ABC’s of Fiction Writing: Y is for You

Posted by on Mar 26, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

1512393_10203595797606184_1524154961613272689_nIn Defense of the Second Person POV

Like me, you were probably told by your English teachers to never use you in a story or essay. Maybe you were told the second person POV has no place in creative writing, that it is gimmicky and silly at best, off-putting at its worst, and that writers should stick with either the first or third person. 

The second person POV can be silly and gimmicky and off-putting. But it can also be a nuanced and intriguing POV and a vehicle for a humorous or touching story if used correctly. Here are a few compelling reasons in favor of this much maligned and often ignored POV.

It puts your reader on high alert.

First person is considered a very intimate and close-in POV because the reader is privy to only the main character’s thoughts, and therefore all the action of the story is filtered through his perspective. I think you could make the argument, though, that the second person is an even more intimate POV. In most stories, the emphasis is on who is speaking. But in a second person story, it becomes important to think about who is listening. The reader is being addressed throughout the story, and is therefore “participating” in the story. By involving the reader in the fictional world, the writer breaks down the barrier between reader and writer.

Take this example from Rachel Harper’s short story “How to Lose Your Children” found in Literary Pasadena: The Fiction Edition:

“When you walk out of the house, leaving your three children behind, there is a part of you that thinks you will never go back.” (Harper 139)

Look how hard it is to distance yourself from a text that talks directly to you. Harper is inviting the reader to identify with the protagonist, even as she’s doing this sort of terrible thing, which is walking out of her house and leaving behind her children. In a well-written second person story, a reader will experience a whole range of emotions as he vacillates between identification with the narrator (Hmmm, I’ve definitely felt like that before) and resistance (No way would I behave that way.)

The reader can’t fully relax in a second person story, not when he might be called upon to react. In other points of view, the reader can sit back and be told a story. But in the second person, he is the story.

– It can reveal a character’s emotional state

All writers hope to create emotionally interesting characters that resonate. The second person POV provides a slightly askew way for an author to reveal a character’s state of mind without resorting to blatant telling passages. In Robin Lippincott’s short story “Five O’Clock Shadow” from his collection The ‘I’ Rejected, the narrator Billy is so removed and dissociated from his own life he can’t even use the pronoun “I” to express what he wants and needs. Instead he refers to himself in the second person, and the POV does the heavy lifting for the story, showing the reader how out of touch with his own emotional state Billy is.

“You still imagine just up and leaving, disappearing one day, jumping a boxcar or hitching to who knows where…at this point you’re wondering whether or not you could really go through with it…And so the days pass,…and sometimes it seems the rest of your life will be like this—one long, dark, winter afternoon.” (Lippincott 66)

The reader sees that Billy is unhappy in his life, and that he is stuck in neutral and believes himself incapable of change; a lot of this is gleaned from the POV. We see, instead of being told, that Billy sees himself as peripheral to his own life.

If you’re nervous about writing an entire story in the second person, consider using two different POV. Mavis Gallant’s short story “With a Capital T” from her collection Home Truths switches between first and second person to reveal the main character’s tumultuous emotional state. The story starts in first person:

“In wartime, in Montreal, I applied to work on a newspaper…I chose it because I thought it was a place where I would be given a lot of different things to do.” (Gallant 317)

But the narrator quickly sees that there is not a lot for her to do in this male-dominated industry. She is given silly assignments and feels stifled both by her male colleagues and by the wartime atmosphere of fear and censorship. It’s at this point that the story shifts into second person:

“Privately, you think you could do better. You will never get the chance.” (Gallant 321)

The second person shows how downtrodden and small the narrator feels in her life. There’s an interesting shift on the next page, though:

“As soon as I realized I was paid about half the salary men were earning, I decided to do half the work.” (Gallant 322)

Once the narrator stops trying to adjust her desires to those of her male colleagues and the publishers, she is able to think of herself as “I” again. Until then, she was too removed from her own self to be so brave in her own thoughts. This story was such a revelation to me when I read it and realized that you don’t have to commit exclusively to a single POV in a story.

– It can provide humor or levity

Remember those how-to” essays you had to write in school? In fiction, these how-to stories using the second person POV are usually humorous parodies, such as Lorrie Moore’s “How To Become A Writer” from her collection Self-Help. Can you really tell someone in the space of an eight page short story how to become a writer? Of course not. Thus the levity and playfulness of the POV add to the richness of the story.

“First, try to be something, anything else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher… Fail miserably. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.” (Moore 119)

The second person is also a great tool for discussing relationships, especially the darkly humorous aspects of love affairs. In Pam Houston’s short story “How to Talk to a Hunter” from her collection Cowboys Are My Weakness the narrator is offering relationship advice on how to date a hunter:

“The hunter will talk about spring in Hawaii, summer in Alaska. The man who says he was always better at math will form the sentences so carefully it will be impossible to tell if you are included in these plans. When he asks you if you would like to open a small guest ranch way out in the country, understand that this is a rhetorical question.” (Houston 99)

There is a sense of inevitability in these “how-to” stories thanks to the second person, the idea that even if the reader follows these “rules” laid out by the narrator, there is no guarantee her relationship will turn out any better. In first and third person stories dealing with love, the reader has a limited perspective. But the second person bridges that gap, partly because of the timelessness of the story. You can’t really tell anyone the steps to follow to best navigate a relationship with an emotionally distant man any more than you can provide a failsafe formula on how to become a writer. The complicity between reader and writer about the suspension of disbelief in these stories is partly what makes the satire work so well in these second person stories. 

If you haven’t experimented with this point of view yet, take another look at what you’re missing out on. You can find new and better ways to incorporate humor, talk about relationships, and reveal a character’s state of mind by embracing this underused tool.

Kelly Morris holds an MFA in fiction from Spalding University, and her work has appeared in various literary magazines. She is a co-founder and regular contributor to the writing blog Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese dip), found here. When she’s not writing, Kelly can be found hanging out with her kids, who remain unconvinced that being a writer is actually a very cool job.

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