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 The Artistry and Craft of the Bard (II)

Point of View—An Overview
Part Two—Second Person

© 2002 by Lifetrekker
All rights reserved.

"Point of view may be the single most important choice
a writer makes.... Point of view offers the controlling framework
that shapes any fiction and determines its dimensions."
Alyce Miller, Author of Stopping for Green Lights (Obstfeld, 38)


Second Person

Second person is a rarely used point of view. Here, the narrator uses the personal pronoun, "you." Second person is usually used in "normative" narratives—"stories that you are intended to act out in order to bring them to life." (Card, 130)

"The second person point of view creates a unique tone in a story—a removed ironic tone that hints at an underlying bitterness.... the second person ... acts as a kind of chiding conscience, the moral superego showing the main character what life has become. There’s usually a hint of condemnation... a ‘how- have-you-sunk-so-low?’ attitude." (Obstfeld, 43)

In second person, the book is presented as if the reader is the main character: "You get up in the morning and wonder if this is going to be the day you die. Sometimes you think that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Depression is like that." (Jan Fields, Jan's World of Writing)

Josip Novakovitch in Fiction Writer’s Workshop says, "The author makes believe he’s talking to someone, describing what the person addressed is doing. But the 'you' is not the reader, though sometimes it’s hard to get rid of the impression the author is addressing you directly." (p. 110)

Here is an example from my writing:

Your back aches, your head, too, as you haul yourself over the embankment. Your impulse is to cry out and curse the gods, but you can barely breathe. How could this happen to you? You suck it in and drop to the ground, wincing as your body spasms. Only one truth remains: you’re safe. You’re alive. Winston failed to drown you. Now all you have to do is exact the proper revenge. That is all that matters. Revenge!

Cacoethes Scribendi [the Web site] provides a wonderful example of an author using second person. The excerpt is from Italo Calvino’s first chapter of If on a winter's night a traveler. I think it’s one of the most engaging examples of second person point of view. But if the author is not speaking to the reader…then to whom? You be the judge:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell others right away, "No, I don’t want to watch TV!" Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—"I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!" . . . So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page. You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author . . .

Most stories told in second person are written in the present tense, so the reader identifies directly with the character. You’re along for the journey, being an active part of the story. I read this excerpt feeling as if the author sees me and is talking directly to me. (Katrinko: Fiction Technique)

Tom Robbins’ (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) novel, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, provides another example of the second-person point of view used in a novel format.

The day the stock market falls out of bed and breaks its back is the worst day of your life. Or so you think. And when you give voice to that thought it is with conviction and a minimum of rhetorical embellishment.

"This is the worst day of my life," you say as you drop a salted peanut into your double martini—on better days you drink white wine—and watch it sink. It spirals downward, more slowly than your own plunging fortunes, the pretty little gin bubbles that gather around the peanut a marked contrast to the lumps and burrs and stinging things attaching themselves to your heart.

Here is another example. It comes from Lois Hebbler’s "The Whole Thing—Point of View."

You walk down 5th Avenue everyday on your way to work. Today on a whim you stop at the flower stall and buy a red carnation. The saleslady helps you pin it to your lapel. You pay her and merge back into the crowd. Pedestrians jostle you, car horns blast as traffic stalls and tempers flair. You try to ignore it all as you gather your thoughts for the coming meeting. Then she cruises into your line of vision and comes to a stop in front of you. You are immediately enveloped by the exotic scent of jasmine and musk, or maybe it's a dash of passion and a dollop of lust, anyway, your libido takes quick, intense notice. She casts a few furtive glances around, then leans forward, grabs your wrist, thrusts something into your hand and moves on. You should go after her, ask her why she gave you this, but she has disappeared into the crowd. Confused, you stare at the wrinkled scrap, struggling to make sense of what you see written on the paper.

The danger in using this point of view is the difficulty for the reader to become involved with the characters. There is a remoteness and darkness in tone. That is why the second person appears primarily in literary, and not genre, fiction. Even then, it is found most often in short stories. "Second Person point of view is rare because it is difficult to maintain and can produce awkward prose. However, there are some books that have used this effectively but it requires an author of incredible control." (Jan Fields, Jan's World of Writing)

"Some readers don’t like to be told what they’re thinking and doing and saying. Sometimes this point of view has a tendency to sound too journalistic or like a recipe." (Katrinko, Fiction Techniques; also see, Novakovitch, 110-111.)

That is why the second person is found more often in nonfiction. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it. Take a story you have written or something fresh and see if you can write in second-person point of view. Good luck!

And …

May the Muses be with you!

(To be continued.)

Card, Orson Scott. The Elements of Fiction Writing Series: Characters & Viewpoint: How to Invent, Construct, and Animate Vivid, Credible Characters and Choose the Best Eyes Through Which to View the Events of Your Short Story or Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1988. Pages 126-174.
Checkoway, Julie, ed. Creating Fiction: Instructions and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1999. Pages 95-124.
Davis, J. Madison. Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2000. Pages 61-77.
Ducornet, Rikki. The Stain. Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1984.
Fields, Jan. "Jan's World of Writing" (Checklist).
Hebbler, Lois. "The Whole Thing—Point of View."
Katrinko. Fiction Techniques.
Novakovitch, Josip. Fiction Writer’s Workshop. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1995. Pages 99-126.
Novakovitch, Josip. Writing Fiction: Step By Step. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998. Pages 72-91.
Obstfeld, Raymond. Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2000. Pages 38-50.
Wood, Monica. The Elements of Fiction Writing Series: Description: How to Engage Readers and Keep Stories Moving by Creating Vivid, Believable Depictions of People, Places, Events and Actions. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1995. Pages 84-118.

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