One of the first questions every writer has to ask themselves before starting a new piece is: Which point of view should they use? Point of view is the mechanic you use for the voice of the narrator, and you have three basic choices: First (I rode the bicycle), Second (You rode the bicycle), and Third (He rode the bicycle). It’s an important question and one that can change the tone of an entire piece. The usual go-to viewpoints are third and first, or the habitual “He, she, they” and “I.” But every once in a while we’re tempted to reach for second-person POV, or the “You” form of address, typified by the following kinds of sentences:
“You walk down the path and come to a fork. There are no signs to tell you where to go, so you decide to take the path to the beach.”
“It’s possible you made a mistake and this is all just some sort of dream, some twisted, hilariously embarrassing dream, like the recurring one you have about that time you brought your mother’s ‘special toys’ to show and tell.”
“You ask him whether he really meant it when he told you he thought your sister resembled a vulgar manatee.”
It’s a very powerful point of view with the ability to influence your reader in ways that first and third person don’t. The question then becomes, When is this the right choice for your piece?
There are several forms of writing where the second-person point of view is natural, and maybe even required. That list includes do-it-yourself tutorials, choose-your-own-adventure novels, and anywhere you as the author are giving instructions to your reader. (See what I just did there?) The second-person is best utilized when the point of the piece is to address the reader of the work, for instructional or emotional impact.
It’s that emotional impact that most writers are looking for when they reach for the second-person point of view (and when their intention isn’t to write the next viral blog post about do-it-yourself mason jar centerpieces). The second-person presents a very different emotional connection with a piece of prose than either the first or third manage. The reader is being directly addressed by the work in front of them, and it invites the reader inside the piece to experience the joy, anger, anxiety, or danger as their own personal experiences, and not simply those of a distanced character separated by the fourth wall of the page. It intensifies all of the emotions of your writing, as they reflect directly on the reader rather than on a character.
John McGahern’s short novel, The Dark, is a depressing portrait of a young boy growing up in Ireland. Fully half of the chapters are written in second-person while the rest are split between third and first, with a smattering of chapters where the voice is so passive it doesn’t even seem to have a perspective. And the chapters aren’t chosen at random, either; each change of POV serves a purpose in regards to the overall narrative.
The first-person chapters (just three chapters out of thirty) are all ones where Mahoney, the young protagonist, is enjoying himself; the third-person chapters are all instances of brutal humiliation, failure and abuse; and the second-person chapters are all instances where Mahoney is trying to amp himself up or change his life. McGahern uses this juggling act of viewpoints to alternately distance his protagonist and the reader from the horrors of the book, then invite the reader in to Mahoney’s head to witness his pleasures and growth. It’s an effective tool and really works to show the emotional impact that Mahoney’s life has by inviting the reader to share personally in Mahoney’s struggle to defend himself, and in his eventual triumph. At the same time, the third person chapters serve to show Mahoney’s trauma while not overwhelming the reader with it.
A more consistent use of second-person is in the codas of John Scalzi’s Redshirts. After the novel proper ends, the reader is presented with a series of short stories (codas) following one of the minor characters through the aftermath of the novel, and each in a different point of view. The second coda is, appropriately enough, in second-person. It follows a young man who was in a coma for the entirety of the novel and is just now coming awake to realize that things don’t exactly add up. Having constructed it in second-person, Scalzi invites the reader into the novel to directly participate in this part that was previously played by a near-corpse—to experience the rude awakening of this supporting actor. And it works as a fun device to more fully integrate the reader into the reading experience and more vividly reflect his confusion and curiosity.
But Should You Use Second-Person?
That’s the driving question here: When should you as a writer use the second-person point of view? To answer that question, we have to ask a few others: Firstly, how long is your work?
In The Dark, Redshirts, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Marguerite Duras’ The Malady of Death, there’s one unifying factor to their use of second-person: it’s used sporadically or for a short period of time. Second-person, while effective for drawing your reader in, is also very tiring for them. It’s natural for a reader to think in “he” or “she” or “I” because that’s what people do all day long. “I feel tired.” “Her dress is ugly.” But they rarely use the words “You” unless addressing a pep talk to themselves or directly addressing another person. Even then, the “You” is more likely implied rather than spoken outright. So a work that uses “You” instead of “he” or “she” or “I” should be short enough that the reader doesn’t get tired and put your work down. Use it in a short story or scattered chapters or chapter divisions, but unless you’re writing a choose-your-own-do-it-yourself-adventure-project book, your ninety-thousand word novel would probably be better served by third or first-person.
The other question to think about before diving into second-person is: What effect do you want your work to have? Third-person gives a little distance from the action of the novel, which can be good for things the audience might find uncomfortable. First-person nestles the reader in your protagonist’s mind, for good or ill. But second-person breaks the fourth wall on your work and results in your prose directly addressing and commanding the reader. This can have the problematic effect of popping your reader out of their suspended disbelief because it’s actively calling attention to them as a reader. It implies that the reader himself is the acting character of the prose. However, this can also be a useful tool. There are times when we want our work to cause the reader to become conscious of the fact they are reading, such as meta or surreal commentaries. Other times, you may want your reader to think carefully about preconceptions they bring to a piece, and by bringing them so directly into the piece, it serves to engage them on a conscious level with the material for things like political or social commentary. But, at its most simple level, the second-person point of view serves as an invitation for the reader to come fully into a piece with all of their baggage, all of their expectations, and, for a moment, to become fully immersed as a character in the work.
So, after all this, you’ve decided that you want to write in the second-person. You’re prepared to substitute every “he” or “I” for “you” in your piece because the shorter work you’ve planned will benefit from directly addressing your audience. You want to tear down the fourth wall to provoke them to think or induce particular emotions in your reader by making them, as the reader, the primary character in your work, and you’re sure that neither first nor third person point of view will suit your purpose. Then go right ahead and break out the “yous” to start reeling in your readers.