Not sure what a second-person narrative point of view is, or how to use it effectively in your fiction writing? This post shows you how it works in a novel.
What is narrative point of view?
Point of view (POV) describes whose head we’re in when we read a book ... from whose perspective we discover what’s going on – and the smells, sounds, sights and emotions involved.
There can be multiple viewpoints in a book, not all of which have to belong to a single character. Plus, editors’ and authors’ opinions differ as to which approach works best, and what jars and why.
My aim is to keep the guidance as straightforward as possible, not because I think you should only do it this way or that way, but because most people (myself included) handle complexity best when they start with the foundations.
Second-person narrative viewpoint
In second-person narrative POVs, the pronoun is ‘you’. This narration is intimate, but strangely so, as if the author is talking directly to the reader as a character.
That intrusive element is both its strength and its weakness. It’s powerful because it places readers at the heart of the story, and yet we – the ‘you’ – know less than the narrator.
That can create a sense of immediacy, but almost amnesiac dislocation. We have to discover what we think, see, know and do. And if we don’t identify with the ‘you’ – if we feel implicated rather than attached – we can be pulled out of the story rather than brought deeper into it.
Still, this controlling aspect of second person can have an advantage. Whereas first-person narrators tell you what they thought and did, second-person narrators tell us what we thought and did.
This witnessing adds a level of reliability (even if we don’t like it). And readers aren’t daft. They know they’re not really the you-character, which means authors could use it as a tool to create surprise when the ‘you’ is unveiled later in the book.
If you want your readers to feel connected but controlled, second-person POV might be just the ticket, but it’s difficult to pull off and rare that authors of contemporary commercial fiction write an entire novel in it (though check out Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins if you want to see a good example in action).
More likely, you’ll see shorter-form use: dedicated chapters or other narrative forms such as diary entries, letters or other missives.
Example: Curiosity, reliability and the complicit reader
In this example from Complicity (p. 9), Iain Banks uses the second-person viewpoint in which a narrator reports on the actions and thoughts of an unnamed serial killer addressed as ‘you’.
Think about how you feel as you read this. It’s as if you’re being addressed, as if you’re complicit. At the very least, the prose arouses curiosity – who is this ‘you’, and how is it that the narrator knows so much about them?
Banks doesn’t present the novel fully in second person; these sections fall between those of a first-person viewpoint character, journalist Cameron Colley. As such, readers are confronted by a juxtaposition of Cameron’s version of events and what was witnessed by the narrator.
By all means, experiment with second-person point of view but understand its implications. If you want to draw your reader into the heart of your story, it’s a good choice. However, that connection can come at a price – a lack of control that could alienate your audience.
For that reason, consider the purpose of this narrative style and the extent to which you employ it. It might be better constrained – limited to chapters inhabited by specific viewpoint characters.
If in doubt, rewrite your scene in an alternative narrative viewpoint so you can evaluate how this affects your perception of the story as a reader.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with crime, mystery, suspense and thriller writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, connect via Facebook and LinkedIn, and check out her books and courses.
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