How to Write a Second Person Story
Here’s what you should do if you want to master the most challenging perspective around
You’re an author looking to make a splash in the literary world. You want to write something so different, so far out of the box, that readers everywhere will sit up and pay attention to your unique voice.
Then it comes to you: write a story from a second-person point of view! You’ve heard countless times before that this is something to avoid. “But rules are made to be broken,” you declare, as you boot up your word processor and begin drafting a story where ‘you’ is the primary pronoun. You soon discover, though, that the second person can be harder than it looks.
Most writers have tried, or at least considered, writing a story in the second person; it seems like an appealing challenge, and a cool way of making a story stand out. But as anyone who’s tried it can tell you, it’s tough, and the results are rarely amazing. In this post, we’ll look at the effect of writing in this peculiar POV, offer up a few tips, and examine a few of the authors who have done it successfully.
Why everyone hates “you”
A quick poll of literary editors will reveal that they’re pretty unanimous about writing a novel in the second person — most of them strongly advise against it.
“I rarely tell an author not to do something, but an entire novel told through the second person can become wearying,” says editor Kristen Stieffel, “especially when the protagonist of the story is unpleasant, as is the case in Bright Lights, Big City. I’ve never been able to finish that book.”
Stieffel is referring to Jay McInerney’s debut novel set in the cocaine-fuelled party scene of 1980s New York. The second-person point of view is designed to put the reader on edge, evoking the feeling of being stuck in an elevator with a coke fiend.
Bright Lights, however, is often seen as the exception that proves the rule: someone already did it, so don’t bother. Readers find second person strange and alienating — which can be counterproductive if the author’s intention is to bring the reader closer to the story. It’s also notoriously hard to write: wrangling pronouns and ensuring that the copy doesn’t overflow with endless incidences of “you say,” “you are,” and “you go” can distract the writer from the basics of storytelling.
But if you do insist on going the second person route, there are a few pieces of advice to consider.
Tips for writing in the second person
1. Make sure it’s appropriate for the story you’re telling
Doing something for no other reason than to impress is the literal definition of pretension. You must have a reason for writing in the second person — and it must involve the reader’s experience.
Lorrie Moore’s debut collection of short stories, Self-Help, features pieces written in the second person. On the surface, they take the style of how-to books, which naturally use the “you” pronoun as its default. But beneath that “gimmick,” there are stories of vulnerable, sensitive characters. We get the sense that the narrator is hiding behind a mask, perhaps to soften the shame of recalling an awkward experience.
2. Avoid too much repetition where possible
Writing in the second person runs the risk of getting repetitive if you constantly remind your reader (and yourself) that you’re writing in the second person. To avoid this, literary editor David Keefe suggests writing stories without the pronouns ‘you,’ ‘your,’ and ‘yours.’
“I’ve heard this referred to as “implied” second person. Sentences that take the imperative form rather than declarative: Look at the water. Chew slowly. Face the wall.”
This leads perfectly into our next tip…
3. Set it in the present tense
In reading a few second-person stories (Italo Calvino’s On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, for example), you will notice a trend of writing in the present tense. This is perhaps common for two reasons.
If the aim of using the second person is to create an intimacy and immediacy, then using the past tense can soften that effect by adding a layer of detachment. It’s also more familiar: epistolary novels or blog posts, for example, will speak to the reader in the present tense. It’s a form that readers are used to and is, therefore, less likely to jar them.
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4. Consider using it sparingly
Regardless of how well-written it is, a novel in second person can be challenging for readers. As a result, it can start to tire them if goes on for too long.
It’s not uncommon for novels to switch point of view characters between chapters. Some novelists have taken it one step further by experimenting with occasional second-person chapters. Iain Banks’ Complicity alternates chapters told from the perspective of a journalist with sections written in the second person, from the viewpoint of a killer.
Second person is an intense POV, and by allowing your audience a “breather,” you can go some way towards making it a more palatable read.
5. Choose a form that makes sense
Sure, the second-person isn’t exactly the most obvious choice of perspective for 99% of novels — but what about the other 1%?
Some formats are a perfect fit for the second person point of view. We mentioned how-to stories earlier, for instance. How-to blog posts already address the reader directly, so it’s not a wild move to take it that one step further for a novel. There’s also the epistolary novel and “choose your own adventure” books, which make copious use of this point of view. Gimmicky? To an extent. But the second person is popular within these forms simply because it’s natural — and it works.
6. Test the waters with a short story
Because of its tendency to be unrelenting, second person is less popular in novel-length works than it is in short stories. Lorrie Moore and Margaret Atwood are just a few of the writers who have experimented with the form. And it’s a lead that authors should certainly take before putting their stock (and time) into crafting a 70,000-word narrative.
Remember that the same rule applies to short stories: unless you have a compelling reason for choosing the second-person, you might be doing yourself a favor by reverting to a less esoteric point of view.