Learning how to write in the second-person point of view offers a powerful and unique way of connecting with your readers. By breaking down the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly, you make the reader feel like they’re living in the world of your story.
We’ll illuminate the nuances of second person by defining this elusive narrative choice, exploring how it compares to other viewpoints in fiction writing, and looking at examples of stories and books that have used second-person point of view successfully.
Here’s a quick example of second-person point of view to get started:
Your eyes drink in the page as you read an article to learn how to write in the second-person point of view. Maybe you’re wondering, are you strong enough to master this wild card of the writing craft? Is second person the best way for you to tell your story?
You feel the tension in your shoulders ease. Finally, you begin to believe there is hope for your fiction writing. You decide to read the full article in order to learn how to master this interesting choice of perspective.
What is the second-person point of view?
Second-person point of view (or PoV) is a literary technique in which the author creates a sense of intimacy by directly addressing the reader or audience as “you.” It’s an uncommon perspective that treats the protagonist as if they’re off the page, living in the real world.
By writing in the second-person narrative voice and speaking directly to the reader, you immerse them in the plot as if they’re experiencing it for real.
So you, as the writer, must craft a narrative where the reader feels as if they’re telling their own tale. It’s a very intimate and close approach to writing a story, and when done well, can be a unique, nontraditional, and immersive experience.
Because there’s no distinction between the reader and the character, this perspective can be difficult to master and calls for a lot of trust from your audience. They want to know that even if you take them deep into danger and darkness, you’ll bring them back out safely by the end.
First, second, third, and fourth-person point of view
You have four narrative choices when selecting which point of view to use for your story. Each of these uses different word choices within the text to position the reader’s perspective.
First person PoV: “I rode the bicycle.”
Second person PoV: “You rode the bicycle.”
Third person PoV: “He rode the bicycle.”
Fourth person PoV: “We rode the bicycles.”
The point of view can change the tone of an entire piece. The most common points of view in literature 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, or “You,” to address readers. Consider the following examples:
First person vs. second person:
First-person point of view: “Walking down the path, I come to a fork. No signs are telling me where to go, so I decide to take the path to the beach.”
Second-person point of view: “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.”
Second person vs. third person:
Second person: “You asked him whether he really meant it when he told you he thought your sister resembled a vulgar manatee.”
Third person: “Jen asked Adam if he really meant it when he said that he thought her sister resembled a vulgar manatee.”
Second-person point of view is a powerful perspective with the ability to influence your reader in ways that first and third person can’t. As you can see in the previous examples, second person puts the reader directly into the action—you chose the path to the beach; you asked him the question.
Is the second-person point of view an omniscient point of view?
In general, the second-person view in a fictional story is omniscient.
With “you” as the authoritative voice of the story, the reader is seeing and understanding everything directly from the main character’s perspective. But the reader isn’t the narrator—they’re the protagonist. The narrator is someone who can see and hear everything the main character is thinking.
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t surprise your reader! The narrator knows everything about this world—but they may hold some information back until the very end.
Why choose second-person point of view?
Using a second person voice within a story narrows the gap between the narrative and the reader. When done successfully the reader feels as if they’re fully present within the story, and are experiencing it first-hand.
Reasons for choosing the second-person perspective include:
Immersion: In a second-person narrative, the reader becomes the heart of the story. Rather than having a world and its events described to them, the reader gets to actually live it.
Interaction: This is generally done with “choose your own adventure” novels, where the writer constructs a second-person narration that allows the reader to make choices for how the story will unfold.
Instruction: Other forms of second-person point of view may include directions for how to do something, such as a tutorial that walks the reader through a series of steps.
Advantages of second-person point of view
A few advantages of second-person writing include:
The intimacy of the second-person narrative voice can encourage a reader to deeply empathize with the story, and maybe even offer them an experience from a new perspective they may not have encountered otherwise.
A second-person perspective can create a highly immersive, sensory experience for the reader, as they see themselves directly experiencing the story the writer has created.
Because stories are not often told in second-person point of view, this perspective can be a unique and engaging experience for your readers. It can distinguish your story from the work of other writers and make the act of reading it incredibly powerful and memorable.
Second-person point of view provides writers the opportunity to try on and explore a new perspective and style of writing. Writing from a perspective that you’re not familiar with can be a great way to enhance your writing skills and force you to stretch outside your creative comfort zone.
Disadvantages of second-person point of view
A few disadvantages of second-person writing include:
Some readers may be uncomfortable with second-person point of view. It can require a level of empathy and imagination that not all readers are willing to invest in—some readers want to be told a story rather than experience one.
If your reader dislikes your narrator or the voice of either the protagonist or the narrator, they’ll immediately disengage with the story. There is less room for nuance than there is with third or even first-person characters. If the reader dislikes the choices the character makes, they may struggle to empathize with or invest in the story at all. In this instance, third-person point of view may be a better choice.
Reaching publication for a second-person work can be challenging. Professional editors and publishers may be wary of any book told from this perspective, as it is an uncommon narrative choice that readers may not be familiar with or prepared to commit to.
Tips for writing in second-person point of view
Consider the following tips when writing a second person narrative:
Avoid repetitive language and overusing the second-person pronoun “you.” It may help to break up some of the text with the imperative form—that is, instructing the reader to take the next step in the story. For example:
Explicit example: “You look out the window at the snow-covered mountains.”
Implied example: “Look out the window at the snow-covered mountains.”
Consider using present tense in your writing. Present tense makes the story feel more immediate and engaging, rather than reflective.
Make sure to adhere to the old adage “show and not tell” to develop a highly rich sensory experience for the reader that they can see, feel, and imagine themselves in.
A second-person perspective may be best suited to short stories, rather than long-form work. Try getting comfortable in this type of writing in a smaller space before attempting it in a larger one.
Play with using different points of view in different chapters and with different characters to create a highly dynamic and complex story. For example, in a crime or thriller novel, you may use the second-person PoV to describe the actions and thoughts of the person who committed the murder, and third-person PoV for the detective who is solving the mystery.
Ensure that the narrator is a full-fledged character with a rich and detailed identity. If your second-person narrator is doing things and making choices, your reader, as that character, will want to empathize and better understand the motivations, preferences, goals, and driving forces for those choices and actions.
Stream of consciousness writing—or an inner monologue that tells a story—can be an effective technique when crafting a second-person narrative. This is used to explore the inner workings of a character’s mind and describe actions as they unfold.
Should you write your story in second person?
Second-person narration is an unusual and rewarding tool in fiction writing, but it may not be the right choice for every story. Here are a few things to consider when searching for the perfect narrative voice.
The length and scope of your story
Are you writing a short story, poem, novella, novel, or book series? How much time, space, and characterization will this plot encompass? Second-person language is effective for drawing a reader into your writing, but it can be demanding and draining on them as well.
Readers naturally think in first-person pronouns—“I’m exhausted”—or third-person pronouns—“He’s exhausting.” The pronoun “you” can feel jarring or alienating, which is why it should be used with care.
This is why the trick of interspersing second-person point of view with third- or first-person narration can be an effective way to engage this narrative voice. It breaks up the unusual PoV choice in a compelling and manageable way.
If you’re writing an entire novel that remains focused on just one character all the way through to the end, a first-person perspective or a third-person limited point of view might be a stronger choice.
Your story’s effect on the reader’s emotions
What are you trying to achieve by using this narrative point of view? A fiction writer can use both first and second person to have a conversation with the reader, while third person keeps the reader at a distance.
The second-person narrative voice takes the intimacy of first-person narrative even further—in this narrative point of view, there is no distance between the reader and the story. Your reader isn’t just watching the plot happen—they’re living it. This can take them to some uncomfortable places as the narrator describes their own actions back to them, but it can also offer a sharp and visceral reading experience.
Your story’s message and underlying theme
Using second person can be a great way to encourage the reader to examine their own preconceptions and biases. The reader starts to ask themselves, “Would I really make this choice?” “What would I do if this happened to me?”
By bringing them so directly into the piece, you engage them on a conscious level with the material. This is especially useful for things like political or social commentary.
At its foundational level, second-person PoV 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.
Examples of second-person point of view in novels
For a deeper look at using second-person PoV in writing, let’s look at a couple famous examples of books that have effectively used this technique.
The Dark by John McGahern
John McGahern’s short novel is a depressing portrait of a young boy growing up in Ireland. 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 in PoV serves a purpose.
The first-person chapters, which account for only three out of the thirty chapters, are all ones where Mahoney, the young protagonist, is enjoying himself.
The third-person chapters are all instances of brutal humiliation, failure and abuse.
The second-person chapters are all instances where Mahoney is trying to amp himself up or change his life.
McGahern juggles these viewpoints to alternately distance his protagonist and the reader from the horrors of the book, then invite the reader into Mahoney’s head to witness his pleasures and growth.
This is a perfect example of using contrasting points of view to enhance a novel. It’s an effective tool and really works to highlight the emotional turmoil of Mahoney’s life by inviting the reader to experience the protagonist’s struggle to defend himself, and his eventual triumph. At the same time, the third-person chapters serve to show Mahoney’s trauma while not overwhelming the reader with it.
Redshirts by John Scalzi
A more consistent use of second person is in the “codas” of John Scalzi’s Redshirts.
After the novel’s plot finishes, 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. One of these 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 the piece in second person, Scalzi invites the reader into the novel to directly experience the rude awakening of this supporting player. And it works as a fun device to more fully integrate the audience into the reading experience and vividly reflect his confusion and curiosity.
A few more books that use the second-person PoV include:
The Malady of Death, by Marguerite Duras
Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney
Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, by Tom Robbins
Stolen, by Lucy Christopher
How to Become a Writer, by Lorrie Moore
Examples of second-person point of view in short stories
Short stories are a faster read, allowing you to gain an insight into how different authors approach the second-person point of view. Consider the following short stories as a starting point for more context, and for understanding how you can incorporate the second person PoV into your own story or novel.
“A Cure for Ghosts,” by Eden Royce
“All the Colors You Thought Were Kings,” by Arkady Martine
“Black Box,” by Jennifer Egan
“Conversation of Shadows,” by Yoon Ha Lee
“Little Man,” by Michael Cunningham
“Chimeras,” by Jae Steinbacher
“On the Day You Spend Forever With Your Dog,” By Adam R. Shannon
“The Sorcerer’s Unattainable Gardens,” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
And just for fun, here is a list of second-person point of view children’s books:
Princess Island, by Shannon Gilligan
Song of the Old City, by Anna Pellicioli
It’s Up to You, Abe Lincoln: How I Made the Biggest Decisions of My Life, by Tom and Leila Hirshfeld
The Cave of Time, by Edward Packard
Space and Beyond, by R. A. Montgomery
Use second person to push the limits of your writing
Whether you’re approaching a short story, novella, novel, exploring poetry or song lyrics, or just looking elevate your business writing, second-person perspective can be an exciting and genre-bending narrative technique. You can smash through walls between you and the reader in ways that are out of reach with other points of view.
In your next writing session, try stretching your creative muscles with second-person PoV.