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The Uses of You -- by Dale Stromberg

My reading diet at a certain young age was dominated by Choose Your Own Adventure stories. These are written in the grammatical second person: “You are hiking in Snake Canyon when you find yourself lost in the strange, dimly lit Cave of Time…” Some claim that second-person narration is too highbrow, too affectedly literary, to be of general use—but this never bothered me as I paged again and again through those tales.

Since fiction for grown-ups conventionally features either first- or third-person narration, many writers treat the second person like the missing thirteenth floor in a hotel, a numerical anomaly, skipped without note. But there are some interesting uses to which you might put the second person:

Thou shalt

While not exactly imperative in form, the second person can feel rather bossy. “You do this, you go here, you say that.” At least in grammatical form, such narration tells the reader that these things are happening to her, like it or not. You might use this to create an all-encompassing sense of the main character being manipulated or bullied, perhaps by fate itself. Such an effect seems ripe for use in a dystopian novel, for example, or any tale of inescapable circumstances.


Likewise, the accusatory nature of you statements can make the character, and perhaps the reader, feel judged. While a hectoring tone may annoy readers, if you play it right, your story might set up an effective gestalt shift—initially leading the reader to decide that the narrative you is a swell fellow indeed (and don’t we all think so), only to upend things midway through with a gut-wrenching j’accuse.

The eerie closeness caused by the use of you—the fact that, as it were, the reader is being dragged into the line of fire—may subvert the so-called willing suspension of disbelief in provocative ways: Can one suspend disbelief in one’s own goodness?

You know what?

You can also be addressed by an I: a technically first-person narrator who wishes to tell the story of the other person, so that you predominates on the page. Perhaps the narrator is reminding the main character of an old story – for example, after a bout of memory loss. Or a child could be imaginatively reconstructing a departed parent’s life, addressing her or him directly, asking questions, posing hypotheses.

While an imperative or accusatory you might fit with darker, more negative material, this “telling you a story about yourself” model could just as easily be warm in tone.

Further, how the first-person narrator tells us what “you did” or “you said” (and, just as crucially, what she leaves out) will show us something about that narrator herself, whether she intends this or not—making the second person an interesting choice for an unreliable narrator.

Get a hold of yourself

Perhaps the narrator is feeling dissociated from himself, or trying to gain objective distance by using you instead of I, or even just talking to himself. “What the hell were you thinking?” could be the first line in a tale of remorse, mortification, or just embarrassment after a night of too many rum-and-cokes.

Tales are often, in some way, about distance—between characters, between author and reader, or between me, myself and I. The distancing effect of the second person can be another way of exploring this.


All these are reasons—and I’m sure there are more—to think twice before skipping from first to third when enumerating your narrative options.

Posted by Dale Stromberg 14 Oct 2019 at 01:55
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Responses to this blog

Rellrod 14 Oct 2019 at 17:25  
Fascinating, Dale!

I've always been intrigued by the rare second-person POV. You find them sometimes in epistolary novels, where the character(s) are writing letters to each other; for example, Wrede & Stevermer's Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate-Pot, or a favorite old-time short story by Murray Leinster, "Dear Charles."

Kenoshakid 14 Oct 2019 at 18:26  
The only second-person example I can think of, other than those Choose Your Own Adventure books you mention (which I also loved), is Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveller... Truth be told, it did nothing for me that it was supposed to. The problem with second person is that the subject must be suitably vague (and therefore probably uninteresting) that I can put myself in their place, or suitably specific (and therefore absolutely not me) that I can get a sense of character.
Blandcorp 14 Oct 2019 at 19:52  
Ted Chiang's "Story of your life" is narrated, if I recall, mostly in second person. I recommend checking it out

But otherwise yes, by and large second person narration is too much of a gimmick for regular fiction. It may work in some stories because of some peculiarity in the setup— for example, in Chiang's story, it works because he "cheats", and the you of the story refers to another character, not the reader. The conceit is we're, in some sense, eavesdropping on someone's very personal message to someone else.

Interactive fiction is of course another matter. There the conceit is the reader takes on the role of a character so the "you" is quite natural.

Jessiel 14 Oct 2019 at 22:02  
These are fun ideas, a little out of the box with the pov.

I like the idea of the implicit first person narrator that breaks the fourth wall by talking to the reader as "you". I think it could feel rather like a conversation. eg

You know when you go to the store and you look up and see that woman—the one who smells a little funky and always talks your ear off and touches your kid's cheek, you know who I'm talking about. And you try to hide behind the coke display but she corners you instead...

I think something like that could be pretty fun as part of a longer 1st person piece that habitually breaks the fourth wall or as a stand alone flash fiction piece. ideas are churning
Say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out. Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.
Brave by Sara Bareillis

Botanist 15 Oct 2019 at 01:41  
Aside from the choose your own adventure stories, and the conversational tone where the author is talking to the reader as if sitting down over a pint, these examples IMO just go to emphasize why 2nd person is so little used. It seems you really have to think hard to concoct situations where this POV might work. In other words, it feels like a highly specialized tool in the writer's armory.
Redredrose 18 Oct 2019 at 15:02  
When auditing a semester-long fiction writing class a dozen years ago, I read a short story written by a quiet young girl in the class. The second-person narrative was used to tell the story of the MC's traumas and loss and ultimate suicide. She appears to be speaking to herself as she nears death, reminding herself of what brought her to this point. It was one of the most gorgeous, exquisite pieces of writing I can remember.

Unfortunately, the rather arrogant youngish male teacher told her to switch to the third-person, which ruined it. Sadly, the young writer didn't keep a copy of the original. I believe she has since stopped writing.
Jessiel 18 Oct 2019 at 15:45  
Talk about a tragic cautionary tale! I'm saving all my versions from now on
Say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out. Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.
Brave by Sara Bareillis

Vandrelyst 24 Oct 2019 at 01:07  
I just read The Fifth Season, which uses second person for one of it's characters. It was done so well that I didn't notice right at first (I mean, I noticed, but I guess I thought it was just something weird for the intro, that it wasn't going to carry on through the book), and then, when I did notice, I decided it had been working well enough that there was no point in getting flustered about it now.

I think it's the first time I've noticed it being used all through a novel.
Crgmccoll 3 Nov 2019 at 06:10  
I've always thought that using a second-person POV was silly, but I find myself seriously contemplating it for my next novel.

The idea will be to have three parts: the first in first, second in second and third in third. The narrator, who is the first-person POV character, will be working through some issues after the death of the second-person character, and the whole novel is (in some ways) intended to be a letter to the dead character - an attempt to forgive them for what happened. The second-person character dies at the end of their part, and the third-person part will deal with the aftermath. The narrator is a writer who doesn't intend to publish, which is why she knowingly uses the unpopular second-person POV.

I'm not entirely sure it can be done, but it could be interesting to try.
Crgmccoll 3 Nov 2019 at 06:13  
With respect to my previous post:

Ndc 14 Dec 2019 at 13:19  
I've always disliked 2nd person until reading your essay. It has opened my eyes.
Many thanks.

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