Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Second person - that means *you*!

Have you ever heard someone say, "I hate stories written in second person"?

I've heard it a lot - second person tends to give people an immediate, visceral reaction - but not everyone knows what second person is, or how it can work. Essentially, if first person narration is told by "I," and third person by "he" or "she," then second person is "you." The reason I believe so many people have difficulty with second person narration is that it requires the reader to stand in the position of the protagonist.

You do this, says the author, and the reader's reaction may be, "No I don't!" or "I don't believe that at all!" Second person can sound accusatory, because the reader must act simultaneously as the source of the narrative and its intended recipient (for more on this topic, see my article on point of view).

Second person can be used effectively, however. I want to bring your attention to two recent stories, both quite successful, that use second person narration:

And Their Lips Rang with the Sun by Amal El-Mohtar
The Button Bin by Mike Allen

The most important thing to point out about these stories is that even though they use second person narration, neither of one is trying to make the reader act as a protagonist. Both stories have identifiable protagonists who are not (definitely not!) the reader. The thing that second person does for these stories is that it allows the identity of the narrator to remain a mystery without having the narrative become ungrounded. In fact, in both stories, the question of the narrator's identity plays a critical role in the story's development.

In each case, there's a specific moment when the author defines the narrator for the first time. In El-Mohtar's piece, it looks like this:

Come, stranger, come, admire the wealth of our nation, the pride of our city, the joy of our people's eyes.

I find this actually a very user-friendly way to approach the second person, because "you" are a "stranger." That means the reader isn't actually being asked to commit to a particular identity. In this story, the narrator isn't actually "you" but someone speaking to "you" and telling "you" a story (which itself is narrated in third person). It gives readers an interesting sense of security, I find, due to the fact that their comprehension of the story doesn't depend on any commitment to the identity of "you." Readers can thus enjoy the story without stressing about accusatory tone, and then be marvelously surprised at the end when they learn the identity of the person listening to the story (the person in whose chair they've been sitting all along).

In Allen's piece, he defines his narrator like this:

You know he’s the one who made your beloved niece disappear.

This is the more adversarial second person stance, only inasmuch as Allen is relying on his readers to accept a specific identity and the actions associated with it:

You stand from behind the trash cans with your arm held out as if you’re warding off a demon, pointing the black pistol you took from your father’s gun safe.

The thing that makes this choice of narrative style effective to my mind is the fact that Allen's story is horror - and the development of the second person narrator's identity is part of what makes this story so creepy. Yes, Allen demands that the reader consent to play the part of "you" - but if the reader chooses to accept it, that then allows Allen to make the creepy effects of his story more invasive and personal than they would be if they took place in the third person, or even first person.

After reading and analyzing these stories, I come to the conclusion that the choice of a second person narrator allows an author to do things that he or she would not be able to accomplish with other narrative styles. The central piece of this is the way that second person narration makes a mystery out of the identity of "you" - thus allowing an author to withhold information without losing the sense of grounding in the story.

Watch out, though: the mystery of the "you" narrator's identity will become a foregrounded question, and if it isn't resolved, the story may not work as well. Furthermore, there's really no way to anticipate the reader's actual identity, so attempting to create a second person narrator who actually resembles the reader is not likely to be successful. Even in Italo Calvino's novel, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, where the narrator starts out being "you" reading Italo Calvino's book, the narrator does turn out to have a singular identity, and the farther you go in the book, the further it diverges into its own characteristics, distinct from those of the reader.

I hope this gives you (my blog readers with your various mysterious identities!) something to think about when you consider using second person narration in a story.


  1. I've never attempted second person before, but might try it as an exercise sometime. If I can pull it off, it would be pretty cool to bring the reader into a story.

  2. I would also recommend "Bulkhead" and "The Man Who Lost the Sea" by Theodore Sturgeon. (He also used 2nd person in the intro to his novel "Some of Your Blood" --a different kind of vampire story.) It's an odd form, but it has a real immediacy about it.

  3. Brad, thanks for your comment!

    William, thanks for those recommendations. I haven't seen second person narration done very often, so it could be very interesting to seek those stories out.

  4. I've done 2nd person in an episolary piece and I found it worked quite well. I've also done another story that's sort-of second person, as the entire thing is dialogue. It's good fun to experiment.

  5. I've published LaShawn M. Wanak's "She’s All Light" at DayBreak Magazine last January: also told in the second person.

  6. booksforfood, thanks for suggesting letter-writing and dialogue as forms of second person narrative; that's a good point. The real key of course is keeping the narrative cohesion and engaging the audience in what you're trying to do.

    Mr. de Vries, it's a pleasure to see you comment! Thanks for bringing that story to my attention. I'll go check it out, and perhaps my readers can go look as well.

  7. I read "She's All Light" - interesting, cool story. It seems to me that one of the ways to ease people into acceptance of a second person narrative placement is to begin in a spot that readers will recognize. The story starts with checking online stats - something we do all the time, so it's not hard to imagine that we are "you" doing it. Then it eases us further into a narrator with an identity that isn't ours. In that way it's similar to what Calvino did in his book.

    Thanks again for the recommendation.

  8. I think that el-Mohtar's story is not strictly a second person narration. It's a first-person storytelling mode that occasionally addresses the audience directly, like the actors at the end of Aristophanes' or Shakespeare's plays.

  9. Athena, good to see you comment! I see your point, but I'm afraid I don't agree. El-Mohtar's story has an interesting effect going on, where in some sense it's two stories in one: the story of the sun dancers is one story (told in third person), while the interaction between the storyteller and the listener is a second story acting as a frame around the first. There are a couple of things that make me interpret this frame as second person rather than first - the biggest is that el-Mohtar goes out of her way to avoid the pronoun "I." The other is that "you," the most common pronoun in the frame story, has a distinct referent who acts (asks questions, does things), and who in the end turns out to have an identity entirely distinct from that of the reader. I think accepting and interpreting the style of narration in this story is easier because we are listeners to the story just as the listener character is, and it's easy to place ourselves in the position of the audience of a play just as you describe. It's a subtle move on el-Mohtar's part, and also perhaps, evidence that the distinction between styles of narration is not always clear-cut.

  10. "Evidence that the distinction between styles of narration is not always clear-cut."

    Exactly. Which is why the over-categorizing that goes on in writing workshops is not particularly constructive or imaginative. Additionally, most writing conventions are just that -- artificial agreed-upon conventions -- and they constantly change depending on prevailing fashions.

  11. This is true. I do think it's nice to give a nod to conventions to increase comprehensibility. In my article on point of view, one of the things I discussed was that the point of view effect was built up over thousands and thousands of instances of "arrows" pointing to the implied center of the narration.