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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 altar.  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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8 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

  3. Robert Says:

    You were fine until you began giving examples of sentences that are similar except for POV. The problem is that you put them all in the past tense. To the extent that the second-person POV has any use at all it is far more effective when used in the present tense as in the excerpt from Ezekiel. This difference helps the reader to regain some of the identification with the character that is arguably lost when the second person POV is used.

  4. William H. Coles Says:

    Great point. And valid. Certainly tense does affect POV comparisons. And certainly the 2nd person POV does have effects in present tense that many authors have chosen to incorporate into style and storytelling. Examples in past tense, of course, were used for consistency and for comparison. Thanks for the comment, which adds to a reader's understanding of the choices. All the best. WHC

  5. Catherine D. Says:

    This was a well-written article, and I would like to congragulate you on the fact. It was informative, and to the point; you certainly left me musing.
    But I can't help but wonder if the examples that you used for first, second, and third person could be improved? The third example, which begins with "He did not know…", is so much more fluid when it comes to the diction and tone, while the first two seem almost childish.

    I'd hate to be a nitpick, and even more so to be a bother, but I believe it could be argued that they could simply be written better; taking the first comment as an example of fairly exemplary writing skills in the second person.

  6. William H. Coles Says:

    Thank you for your comment, well made and valuable. Others have had unsettled feelings about the examples, and your thoughts have helped clarify what is wrong. I plan to work on it to see if I can come up with written examples that clarify my points without sinking into inferior writing. I think the post is important enough to get it right, and thanks for expressing your ideas. All the best. WHC

  7. Dennis Billuni Says:

    You might want to correct the spelling from "alter" to "altar" in the first paragraph, especially in an article about better writing.

  8. William H. Coles Says:

    Thanks for the alert. Appreciate your taking the time to point it out. Best. WHC

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