A piece is written in second person POV if the main character is referred to using the pronoun you
. Here’s a quick primer of the three POVs (including next week’s topic):
First person—I heard the cat coughing up a hairball.
Second person—You heard the cat coughing up a hairball.
Third person—Jan heard the cat coughing up a hairball.
(There are variations of tense, but you get the idea.)
NOTE: The cat who makes her way into many of my lessons is Sophie, she of the adorable avatar. If you’re not a cat person, I apologize. She insists.
Second person is used very rarely in fiction. In my several years at FaithWriters, I only recall it in one fictional Challenge entry, and that one took a 2nd place in the EC—it was Leigh MacKelvey’s excellent story for the “Christmas Card” topic, called Not the Oddest Card, But not the Most Normal
. I hope you’ll go read it—it’s a masterful piece of writing—but here’s a little snippet to whet your appetite.
You wake up every morning just like the day before. You brush your teeth, put on your shirt, then your pants, one leg at a time. You write out a Christmas card ...
Your name is Jed Pruitt and you never meant to be a bum.
You start out normal. You live in a house on the good side of town, although not the rich side. You have a mom, dad, and a parakeet. You aren’t the smartest kid at school, but not the dumbest. You have friends to hang out with. You expect to have a decent life.
See how unusual that is? And how totally cool? Nevertheless, I don’t recommend that we all start submitting second person fiction pieces. Regardless of how well they’re written, it would get wearisome for the judges to read lots of second person fiction pieces. I suspect they would start to seem gimmicky quite soon. One per year, perhaps, is more than enough if you wish to experiment.
By the way, publishers aren’t at all interested in second person fiction pieces. There was a brief period in the 1980’s when “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, written in second person, were quite popular, and I believe that there are some on-line genres that use it (fan fiction, for one). But in general—avoid second person in fiction
There are, however, some legitimate uses of second person POV.
1. Devotionals and sermons, which are usually written in an expository voice, often switch to second person when giving a charge or an exhortation to the readers/listeners.
2. Manuals or instructions are written in the imperative, with the you
understood by the reader:
(You) Insert Tab A in Slot B.
Occasionally, I find pieces in this second person imperative POV in the Challenge. Here’s one
3. Those quizzes that are popular in women’s magazines. Like this:
You find a $20 bill in the pocket of an old jacket. Do you…
a. buy a new book, of course!
b. splurge on pastry and cappuccino at a coffee shop
c. get some gourmet kitty treats
d. put it in the FaithWriters 2009 conference fund
There is, however, a common use of second person that you should avoid at all costs
. I’ll give you an example from a television commercial that always drives me nuts. It’s for some acne product, and the voiceover narration sounds something like this:
I just apply some Acne-Be-Gone before I go to bed, and in the morning, you don’t have any more pimples!
Do you see it there? That’s a pretty absurd example, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to step into that trap. I read sentences like this many, many times:
As I lit the scented candle, my house was filled with the mixture of aromas that reminds you of Christmas at your grandmother’s house.
If you’ve had comments suggesting that you should avoid slipping into second person, that’s probably what they were talking about. PRONOUN CONFUSION ALERT: You
(the writer) have no idea what the smells were in my
(the reader) grandmother’s house. Perhaps my grandmother’s house smelled of burnt toast and cigarette smoke, and if that’s the case, I’m now reading your story with entirely the wrong impression. You should have written
As I lit the scented candle, my house was filled with a mixture of aromas that reminded me of Christmas at my grandmother’s house.
Homework: Write anything you care to write about second person POV. OR ask a question about anything in this lesson. OR link to a Challenge entry in which you used second person.
I’d love to hear about other uses of second person POV, either good ones or bad ones. And also—what would you really do with that extra twenty bucks?
Next week: Third person POV