I am a BIG fan of the 2nd person point of view.
As a reader, it plunges you into the writing and forces you to pay attention.
As a writer, when we allow our reader to stand in the shoes of our character and to experience the world through their eyes, ears and skin, we deliver a powerful emotional experience.
To illustrate the power of ‘you’, compare the following passages:
“He should think about nobody and go his own way, not on a course marked out for him by people holding mugs of water and bottles of iodine in case he falls and cuts himself so that they can pick him up – even if he wants to stay where he is -.”
That was my reworking of a passage from a short story. The original is quoted below, and you may recognise this as an extract from Alan Sillitoe’s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
“You should think about nobody and go your own way, not on a course marked out for you by people holding mugs of water and bottles of iodine in case you fall and cut yourself so that they can pick you up – even if you want to stay where you are -.”
I am sure you will agree the second passage is much stronger.
By using the power of ‘you’, Alan Sillitoe plunges us straight into the mind of the narrator. We feel the strength of his opinion, see people holding out their mugs and bottles, imagine ourselves falling and being picked up, and experience his reluctance at being forced to carry on.
Commonly, you find the second person interwoven into a first person account, with the narrator sometimes talking about him or herself, and sometimes directly addressing the reader. Alan Sillitoe’s story, for example, is told primarily in the first person. But others writers have written entirely in the second person POV.
Here are some advantages of using the second person POV:
- You grab the attention of your reader.
- Your character’s thoughts are transmitted directly and immediately.
- Your descriptions will seem vibrant and real.
- Sensations and feelings are heightened.
- You create a powerful bond of empathy between character and reader.
- And your reader’s emotional investment in the story becomes greater.
I might find reading a whole novel in the second person POV rather irritating, while within a short story, if used deliberately, the second person POV can feel fresh and exciting.
But it can be a difficult format to pull off, and here are some of the disadvantages:
- Restricting the POV may limit your ability to tell the story.
- The second person can seem like a command and your reader may resist being told what to do, think, say, etc.
- Use of the unusual POV can make some readers recoil. It was not what they expect from fiction and it can make them feel uncomfortable.
- If your character is very unpleasant, warped or evil, your reader may find the emotional closeness repulsive and they may stop reading.
Although hard to sustain over the course of a novel, using a second person POV can be a compelling device when used in a short story. In fact, the winner of the short story competition, published in the July 1014 edition of Writing Magazine, was a very moving piece called Fair Words, by Gill Hale, written in the second person.
Here are some examples of stories told with a second person POV.
Travels with the Snow Queen, a short story I found on a French site. (Don’t worry, the story is in English!)
The Darkening Light, by Ted Curtis. An extract from this excellent novella is available on the antsy blog spot.
The winner of this month’s (July) short story competition in Writing Magazine was ‘Fair Words’ by Gill Hale, a very moving story told using the second person.
And my own short story, Being Tim, recently published in the 44 Square Anthology, mixes second and third person POV. I chose this as a way of illustrating my character’s confusion with the boundaries between ‘self’ and others. The
anthology can be downloaded (free!) as a PDF file.
As you may have guessed, I really enjoy a good story told in the 2nd person POV. Turning on the power of ‘you’ may invigorate your story and give it a fresh, exciting feel.
5 thoughts on “Why you should put the ‘you’ into your writing: 2nd person POV”
It’s wrong of me, but I can’t help associating 2nd person PoV with those books you get where you pick what happens in the story.
That said, I can see other scenarios in which it could be just right for a story.
True! I’d forgotten about those books 🙂
Everything I’ve read about writing fiction says avoid 2nd POV entirely. This is a refreshing read Ruth and it has made me think. Thanks! 🙂
Ooo, has the site got a new look, Ruth? I like it (or has it just been that long since I was last here 😦 ?)
My critique group always goes slightly crazy when someone reads something in the second person. We hear it so rarely that every suddenly gets really lively and eager to hear the piece over and over.
I’m sure that, as a bunch of writers, our reaction differs from that of the casual reader, but I have to agree; it is very refreshing to see every now and then. And the ‘power of you’ is incredibly strong if used well.
It is a long time since I redecorated 😉 Welcome back.