin theme—something more than the piranhas cruising your bloodstream and the fading buzz of marimbas in your brain.
How did you get here? It was your friend, Tad Allagash, who powered you in here, and he has disappeared….
You have traveled in the course of the night from the meticulous to the slime. the girl with the shaved head has a scar tattooed on her scalp. It looks like a long, sutured gash. You tell her it is realistic. She takes this as a compliment and thanks you. You meant as opposed to romantic.
“I could use one of those right over my heart,” you say.
“You want I can give you the name of the guy that did it. You’d be surprised how cheap.”
First published in 1984, Bright Lights, Big City became a huge success. It spawned both a movie (1988, with Michael J. Fox and Kiefer Sutherland) and an off-Broadway musical in 1999. Further, and contrary to the advice I often give writers, the main character is never named. And because of that, the character plays more closely to the reader.
One of the reasons for using this POV is that it does place the reader very close to the narrator. Second-person POV is really a variant of first-person, with the difference being that it strives not just to put the reader in the character’s head, but it let’s the reader become the character, making the reader the protagonist.
Although it’s an uncommon POV, second person is by no means a recent literary invention. McInerney was simply the first to craft an entire novel in it. Many short stories have employed it. William Faulkner used it, as many others. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his 1837 collection of short stories Twice Told Tales included one told in second person. Here’s the opening to “The Haunted Mind.”
What a singular moment is the first one, when you have hardly begun to recollect yourself after starting from midnight slumber! By unclosing your eyes so suddenly, you seem to have surprised the personages of your dream in full convocation round your bed, and catch one broad glance at them before they can flit into obscurity. Or, to vary the metaphor, you find yourself, for a single instant, wide awake in that realm of illusions, whither sleep has been the passport, and behold its ghostly inhabitants and wondrous scenery, with a perception of their strangeness, such as you never attain while the dream is undisturbed. The distant sound of a church-clock is borne faintly on the wind. You question with yourself, half seriously, whether it has stolen to your waking ear from some gray tower, that stood within the precincts of your dream. While yet in suspense, another clock flings its heavy clang over the slumbering town, with so full and distinct a sound, and such a long murmur in the neighboring air, that you are certain it must proceed from the steeple at the nearest corner. You count the strokes—one—two, and there they cease, with a booming sound, like the gathering of a third stroke within the bell.
You can read the entire story (about 1800 words) at Project Gutenberg:
Most of the time, second-person stories are written in present tense to add to more immediacy of the voice, but certainly they can be written in past tense in whole or in part. The example below is the opening to a published short story written by a friend of mine (who prefers to remain anonymous). Note that the author opens in the past tense then smoothly switches to present tense.
Turning on your lights, you discovered people leaping out from behind the couch, the curtains, and other assorted nooks and crannies within your apartment. “Surprise!” they shouted. Conical hats with bright colors were attached to their heads via elastic string. A few festive toots of blowticklers trumpeted in triumph. The ceiling rained confetti. From one wall to another hung a banner clearly stating:
Surprise indeed. Today is not your birthday. In fact, this day is notorious for not holding your best interests at heart. 20 years ago, this same day, Edward Cuomo had the good nature to kick you in the crotch after losing at kickball. You cried for half an hour and vomited. Your classmates called you a crybaby. In an attempt at retribution, you tried to kick some of them in the crotch to see how they’d like it. You tripped and fell on your face, eliciting more tears.
The gusto with which people are rushing up to you, shaking your hand and hugging you, prevents you from correcting their wellwishings. Everyone in attendance seems legitimately thrilled. Your girlfriend kisses you on the cheek and leads you to the dining room table, where a cake awaits. The cake also says, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” and the letters are written in a saccharine cursive style with green frosting.
Attached to certain areas of wall are balloons. Streamers swoop down in smiling arcs.
You’re immediately compiling a mental guestlist of people in attendance tonight. Your girlfriend most likely invited many of them by rummaging through your address book. No one else would plan such a thing….
Here’s another example. This one is called “Personal Trainer” and it’s one of mine that was published some years ago.
You lie on the weight bench and mentally recite your latest mantra: “press the weights, release the stress, press the weights, forget the ex” until the lightheadedness and burning muscles displace unpleasant memories. Temporary oblivion achieved, you relax, close your eyes, and take slow, deep breaths.
“Impressive workout, but you’ve ignored an important muscle.”
The voice is female and too seductive to ignore. Shit!
The demands of your job and girlfriend caused a lapse in your previous exercise program. With one of those now gone you joined this gym, committed to reshaping your body and life, not to play the Hunk-of-the-Month game. Your ex-girlfriend’s only commitment—you discovered—was sharing her sexual passion with as many men as possible.
A dull, mournful clunk from a weight machine across the room reminds you that on this Friday night every under-thirty male–except you and that other individual in here with you—is probably engaged something other than building a stronger body.
You exhale, almost a sigh, “It’s not a muscle, and it gets proper attention.” Your tone is somewhere between cynical and caustic.
Now compare these to the opening from “Driving Fast” by Tony Taddei (published in Story magazine, Winter 1998).
You know me, and I scare you. But I’m your boy. You call me bastard. Son of a bitch. “Where you going so fast, you son of a bitch?” you say, turning down the morning radio girl who’s been rubbing against you from the traffic copter. “You want to kill somebody?” Yes I do, actually, that’s exactly what I’m thinking. Maybe I’ll kill me. Maybe I’ll kill you. Yes, you, banging on your locked door as I stroke out from behind you on the Garden State Parkway, pushing wind-dents into your fenders on the Long Island Expressway, sucking a blurry reflection across your hood on the Los Angeles freeways, forcing you to jump your brakes and jerk into a Sears truck on I-94 through Chicago.
Although this initially appears to be written in second person, it is really a first-person story. In order to understand why it is, let’s review what POV really means. “Point of view” refers to the perspective of the narrator of the story. In the examples prior to this one, “you” is narrator, the character telling the story, and as I said above, a close-up variant of the first-person POV.
However, in “Driving Fast” the “you” is not the narrator—it’s the reader. The narrator is addressing the reader. Your clue should have been the “I” and “me” are used by the narrator, referring to himself, in the first three sentences. The dialogue following is his assumption of the reader’s words back to him.
This represents an unusual voice not often seen in fiction. This is not the same as telling the reader instead of showing. On the contrary, it’s showing the reader the narrator directly, face-to-face, as if you, the reader, were standing in front of the narrator. And as with Bright Lights, Big City, the narrator is never named in this story because, in this case, he’s symbolic many people.
If you endeavor to write in second person, don’t confuse addressing the reader as “you” (a first-person story) with a story written properly in second person. There’s nothing wrong with addressing the reader this way. It’s highly effective. Just be sure that you recognize the actual POV of your piece.
Here are a couple of links to encourage you to experiment with your writing and to help you find the right POV and voice for a story.
Pay attention to the advice in both of these articles. Try writing in second person for practice, but when deciding on the final POV for any story, be sure you choose the one that best fits the story and the characters, not one that you’re just using to show off.
Not all readers like second person, just as some readers dislike present tense. I’ve read some stories written in second person, present tense that were so well done that I honestly didn’t even notice the POV right away.
Your job as a writer to give your story the most effective presentation, whether it’s conventional first-person or third-person past tense or something less conventional, as the examples presented here. Find that right voice and the only thing your readers will see—or care about—is that you’ve written a great story.