Last week, I read a librarian’s recommendation for a book supposedly written in second person. I was intrigued – both by the POV style and the extremely good 5-star reviews. I downloaded it to my Kindle, and it turned out to be a terrific book — but it was NOT written in second person.
What is Second-Person Narrative?
In part, Point of View (POV) refers to the story (or paragraph, scene, etc.) narrator’s position with regard to the events that are happening. An omniscient POV narrator sees all, hears all, understands all, and can even get inside the head of everyone involved. A first- or third-person narrator works with only what that one character is capable of seeing, hearing and understanding.
But POV also deals with the pronouns used in narration. Both omniscient and third-person narratives use the pronouns HE or SHE in referring to each of the characters. A first person narrative uses only the pronoun I to identify the narrator/central character.
In second-person narratives, the narrator refers to him/herself as YOU. In self-help and how-to books, it’s quite common. In fiction, it’s a bit jarring to read at first. But we’ve probably used this technique before in trying to convince a listener that they can relate to – even perhaps vicariously participate in – what you experienced. Example:
You’re walking along the street when someone you don’t even know calls your name and offers you a ride to the hospital where your mom just got admitted with a heart attack. What are you supposed to do? You can hardly think straight and you’re supposed to decide what to do!
You, the reader, literally become the narrator. It’s a major suspension of disbelief, but when it works, it works superbly well.
What is NOT Second-Person Narrative (but looks suspiciously like it)?
The book recommended by the librarian is You Don’t Know Me by David Klass (and it’s really, really, really good). It starts with a lot of statements like this one:
You don’t know me at all. You don’t know the first thing about me. You don’t know where I’m writing this from. You don’t know what I look like. You have no power over me.
A lot of second-person pronouns, right? But notice they don’t refer to the narrator. The person speaking is clearly a first-person character. But YOU is obviously a central character, someone terribly important to the speaker. The story is, in fact, all the things the narrator wants YOU to know but can’t tell YOU. Using an unnamed YOU character makes it feel like the narrator is addressing the reader directly. In fact, my heart broke early and often in this moving story because I strongly identified with both the narrator and YOU, his mom.
Some Examples of Second-Person Fiction
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. According to the Amazon book description, “With the publication of Bright Lights, Big City in 1984, Jay McInerney became a literary sensation, heralded as the voice of a generation. The novel follows a young man, living in Manhattan as if he owned it, through nightclubs, fashion shows, editorial offices, and loft parties as he attempts to outstrip mortality and the recurring approach of dawn. With nothing but goodwill, controlled substances, and wit to sustain him in this anti-quest, he runs until he reaches his reckoning point, where he is forced to acknowledge loss and, possibly, to rediscover his better instincts. This remarkable novel of youth and New York remains one of the most beloved, imitated, and iconic novels in America.” It begins:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.
You by Charles Benoit
You’re thinking this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go, this shouldn’t be happening. And now things are only going to get worse. You’re just a kid. It can’t be your fault. But then there’s all that blood.
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (starred reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, The Horn Book, etc.)
This story is told as a letter to “Dear Ed.”
In a second you’ll hear a thunk. At your front door, the one nobody uses… You won’t even know or hear what’s being dumped at your door. You won’t even know why it even happened.
Stolen by Lucy Christopher (A Michael L. Printz Honor Book * ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults * A 2011 USBBY Outstanding International Book)
This one is written as a letter from a victim to her captor. It is a desperate story of survival; of how the main character has to come to terms with her living nightmare–or die trying to fight it. It begins: You saw me before I saw you.