By Ashley Lister
Following on from last month’s cursory glance at the perennially popular first person point of view, it’s time to look at one of the least used perspectives in the writer’s armoury: second person.
Whenever I’m teaching point of view in the classroom, I always mention that we’re already familiar with second person perspective because it’s at the heart of so many written recipes and a good number of instruction manuals.
‘First you preheat your grill to high, and then put on a large saucepan of water, with a pinch of salt, to boil for the pasta.’
‘You can customize the length of the power cord so that it is the exact length you desire.’
Note, with both of these examples, YOU are in the centre of the action. This is the genre that’s defined by the predominance of second person personal pronouns and it puts the reader in the heart of the story.
If, last month, you thought things couldn’t get more intimate when you’re sitting in the thoughts of a first person narrator, it’s time to think again. You’re no longer in the thoughts of the story’s hero: with the second person point of view, you are the hero. It might sound as though I’m exaggerating but remember that the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks were often marketed with the suggestion: you are the hero. And it doesn’t get much more intimate than reading a story all about YOU.
I’ll hold up my hand at this point and admit that I’m not a huge fan of second person. I’m a curmudgeonly old bastard nowadays and, whenever I encounter second person narrative, it often brings out a spirit of belligerence and contrariness, so I’m inwardly arguing with the story:
‘You sauntered lazily through the door…’
No I didn’t.
‘…and poured yourself a generous measure of bourbon…’
I don’t remember doing this.
‘…before giving your lover a slow, sultry grin.’
That doesn’t sound like me. I’d just be necking the bourbon and turning on the TV.
Too often, these internal arguments continue until I decide to abandon the book and read something written from a less contentious perspective. That said, I have written a short story in second person and these are the opening lines:
You are one of several people sitting before a solicitor. You are in the room that was your late Uncle John’s home office. It’s a sombre day because you’re attending to hear the reading of Uncle John’s will. Uncle John was one of your favourite relatives. He made his vast fortune from writing Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories.
Do you attentively reflect on your surroundings and the incongruities and peculiarities of all the other beneficiaries? (GO TO SECTION A). Or do you tell the solicitor to hurry the fuck up? (GO TO SECTION B).
The walls bear framed covers from Uncle John’s many adventure stories. The room is dominated by a large old-fashioned desk that takes up half the room. Behind the desk sits the small, bespectacled solicitor.
The other half of the room is crowded.
Aside from being a popular writer, Uncle John was something of a ladies’ man. It’s been suggested this is what probably killed him. Your parents had always advised you to never eat at his house, especially not anything from the fruit bowl. Your mother always said he had more STIs than readers – and she made this remark after Uncle John had been on the NYT Bestsellers list.
From ‘Buried Treasure’, Ashley Lister
Second person is not a particularly popular point of view, and it can be sufficiently unusual to stop your reader from getting into the story you’re trying to convey. However, as with all the tools at our disposal as writers, it’s well worth trying this point of view to see how it works for your narrative voice.
As always, I look forward to seeing your work in the comments box below.