The Artistry and Craft of the Bard
(II)© 2002 by Lifetrekker
Point of View—An Overview
"Point of view may be the single most important choice
a writer makes.... Point of view offers the controlling
that shapes any fiction and determines its
Alyce Miller, Author of Stopping for Green
Lights (Obstfeld, 38)
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,
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
"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,
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!
May the Muses be with you!
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
Checkoway, Julie, ed. Creating Fiction: Instructions
and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing
Programs. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1999. Pages 95-124.
J. Madison. Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot.
Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2000. Pages 61-77.
Rikki. The Stain. Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press,
Fields, Jan. "Jan's World of Writing" (Checklist).
Hebbler, Lois. "The Whole Thing—Point
of View." http://www.thewholethingtwt.com/hebbler_pov.html
Katrinko. Fiction Techniques.http://www.geocities.com/katrinko/unusual.html
Novakovitch, Josip. Fiction
Writer’s Workshop. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1995. Pages
Novakovitch, Josip. Writing Fiction: Step By Step.
Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998. Pages 72-91.
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
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