Writing Sex Scenes in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

WomanWhat is a successful sex scene in literature? What are the acceptable decisions for writing a sex scene in serious fiction? Do you just reword a scene from erotica? Describe a pornographic video in as much detail as you can produce? Think of your best sexual experience? Take a vibrant scene from romance novel you enjoyed?

A major consideration is the nature of a sex scene in fiction. Like rage, the tension of a sex scene is difficult to sustain for long periods, and once the tension dissipates, it is followed by post climatic passivity and quiet that may stop story momentum and rebuff reader interest.  This can work well in some genres where emotional biological tension and its release fuels the fiction and is the purpose of the story.  In literary fiction there is often an overriding emotional arc(s)–say revenge, or jealousy, or unrequited love–that when kept suspenseful by delayed resolution, does form the lifeblood of a story.  And in literary fiction, emotional arcs intertwined often move the plot and subplots forward. 

Psychological tensions are the ingredients of good fiction, and sex as the physical interaction of humans often plays a role crucial in characterization and plotting.  But there are dangers that work against story success.  Sex scenes may scrape against a reader's cultural and moral sensitivities, and spoil the enjoyment of the work of fiction.

No one can really predict what will please a specific reader.  Most writers try to reach their "intended" readership–those readers whose respect will mean the most to the author.  What is acceptable in fiction is dependent on cultural norms, moral attitudes, and perception of artistic accomplishment of the individual.  For many readers in today’s world, anything is permissible, well, almost anything.  So if you write fiction, to be effective as a writer you may have wide latitude in using sex for plot and characterization.  But so much is written about sex it's hard to be original, to avoid cliche, and offense, or feelings of inappropriate writing and storytelling are always possibilities and need to be avoided. 

To be successful, literary fiction writers need a strategy about sex scenes. To start, an author needs to know what the goal is for the reader’s experience. Does the author want hearts to race, breath to quicken, arousal to the maximum? Or does the writer use the sex scene to build character in unique ways–sustain a love arc that is bolstered by a sex scene but with the love arc coming to its own more encompassing resolution, say marriage or divorce for examples.

And when creating a sex scene, what needs to dominate is a prime consideration–lust or love? Lust is sexual desire. Love is affection, caring, and so broad in meaning it’s difficult to define. But sex scenes need to have a decision about the purpose of the content to direct the wording, the ideation, and the contribute to story.  Indeed, the proportion of lust to love–and the credibility for character development and acceptance of the lust/love ratio in the story context–is dependent on a considered attitude of the author for what is the purpose of writing sex. It can be, of course, to sell books. But that’s not the driving force today for most serious fiction. It can be to purge an author’s fantasy. That may be self-serving satisfaction from the describing but doesn’t often fuel good fiction—it’s too divorced from the story core and the story is diminished. These dilemmas pose the critical question for any author's story: why should a sex scene even be in this work of serious fiction?

Many might say it's the suspense.   Will something climactic between humans that yearn for each other, or at least one yearns for the other, final culminate?  Would it be a release of longing and hedonistic desires of the biological tensions of human sex? Would it be just the admission of mutual attraction and yearning in both withheld because of fear that feelings were not reciprocated? Who really knows? But an author should try to find out for his or her story.  What the author chooses to write on the page makes a big difference.  Compare:  They made love?  Tongue licked flesh and her face flushed with passion?  He relished the presence of her desire.   A moan untethered escaped her full lips, her eyes squeezed as tight as a finger in a dyke, and she held her breath then gasped as if inhaling a shooting star . . . when she felt his slippery, salty-saliva-soaked tongue boldly massaging the excited flesh of erect delightfully rigid nipple. Extremes on a spectrum of detail and quality.  But in sex scenes the danger always lurks of overwriting, sentimentality, inaccuracy of word choice and syntax that might offend.

When in literary fiction should a sex scene be described in detail, as if observing human intercourse through a keyhole? Isn’t the summary of the actions between the two characters–the feelings, the unrequited attractions, the craving of tension release rather than the act itself often most important? For most literary fiction, a sex scene can be suggested and left to the imagination of the reader. He took her hand and led her to the bedroom, turning off the light.  Whatever happens is left to the reader to imagine (often more successfully that an authorial-detailed description).  The overriding principles are: no matter what the author chooses to write, it must relate to the story context in credibility and purpose; it must not stop story momentum with excessive description, sentimentality, or perceived offensive imagery; and it must be paced with respect to over all pacing of the prose.

Successful sex scenes are tricky to achieve in literary fiction.  Success takes practice and good judgment, and the reader reactions will be unpredictable, varied, and often critically intense.  Yet every author needs to develop capabilities to use lust and love as motivations in fiction successfully, but develop good judgment and use restraint that supports quality storytelling and writing.  Basically, a unique strategy for delivery is useful for every literary fictional story.

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Searching for Literary Fiction from Goodreads

William H. Coles

Who knows what literature is? Few, I would guess, and probably not many care? For many, literature equates with boring, archaic, inaccessible, verbose, and most modern fiction authors seem to fail at quality stories achieved by past great literary writers. Remember The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Wings of a Dove, A Passage to India, Wuthering Heights, A Simple Heart, The Scarlet Letter, and so many others? Much contemporary fiction seems to fade before the ink dries.

If you carefully examine differences in what has persisted as literary fiction from the past and what is being written today, interesting similarities emerge from techniques that made great writers.

Great literary fiction is often character-based. With loving care, characters are meticulously molded to engage a reader, and to induce wonder as to what will happen. The character is complex with strengths and weakness that drive the plot, or at least direct plot turns and advancement. Great literary stories always have the essence of dramatic momentum at every level of the writing and storytelling. Drama is conflict, action, and resolution, honed by imagination, talent, and intellect.

And equally as important, great literary fiction has theme and meaning. It may not be always in-your-face obvious and need not always be defined, but somewhere, something is gained from literary fiction about what it means to be human struggling in a seemingly random, unjust, and chaotic existence. Some enlightenment of both characters and readers must occur and must not be contrived and described by an author but instead must emerge through story and characterization.

I wish the goals of contemporary writers included writing fiction with intensity to bring great storytelling and writing to readers of today. Great literature needs to be created along the lines of those who built the tradition and value of fiction.

What do you think? Are there readers still searching for fiction based on established techniques of the past, or is the enjoyment and sustainability of literature as an art form doomed to extinction?

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The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor from Goodreads

William H. Coles

No matter your opinion of Flannery O'Connor's collected work, discovering the author's life will bring you to new understanding through this collection of O'Connor's letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald.

O'Connor, a devout Catholic in rural protestant Georgia, remained unmarried, became seriously ill, and died at an early age. Writing was her life. Having the privilege of knowing O'Conner's mind–her thoughts, her fears, her doubts–will forever change your reading of her works and may even mystify you as to the loyalty of her readers and the sustainability of her stories. A reader's gem.

A writer's resource. And every reader's fountain of empathy for a life lived.

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Victims as Characters in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

Creating a fictional character needs to serve the story being told, and in some way needs to attract and hold the reader’s interest, a connection that may not be likeable or sympathetic but must strong enough to engage the reader to produce at least some satisfaction in having read and acquainted oneself with the character.

Great characters of classic literature almost always have a touch of hero in them.  In the story world, they exude qualities such as persistence, morality, perseverance, determination, strength, confidence, intellect, and/or unfailing expectations that things are going to turn out all right, qualities that rise to above average.  These characters, in fiction, show resistance to the status quo, often in the face of insurmountable odds that involve conflicts in which the character must use skills, and often develop additional skills, in order to succeed.  Success and failure, of course, will vary from story to story but it’s the struggle, the quality, and the authorial delivery that grab the reader.  Readers generally want to root for a character who succeeds by using imagination and hard work.  If the author of fiction writes to evoke reader sympathy without significant reader engagement, there can be unwanted consequences.  Sympathy comes from empathy for the plight of others.  When a static character is in a dire, and often unjustly deserved, state and narrative description is used to tell of past events and feelings, empathy is harder to attain.  For the inexperienced author in this context, the danger of failure to create for desired reader response is sentimentality rather than empathy–and even bathos–by the reader for the character and the situation.

The difference between a static character described to evoke a sympathetic reader response and a character in a struggle with desires and motivation aimed at solving a problem enmeshed in intellectual, emotional, or physical conflict that evokes reader empathy results in two opposites that, by being aware of them during story construction, can improve a writer.  Basically, the writer’s choice is inaction told versus action shown.  (The comparison is like the difference in viewing a tableau vivant of Manet’s nude in the park or attending a theatrical production of Richard the Third, the “My kingdom for a horse.” guy.)  And for the success of most fictional stories, these differences are not just points on a sliding scale; instead the choice is either or, and for good fiction and good stories to reach greatness, a choice must be made, or at least considered, to where the story creation is effectively under authorial control. 

In most effective stories about victims, the character rails against the circumstances to improve his or her lot.  Authors often fail to reach story potential of acceptance, enjoyment, and memorability by allowing the character to wallow during excessive authorial narrative descriptions of the injustices, and by forcing the reader to make judgments about the credibility of injustice in the circumstances and accepting the character’s response to the person or event that caused his or her (the character’s) present state of existence.  Consider two situations with different character responses. 

Read the entire essay.

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Responses to “Victims as Characters in Literary Fiction”
  1. myVoice Says:

    A great post! Timely. I just finished the first draft of my first novel. My protagonist is a victim in the major aspects of her life, but the challenges only make her stronger. I know the revisions are not going to be easy. But this piece is a tremendous help. Thank you, Mr. Coles!

  2. William H. Coles Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I am pleased the post was useful. And best for effective revision. WHC

Graphic Novel Formatting for Online and Mobile Devices

William H. Coles

Story in Literary Fiction is working on a graphic novel (Three Stories About Love, William H. Coles, illustrated by Peter Healy) that will be published online in a few months. As we have progressed, the problems of creating a print graphic novel feel on an online publication, particularly with user-friendly compatibility for mobile devises, has been a major consideration. Should pagers and panels be in portrait or landscape orientation? How do artists think character size and detail for satisfactory viewing on a mobile phone, compared to a tablet, or a computer screen? What are the limitations of font size for dialogue?

Author and artist turned to Story in Literary Fiction’s webmaster, Susanne Howard, for inclusion in the creative process and to develop formats using current technology to assure effortless enjoyment of both the art and the story content. Susanne has created formats for stories that provide on each page a continuity of images, enlargement of panels for reading, and positioning of panels and text that will be compatible for different devices with different orientations.

Two random pages from the book are presented here (from the story “Homunculus”) to show how Susanne and the artist, Peter Healy, have collaborated to develop a template to publish graphic art both for print and with changes for publishing online effectively. Your comments and ideas are welcomed.

click image below to see formatting of pages

Humunculus Graphic Novel sample pages

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Thoughts on Fiction and Story: Response to a Workshop Question Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Question submitted to workshop.

In a short story, is it NECESSARY to have the character on a mission trying to accomplish something? William Trevor and Alice Munro have so often been cited as masters of the short story form, and often I can't figure out what their characters are "up to." What are they trying "to do." It just feels like they show characters living their lives. Let me know what you think? (Submission anonymous)


I admit I come with a very narrow aesthetic sense at this. It’s story that makes me warm and fuzzy, stories where something happens and the characters are unique and fighting with often inadequate skills against insurmountable odds. The contemporary short story seems to have settled into character sketch with narrative description, or heavy dependence on event description based on a “real” “made-up” person or remembered happening supported by lyrical prose usually without action, seemingly without purpose, and very inconsistent on effective imagery.

For me, fiction is communication between two human beings, author and reader, and I believe successful connection is best achieved with the ability to please the reader with fiction techniques and purposeful thinking. The fictional story is created with a purpose—to engage, entertain, and enlighten. Characters need to have desires that fuel motives for action when the character is presented with a conflict and characters need to have the will to try to solve a problem and make change in some way. Do contemporary fiction writers create stories? It’s rare. They simply tell stories part-real or imagined. I’ve never had pleasure in reading Trevor or Munro; as you’ve pinpointed for yourself, I’m not fascinated by narrative description of past events and told emotions of characters as if a reader is forced to watch reality TV. But I feel it’s heretical to say so, and hasten to say my views are in a minority and probably archaic for modern reader and author temperaments.

I don’t believe fiction is a good medium for missions that imply “I’m going to tell you how to do something or believe in something,” and are usually authorial in source. I like characters, with the reader by their sides, solving problems so both reader and characters learn something, even if subliminal, about what it means to be human. They learn mainly by doing, feeling, discovering–in the story present mainly—and primarily in scene, not by an author telling of past events and lives described from the author’s present life and worldview.

It’s damn near impossible to write stories like Babel, de Maupassant, Flaubert, Conrad, O’Connor, or Chekhov. It’s not that they just lived in the past. They were able to create stories that built character and conveyed something interesting through action that a reader had not thought about before, or at least enjoyed exploring again.

I believe that every author ought to strive for exactly that past level of quality stories—for the sake of our generations’ stories surviving in the collective human consciousness. And I have a mission: to bring back great fiction techniques in contemporary stories that are created by authors whose talent thrives on knowledge of the human soul expressed through character-based dramatic plots. Deep down, humans in the near and distant future will thirst for knowledge of what folks were like in our lives and find out in the ways only creation through fiction can achieve. The fictional story is an art form, this creation through fiction to describe human soul in our time, and like singing opera or writing sonnets, it would be a shame if the art form is lost.

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Story Beginnings (13): What Engages You? Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

Below are thirteen story beginnings of less than sixty words all from award-winning stories.  Which engages you the most and makes you want to read on?  Which engages you the least?  Analyze why, to find principles applicable to your own writing.

All stories are available for free at www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.

1. After a six-hour drive north from Toronto, John Hampton arrived at the family home of his departed wife, Grace, and her daughter Candy, both dead six days.  The house was dark; his sister-in-law, Ruth, greeted him in a nightgown and robe, and knee-length woolen socks . . . she led him toward an attic room.   Speaking of the Dead

2. His sweet troubled son, alone in his second-floor room, he and his wife sitting downstairs irritated by the bass thrust of the loud music.  They didn't know he had taken a loaded shotgun and while sitting on the bed, placed the barrels under his chin and pushed down on the trigger.  Dilemma

3. My one unbreakable rule was never pick up a hitchhiker.  And never at night.  But at the far edge of the headlights this girl showed up in the breakdown lane near mile maker 381, kind of humped over as if she didn't even know I was bearing down on her . . .  Inside the Matryoshka

 4. Most of the lawn-party guests at the country club were Jean’s friends from childhood, and we knew from her brittle greeting and fixed smile that she was upset.  My God.  Most of us would have been weeping behind a locked bathroom door.  She welcomed us alone–although the invitations read “Hosts: Jean and Tim”—without a word about Tim’s whereabouts.  The Golden Flute

5. In 1959, a week after her seventeenth birthday, Catherine missed her period in February, and then in March.  By late April she was not sleeping well and most of her waking hours were spoiled by nausea and hating everything she ate.  Her mother Agnes made an emergency appointment with Dr. Crowder.  The Gift

 6. One summer when I was eight the dead flies were so thick on Grandma’s porch that Mom swept them into piles and shoveled them into large plastic trash bags.  “They’re a danger.  Think of the disease,” Mom said.  The War of the Flies

 7. The wind gust between the walkway and the airplane door chilled Father Ryan as he waited for Bishop Henley to move into the cabin.  Father Ryan’s hand swept across his rustled thick head of light brown hair as the flight attendant smiled and turned to open a can of tomato juice in the galley.  Father Ryan

 8. My Auntie Caroline drove my dead mother’s plum red van on the way to the courthouse.  Aaron, my older brother by two years, sat unstrapped on the passenger side in what my mother used to call the death seat; Patsy, my seven-year-old younger sister, and I were in the back.  Dr. Greiner's Day in Court

9. I was fifteen, never in love, and yearning to leave home when a red, two-seated convertible drove up to our gate.  The driver’s door opened, and a girl of twenty-two with a perfectly shaped, light-skinned body emerged in a see-through dress that showed almost everything, and I imagined the rest.  The Stonecutter

 10. Associate Professor William Possum was looking for student Denise Witherspoon, this attractive, slightly overweight, moderately intelligent woman who was destroying his class.  Denise had caused five angry letters, two dropouts, and a formal complaint that said she “made an evening of anticipated learning a dreadful experience.”   The Perennial Student

 11. “I ain’t going to stand for it,” Mama said.  She said this often.  She held a small dead human about as long as an ear of corn.  Even though the head was too big, the hands too small, you could tell it might have been somebody.  The Activist

 12. In college, I had been attracted to my roommate, Peter Townsend.  But after fifteen years of marriage to Amanda, my thoughts of Peter had faded, until I heard a rumor that he would interview for Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University where I was a professor of botany.  Curse of a Lonely Heart

 13. My life at twenty-one was never in tune–like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold–and I’m walking up this two-lane side road about ten miles West of Canton and North of Jackson where I have just come from.   On the Road to Yazoo City

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Becoming an Author Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

I write scientific papers and textbooks, so I thought my dream of writing a famous fiction story was little more than a modest veering from my career path.  I wrote a few short stories for practice to a point where I was comfortably convinced of publication success. With no expectations of failure, I signed up for a writing course at a college with a credible reputation for publishing a respected literary journal. I workshopped where fellow students critiqued my story with, in retrospect, almost zero insight into creating fiction.  But I meticulously incorporated all the student-workshop comments as corrections into my manuscript, and expectantly sent off my story to the college's literary journal, my workshop attendance dates (in bolded italics) informatively placed at the top of my submission cover letter to assure success.

Five months and twenty-two days later, my response arrived. "Your story does not meet our needs." was printed on a four by three inch slip of buff paper, and on the back hand-scratched in pencil were these words: "You have no concept of what a story is, or what a story can do." I was depressingly discouraged–well, in truth, I was hurt and devastated.  But I soon rallied.  I assumed that my story, indeed my talent and intellect, had been sorely misread. I'd get an agent!

Agents, it turned out, failed to see my potential.  I would do better writing a memoir about my teenage struggle with psoriasis, or a love story with breast-feeling detail.  And true gold was in children’s and YA stories that any editor would buy sight unseen. But why deal with agents?  Unlikeable really.  I needed new direction.  I would deal directly with editors, convince them of my quality and talent, still woefully unappreciated and unrecognized.

I went to a writing meeting where conferences with editors were offered and was amazed at my success. A senior editor at one of the top two publishing houses in the country was assigned to me!  Now we're talking.  He advised me with us both sitting on opposite sides of a three-foot-round overstuffed ottoman in a overcrowded hotel lobby–impossible to sit side-by-side–where we both had to look behind us to carry on a side-mouthed conversation. He said he had read my submission on the elevator on his Android.  "We got to get you published," he said. "Try Anstel Aster Hodman."  Holy Cow!  I'd been on the wrong track for so long.  Agents were the way after all.

Next day, my work went Priority Mail to my new friend, Anstel, who responded by email in no less than fourteen hours–obviously not needing time to craft a carefully worded rejection. Great! He knew of my editor . . . but . . . had never met him . . . and . . . he didn't take on fiction of my type for his "list."  Frequent failure loomed. Anstel would make no recommendations and repeated emails over many months to my most-cherished editor-connection went . . . well . . . unanswered.  I felt spammed.

Twelve months later the yearly electronic alumni newsletter of my Midwest college published my now abridged story (required as being outside the five-hundred word limit) and my church-diocese monthly bulletin did a review.  I wasn't flushed with pride, but that did not stop me from tweeting, "Published at last!" with no specific details.


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Why Should a Serious Fiction Writer Use Second Person Narration? Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

More than a few editors see stories with second-person narration as trendy these days.  You enter the church; you kneel at the alter.  You stare into the downcast eyes of the statue of The Virgin, and you wonder if she's listening. Some readers accept this without question as good, and innovative writing. 

Others find it irritating.  Rob Spillman, Editor of Tin House, said: "I have a pet peeve against the second person that I call the second–person accusatory: 'You are walking down the street.'  I go, 'No, I am not walking down the street!'"[1]  Spillman reflects the views of many.  Using the second person the author constantly confronts the reader assuming the reader will react positively, presumably thinking the reader will be drawn into the story, but requiring increased suspension of disbelief (for narrator credibility and accuracy) for the reader to actually enjoy the story.

David Lynn, Editor of the Kenyon Review, recently presented [2] an erudite explanation of the use of second person in a story he was proud to have selected for publication.  “Ezekiel” by Segun Afolabi.  It starts:

You sail at dusk, not knowing one from the other. Moonlight leaks across the water like an oil spill. You see their faces bathed in the greasy glow: children, infants, women, mostly men. You cannot count how many people are in the boat, but you estimate at least thirty, perhaps forty. When it lay near-empty you couldn’t imagine how all of you would fit inside. But here you are, bumper to bumper, as Gertrude says of the downtown Dakar traffic, its hot-city stink, the sweat of a million bodies. “Move your leg,” the woman beside you says in English. She sits, knees akimbo, sheathed in a wrapper the color of flowering pineapples. She wears a mauve shawl tugged up to her neck as if the sea breeze is too much of a balm for the heat. The shawl fails to mask the extent of her condition—six or seven months, you think. You couldn’t envisage Gertrude like this. You wouldn’t allow it. Not on this boat, alone, without her people around her. Then you remember—it will be roughly only one week before you reach dry land; this woman will not give birth between now and then.

Mr. Lynn confesses usual dislike with the use of second person as a narrative choice but provides a number of interesting observations on second person narration, ideas that may be held by many academicians.  (Quotes extracted from David Lynn's analysis of "Ezekial.")

The second-person narrative successfully emphasizes his lack of being a full, mature “subject” capable of first-person story making. The “you” sets him apart, an object, not in control of this his own narrative.

“You sail at dusk, not knowing one from the other.”  Such syntax could, of course, be a sign of mere clumsiness or lack of authorial skill. Or, as soon becomes evident in this story, it may be perfectly appropriate to the narrator and the situation.

So the awkwardness and confusion of the language heighten the nightmarish qualities of the scene itself.

In reading the story I soon realized that the author is indeed marvelously skilled at suggesting and representing the challenges of multiple languages and failures of understanding, without being heavy-handed.

Mr. Lynn points out many other aspects of the writing to admire.  But these extracts provide insight to second-person narration that impressed and pleased him as an editor. (See article.)

At the core, Mr. Lynn's admiration specifically saw use of second person providing:

1) Second-person narrative successfully emphasizes author lack of being a full, mature “subject” capable of first-person story making.
2) the “you” sets the author/narrator apart, an object, not in control of this his own narrative.
3) Mere clumsiness or lack of authorial skill may be perfectly appropriate to the narrator and the situation.
4) Awkwardness and confusion of the language heightened nightmarish qualities.
5) Author marvelously skilled at suggesting and representing the challenges of multiple languages and failures of understanding, without being heavy-handed.

For creation of classic literary-fiction stories (it is true, "Ezekial" seems to be a memory-based "fictional" story), a number of essentials need to be considered to reach memorability and acceptance as great writing and storytelling: clarity of the prose narration, solid imagery that stimulates and engages the reader's imagination, clear ideation, unique and sophisticated character development with some reversal of thought and understanding, theme and meaning, and providing entertainment and enlightenment for the reader.

In second-person narration, there is a barrier set between the author and the reader.  When "you" is used instead of a first person or third person pronoun, there is little accumulation of valid characterization because the "you" is unanchored in an identifiable narrator, and the reader becomes dependent mostly on narrative description since internalization, action, and dialogue are now attributed to a hazy unidentifiable story presenter.  And it is often unclear, whether the author is using "you" as a singular entity, or to a "plural you," which would suggest an even more diffuse identification of who the story presenter is, and more than a little author arrogance in believing that all the world will believe as he or she does.  And, as Mr. Lynn points out, there is, with second person use, a lack of narrator control of the story.  However, for great fictional stories a strong identifiable narrator presence in control of the storytelling is almost always an advantage.

This issue of unclear narrator eroding characterization is best shown by example. 

Second person

You are insecure about Helen's meaning.  You see her raised eyebrow as questioning your authority, so you pull the trigger.  You are pleased at the puzzlement in her last look.

Almost surely the reader won't relate to this pronoun . . . accept responsibility for the "you's" thoughts and actions.  And if the reader accepts the convention of "you," characters fail to take on form and personality; the reader is left floating in a confused, awkward telling of a story and knowing of the characters involved.

First person

I'm not sure what Helen meant.  But her innocent look inflames me, and I pull the trigger, happy to see the surprise in her eyes as the life goes out of her.

Third person

He does not know Helen's meaning.  He is incapable of understanding a soul so trusting and pure.  Her pleading gaze he takes as mockery and he pulls the trigger; he smiles at her stare of surprise and disbelief as she dies.

In both 1st and 3rd person, action and thoughts allow the reader to know a character, a feat essential for good fiction.

Marginal writing aside, in these variations using 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person narration, 2nd person does not allow any assumptions as to how the narrator felt or why he or she acted.  Both 1st and 3rd person support the storytelling better.  It is hard to imagine storytelling situations where the failure of understanding the choice of narration, the clumsiness of the prose and syntax required, and the inability to use 1st or 3rd person would be an advantage.

Here is a version of the first two paragraphs of "Ezekial" with the only change of replacing the "you" pronoun (and adjusting tense where necessary) with a third person pronoun.  No other alterations are made.  Study the differences.  Evaluate the "obscurity and the awkwardness" differences on the effective imagery of this story in the original and the altered. Where does second person work or not work for you, and why?  See if there are things to learn about your own fiction writing and storytelling. 

He sails at dusk, not knowing one from the other. Moonlight leaks across the water like an oil spill. He sees their faces bathed in the greasy glow: children, infants, women, mostly men. He cannot count how many people are in the boat, but he estimates at least thirty, perhaps forty.  When it lay near-empty, he couldn’t imagine how they would fit inside. But he was, bumper to bumper, as Gertrude says of the downtown Dakar traffic, its hot-city stink, the sweat of a million bodies.
     “Move your leg,” the woman beside him says in English. She sits, knees akimbo, sheathed in a wrapper the color of flowering pineapples. She wears a mauve shawl tugged up to her neck as if the sea breeze is too much of a balm for the heat. The shawl fails to mask the extent of her condition—six or seven months, he thinks. He couldn’t envisage Gertrude like this. He wouldn’t allow it. Not on this boat, alone, without her people around her. Then he remembers—it will be roughly only one week before he reaches dry land; this woman will not give birth between now and then.

Second person use with past tense is natural where a character or the narrator address another character and it is made clear to the reader.  [I know exactly what you did.  You climbed the tree to see the nest and you pushed the fledglings out!]  But if the narrator is addressing the reader with the "you" in a scene context without clarity as to whom the "you" is, the reader may again feel confronted, and fail to connect with story and character.  [You ate the fish raw.  You felt nausea.  You wondered if you'd ever eat fish again.]

"We" use is not always first person plural in the hands of the ambiguous-intent writer.  "We" can suggest "me" [the narrator] and "you" [the reader] with the same confrontation and reader-as-character effects.  [We bought the ticket, we slide it in the slot, we watched the gate open thinking we might never return.]  The purpose for such use and construction seems amateurish, calling attention to the author, and not supporting the story.

When writers who write to please readers write in second person, they risk alienating the reader, risk confusing the reader, risk failure to develop strong characters, and risk clouding motivations, desires, and cause and effect of characters in the telling of the story.  Yet, the trend seems to be developing a form that pleases more than a few contemporary readers who strongly support use of second person narration.  Every writer will have to evaluate and make decisions based on their own goals for telling fictional prose stories.  However, for quality literary fiction that persists in the literary consciousness of English readers, second person narration may not be a lasting or dependable tool.


[1]  http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/interviews/spillman-rob-interview/

[2] David Lynn,  "Why We Chose It"  Kenyon Review  September 11, 2012

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Responses to “Why Should a Serious Fiction Writer Use Second Person Narration?”
  1. A.T. Lynne Says:

    How marvelously confirming the article's concluding paragraph is of the author's initial comment about second person, "Using the second person the author constantly confronts the reader assuming the reader will react positively, presumably thinking the reader will be drawn into the story [of the reader's purpose for writing and limited skill in second person], but requiring increased suspension of disbelief."

    This was your intention, of course, thought the reader with amusement. After all, you are a blogger in head-to-head competition with so many other bloggers out there telling writers why and how they write. You needed an angle, and by that time of morning, when your coffee'd gone bitter and cold and the dog wanted out, well hell, you just needed that last paragraph to somehow tie up this blog post before lifting yourself from the chair.
    And, hey, how many of those aspiring writers would really read all the way to the end? You know from your research that, what? a mere fraction of tweet-attention-span budding writers ever even use the scroll button anymore. They look for the sound byte on the opening screen then click back to CNN or Match.com or are called by their "personalized" Pavlovian ring to ingest the next report from a Facebook friend they've never met about what they just must do with their lives and dollars.
    So, you say, what the hell. I'll summarize this with a trance about their ineptitude and keep all those neophyte writers out of harm's way and save them from the thousand lessons they could learn about second person only by writing it. And, with that final period, you feel good. You feel validated and very, very good, and the dog is so happy to see you coming with the leash.

  2. William H. Coles Says:

    Thank you for your comment. Well done and informative. I've updated the last paragraph, realizing its ineffectiveness in getting my ideas across. A valuable learning experience for me, and hopefully a better chance for visitors to take in your point that a writer's skill in using second person effectively is best achieved by doing and learning, and gauging reader's response. Again, thanks. WHC

Memoir Is Not Fiction Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Most contemporary literary writers write, and are educated to write, fiction as if it is a variant of writing memoir. Teachers of creative writing ask students to find what is meaningful for them, what is in their hearts? So when students write "fiction" stories–novels or shorter works–they write from their own experience; describe their own feelings; deliver their own opinions; describe their own memories for setting and scene events; and establish a voice for the work, their voice, without ever creating voices for a narrator or characters as distinct entities. Dialogue especially suffers, since everything in quotes is little changed from what the author would say and think.

But story structure is weak also. Fictional stories in memoir style seem to have little or no purpose and fail to have dramatic progression. In memoir style, almost always the author is the narrator, directly or indirectly, in first and third person, which limits the story presentation to the author's world-view, mind, and experience. And imagination (forming new ideas and concepts) to create story is limited in memoir style to the author's view of the world and descriptions of recollections.

Memoir-generated fiction is now accepted by readers as literary, mainly because of the number of authors who default to this style of writing. The style is easier to write and allows anyone, regardless of language skills, to tell a self-centered story that is increasingly being published today as literary fiction.  But is memoir-based fiction really being accepted by readers?  In today's stressed market with perceived shifting needs, literary fiction doesn't sell books to publishers' satisfaction. That may be because what is labeled as literary fiction is just sloppy memoir.

In the minds of most writers, what literary fiction is little more than a vague mist. Yet, the classics written as fiction (as it has continued to develop over the past three centuries) are rich with vibrant examples of great fiction.  Great literary fiction is character-based, that is, the strengths and weaknesses of characters drive the plot.  Great fiction is created by the author; told by the narrator in the narrator's own, distinct, world-view voice; and acted out by characters, who may in story-appropriate enhancing situations, create their own distinctive voices.  And literary stories have meaning, something happens, and someone is enlightened–character or reader, and often both be it usually in different ways.  Literary fiction is permeated with humor, usually in the form of irony, and has an understandable moral overlay, a morality that is story specific and not, for maximum effectiveness, the morality lived and pronounced by the author.  The writing in literary fiction is dramatic, interesting, engaging, and accurate with pinpoint word choice and carefully considered grammar appropriately chosen for the story.

And literary fiction is imagined, never just narrative description from authorial memories.  Not that the literary author doesn't draw on his or her experiences, and seeks stimulation from the past for engagement and function of the imagination.  For imaginative fiction, the author's world is only a nidus that stimulates imaginative use of a broader-than-author world, but the author's world is not the foundation or the embellishment of great literary stories. 

In essence and in contrast to memoir, literary stories are created by their authors, but authors create from broad views of the world fortified by experience and observation. Narrators and characters contribute to stories from their own special (author-created) worldviews.

The author's presence in the literary story is through the uniqueness of his or her creative abilities, the quality of the imagination, the skill of the writing, and by the author narrating through narrator and characters imagined for the story world; the author's worldview from their own narrow world is not present, or at least not dominant.

Literary fiction takes time, experience, hard work, vibrant imagination, and intellectual investment to produce unique, accurate, image-invoking writing and development of characters with unique characteristics that mesh synergistically with story, plot, and a recognizable reason for writing.  Great memoir is an excellently written, well-crafted presentation of an author's life events and experiences–often emotional and intellectual change–as told by the author.

Readers need literature written with fiction techniques and sophisticated narration to attain pleasure, a feeling of discovery, a new way of seeing the world, and a desire to continue to read to find the qualities of great stories and characters that only a writer of fiction, writing well and telling unique stories, can provide.

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Responses to “Memoir Is Not Fiction”
  1. passerby Says:

    James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist. D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers. Thinly-disguised memoirs as novels isn't a new phenomenon, and certainly doesn't necessarily equal inferior quality fiction. You have some great tips, but also some rather strong, strange, dogmatic opinions. This memoir thing seems to be a pet peeve of yours.

  2. passerby Says:

    P.S. I make the above observation after spending the past 3 hours reading almost everything on your site.


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