Writing in second person — using “you” to address the reader — is a bold choice, but it can be a great way to make your reader feel a sense of immersion in the story. It can be a great way to get the reader involved in the story, or to add a sense of urgency. There are several ways to write in second person, each with its own unique flavor and voice. The following is a quick guide to writing in second person.
- 1 Contextualizing the “you”
- 2 Think about the intentions of your project
- 3 Set up a universe that supports this experience
- 4 Craft a solid beginning, middle and end
- 5 Understand your POV character
- 6 Use a map to track your perspective
- 7 Give your main character a voice
- 8 Decide what you want your reader to experience
- 9 Build a relationship with your reader
- 10 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Contextualizing the “you”
Writing in second person has a reputation for feeling awkward and heavy-handed, but this is only because badly written examples tend to be pervasive. Second person is an excellent perspective for focusing attention on a particular character, and for conveying the tone of a novel. When used well, it is engaging and fun. Although you will want to keep the “you” front and center, you don’t have to have the character’s name as “you.” There are a number of ways to make a “you” narrative more specific. For example, you can use a fictional name, or the name of another major character. If you want to make the reader feel like part of nature, you can follow natural naming conventions and make the name out of synesthesia, such as “Peppermint Emily Brown.” You can also make the “you” generic so that it can stand in for anyone, in which case, you might consider making it a word instead of a name. Some commonly used words are “you,” “we,” and “I.” Using a word has the added advantage that, if the character is in the midst of a crowd, or if a number of things are happening at once, you are not forced to specify whose actions and thoughts you are describing. You can also mix these strategies to hook readers into feeling close to the characters, what has happened, and how what happened relates to what will happen.
Some narrative advice out there relies on the idea that when you write in second person, the “you” is meant to be your reader. However, like using a character whose name might or might not be “you,” we recommend that your reader always be primarily the characters. A second-person “you” is the voice of a character, not you, the writer. At the same time, saying that the character is you, is often not literal enough to help the reader slip into his or her shoes. Because the second person puts the reader in a character’s shoes, it can work well as a lens through which a powerful character experiences a lesson. Or it can tie together the disparate elements of a perspective character. It can also help readers relate to a narrator of any number. In a similar way, second person can also highlight the choices of a narrator who would otherwise be too far removed from the narrative.
Think about the intentions of your project
Before you start second person writing, you have to really know what you want. Do you want to play with the voice and temporality in ways that other people aren’t? If so, odds are that second person is your answer. Do you have a distinct type of idea that is helped both by being set in the future, and also by having a first-person perspective? If so, second person is also a good choice. If you’re going with a romance and the main thrust is the development of a relationship through dialogue and the differentiation of identity through changing perspectives, second person is a terrible choice. Second-person narration is a lot harder to distance yourself from as a writer, and when you don’t have the artistic latitude, it’s best to avoid it.
Second person is best for ideas that you can execute easily and precisely. If there are elements to your story and your character’s visions that fall outside of their senses, like the future, the other world, or things happening offstage, you’ll have a little more artistic flexibility, but for the most part, any plot or character development in the second person novel stays firmly within your character’s head. Second person works best on the fringe of the spectrum — either on fantastically tight plots where every action and reaction have to be supremely intentional, or when the story and illustrations require readers to believe that the character is engaging in a reader-ly position.
Set up a universe that supports this experience
For second person to be even remotely useful, you have to come up with a universe that makes it worth the reader’s while to play such an active role. If you can’t set up a convincing reason, you’re missing the boat entirely. The choice of your protagonist also influences the way you present events in the story, so always consider the story from their point of view, especially if you’re a male author writing from a female point of view. Since the reader is comparable to your protagonist, it’s important to keep them in POV scenes and whenever possible, describe your character through their perspective.
Consider your tone and your desired mood. Exciting jobs, battles and competitions, intricate relationships, and survival after events are all great subjects for second person. It’s also a useful narrative technique for a book filled with difficult choices for the character or other situations that put the reader in a sort of epistemic limbo. At any rate, keep track of what attracts you to this literary perspective.
Craft a solid beginning, middle and end
The toughest part of writing in the second person is the fact that it’s a form of storytelling that is foreign to most modern day writers. If you don’t write plays or employ the dramatic elements of theatre in your writing, you simply don’t issue instructions to the characters. If you have never written your story backwards, from end to beginning, without slides and chapters, and placed it into the second person, you won’t understand how to organize your tale appropriately. All of this is to say, it takes work to write well in second person. Your focal point should be your beginning, middle and end just like every other story you write — making sure each is engaging and well-developed.
You’ll probably need to plot this sort of story differently, and that is okay. You are still writing a story, and should structure it as you normally would, beginning with premise and ending with complication, but you’ll be on your way with materials and plot points that work. If on the other hand, you’d like the structural ease of a trilogy, then use the basic structure of beginning, middle and end for every step in the trilogy. Because your story needs to be complete, so does each sequence of the story. And you’ll find yourself fully pivoting with plot points and complications throughout the second person.
Understand your POV character
Your second person story will be told in the voice of another character. This means you’ll need to flesh that character out and give him an identity. What is his name? Even with surnames, female characters are sometimes called by their first names, and men by their last names only. What is your character’s gender? How old is the character and what age does the second person make him/her seem? Answer one-particulars like this and begin to add additional layers of description to your character, traits that bring the character to life. No two writers describe things in the same way, so try to pick a voice and stick with it. Experiment with ways to show the character’s personality, and get to know this character inside out.
How many people are pointing a finger at you and saying, “Do they see you? Are they talking to YOU?” Speak to the reader both in the busy public place and off of the busy street. Create a narrator that seems omniscient but unreliable, giving both the public and the private perspective. Finally, have fun with pronouns used. The readers are being spoken to directly, with me, you, ours and myself being used. Generate vivid and concrete examples that will move the reader to turn the page quickly.
Use a map to track your perspective
With second person, or as it is properly known, second-person perspective, your writing is impacting your reader directly. People will read your writing and feel as if they are experiencing it themselves. Writers use this perspective in two ways. One way is to take the reader up close to their main character, as if the reader were the main character. The second is to continue to use the second-person perspective to take the reader as far away from the main character as possible so that they can let the reader see the effect the character is having on the world around him and to give a sense of both closeness and distance. If you’re trying to evoke a real connection with your reader, then second-person perspective is right for you.
Write from your character’s point of view, but also provide an outside perspective of the action. Keep track of where each perspective goes, and how each perspective sees the action. As you write, you should feel both like you’re a huge part of the scene, but also on the outside, viewing it instead. Remember that your character is still the main character of the story, and that you’re providing the reader with the action that could happen from the character’s perspective. Also remember that every decision you make about this character, whether you want readers to be aware of the character’s actions or observations or not, can and should be added to your character.
Give your main character a voice
Second person is useful for including the reader in your story. When you write in second person, you use “you” to refer to the character as well as the reader. This forces you to think about what “you” is doing in the story, and how your character might react. If there’s any place this is particularly important, it’s when you’re writing with a first person, present tense narrative. It can be easy to skip over details, so forcing the reader — and you, the writer — to use “I” creates attention to detail and specificity. Another is to use a drastic second person with a twist. For example, instead of using staid second person, your “you” might be whole or inside a character entirely.
Play on the dual audience of reader and character by writing sentence fragments and asides. With second person, readers become your characters — so use this to your advantage to use sentence fragments like “You are hungry” or “You decide to explore,” instead of Luke sat down to eat or Jenny was reluctant to remain. Then, once the sentence is at its maximum level of weirdness, use a semicolon to sidestep the erstwhile conjunction and make a statement. Inserting the occasional semicolon in a serial string of sentence fragments also serves to re-engage the reader, and make them feel as though they are being used as active participants in the text, forced to contemplate in-text action instead of devourers of a contentless result.
Decide what you want your reader to experience
Deciding whether second person will work for your next novel might seem difficult at first. However, a few considerations will help you decide whether to try this fascinating writing point of view. Will you want to make your reader an active participant in an exciting thriller or mystery? Or do you want to pull your reader in really close to a character, to experience his or her personality and worldview? If you feel that second person will help you introduce your reader to your character, or give you more flexibility in writing your story, then you’re ready to start writing!
How do you write in second person? The first and most important step is deciding what your perspective really is. What is the concept that your story is all about? Will your readers have emotions and opinions? Will you want them to be immersed in your character’s scene? What are your reader’s stakes in your story? Keep directness, subtlety, action, and writing style in mind. You can start a story at the first step, the last step, or in the thick of the action, depending on your intent. Certain words and certain types of sentences are typically characteristic of second person in a story, though this can vary depending on style and your intent. Writers sometimes use a sentence style that relies on the reader knowing that something is happening to them, as opposed to an omniscient third person narrator that can just surmise that something is happening to someone.
Build a relationship with your reader
Talking to your reader might sound strange, but one of the best ways to create intimacy is having a conversation with them. That’s part of what second person does, it allows your reader to see inside your characters’ heads. It also gives you the opportunity to become very personal with them, to let them into your world by sharing yourself with them. That’s why second person is traditionally suited to personal essays, but also has worked for creative nonfiction. It provides a unique framework that allows you to share secrets with readers. It also ramps up the interaction and engagement with your readers, instead of making you feel detached from what you’re writing, as third person does.
If you’re having a tough time figuring out who should be your reader for your creative nonfiction writing, try second person. Reverse your perspective and think about who would have the same interest in you. Draw on people you know or meet regularly. For example, if you’re a teacher, write about a particular incident, describing how you dealt with it in the second person as if it’s happening to your reader. This will allow you to put yourself in your reader’s shoes, and continue your narrative as they would. You still have to write in the same way about every other reader, but this will give you a foundation to work on as you figure out the rest.
First person is personal, and isn’t suited for telling many types of stories. Second person is different, allowing you to involve your reader in a way that’s engaging, without putting you in the perspective of your character. Mastering second person is worth the effort — you’ll be able to write interesting stories without abandoning your beloved first person perspective. Take the time to learn how to write in second person and see where your newfound power takes you!
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