Monday, April 20, 2009

Second Person

One day, my twelve-year-old son told me that his junior high English teacher had been explaining the difference between first person and third person points of view. When my son asked about second person, she said that there was no such thing (much to his outrage).

Yes, the rumors are true...there is a second person voice.

It reads something like this:

You opened the refrigerator and saw that your roommate had once again drunk all of your beer. Outraged, you pounded on his bedroom door, demanding an explanation. He kept his eyes on the video game he was playing and refused to answer. You stormed away, hating him.

Sounds weird, doesn't it? But while this type of writing defies convention, there are some writers who use it. One notable example is A Prayer for the Dying by Stuart O'Nan. This book is not only written in second person, it is also written in present tense which is doubly strange. Although I believe that this voice would be difficult to tolerate in a long work, A Prayer for the Dying is short. Additionally, the second-person present tense gives the story a powerful impact that it might not otherwise have had. If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it. (Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is another example. I have yet to read that one, though.)

In the book Story Matters by Margaret-love Denman and Barbara Shoup, second person POV is also discussed. Story Matters, an outstanding resource for writers, quotes writer Pam Houston who says, "[A second-person] point of view is always about a 'narrator who's ashamed of herself, afraid to say I'." Story Matters goes on to say, "Using the second person washes a layer of shame over the story without the narrator ever having to admit it."

After reading that, I decided to try writing a story from the second-person POV. My story, The Scarlet Wristband, involved a young, teen aged boy who had to choose between telling the truth and saving his mother. Although the piece was successfully published in All Possible Worlds, when it was reviewed, my use of the second-person POV was criticized because it placed too much distance between the reader.

Personally, I enjoy reading the second-person POV (in small amounts). I think it can lend some interesting angles to a narrative. But it can also fail miserably. Like so many unique narrative structures (such as diary entries), however, second-person POV is another tool in the writer's kit.


Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of second-person POV too. It's very hard to write it without making it sound like one of those 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books, or without reading going 'No, I didn't'. I'm not sure I've managed not doing either of those things yet :)

Elle Scott said...

Lol. Yes, you are spot on there. I forgot all about those books!

Molly said...

I so enjoyed reading this post. I am an English teacher (although not by training) and I too teach students that the rule is to write in 1st or 3rd person. I caveat that advice by saying that 2nd person is usually reserved for "epistolary" stories -- and that segues into Jane Austen.

I have not heard of the resources you mention here, but I will definitely check them out. Thank you so much!

Eric said...

I don't think I could comfortably write in 2nd person, but I might give it a try sometime. I have difficulty enough with 1st person.

fairyhedgehog said...

Second person makes me think of computer games. I'm not sure I could read a whole story written like that. I'm interested in the idea of it creating a layer of shame over the story. That's something to think about.

Elle Scott said...

Yes, second person is a strange vehicle to use when telling a story. I'm putting "Bright Lights, Big City" on my summer reading list just to re-examine the voice.

Lady Euphoria Deathwatch said...

Hi Ellie,

What else are the teachers of today not being taught to teach our children? Just because it is not used often doesn't make it nonexistent.

It may be a new world, but the old one still has a place in it.

Thank you for writing about this.

Hugs, Euphoria

Crimogenic said...

Not a fan of second person, but I think if you can pull it off, why not! :)

Kate said...

Iain Banks uses the 2nd person with great effect in 'Complicity' as well. However it's not a POV I've tried myself. Maybe I should give it a go. :-)

Elle Scott said...

Yes, I was disappointed in the teacher. My thought was that she didn't want to confuse her students.

Writing in second person is strange, and I'm not sure it's for everyone, but it can give a different perspective on a story.

I'll have to add 'Complicity' to my reading list as well!

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