effective narration 101: second-person narration

This week’s installment focuses on second-person narration. If you’re new to this series, or want to review some narrative background information, I would recommend starting with last week’s post on first-person narration.

Remember, there are five crucial aspects to consider when deciding how you are going to convey the events of your story:

  1. Perspective: From what perspective is the narrator telling the story?
  2. Characterization: Is your narrator participating in the story as a character or is your narrator telling the story from a distance?
  3. Time: Is the narrator telling us the story as it happens or after it happens? If it’s after the story happens, how much time has passed?
  4. Omniscience: What outside information does the narrator bring to the events that are unfolding?
  5. Reliability/Bias: Is the narrator to be believed?

This week, we’re going to be examining second-person narration, another aspect of the first question: From what perspective is the narrator telling the story? For demonstrative purposes, we’re going to return to James and Julie in the hotel room, who are still sitting at a table and deep in conversation. Kent is still in the air duct, biding his time.

General Considerations of Second-Person Narration

While first-person narration is characterized by “I statements,” second-person narration is characterized by “you statements.” Essentially, the second-person narrator is telling the reader about the actions that the reader is performing. Let’s take our example. In second-person, the author would write, “Your name is Julie. You’re sitting at the table, talking to James. You feel overwhelmed, but you’re not going to give in.”

While first-person narration can make the reader feel like they are the character, second person narration forces the reader into the position of the acting character. This can be a strange experience for the reader, because this narrative style is essentially based in untruth. The reader is NOT Julie. The reader is also not Kent or an alpaca herder or your sword-wielding main character (probably).

As a result, second-person narration is by far the least common narrative style when it comes to mainstream fiction. Unless you’ve read some Choose Your Own Adventure books or something in that genre, I would be willing to bet that most people haven’t read any (or very much) second-person perspective. It’s not a particularly effective narrative style for fiction.

Honestly, the most frequent instances of fictional second-person narration are actually accidentally inserted in narration that is otherwise first- or third-person. If you come across a sentence in your own writing that contains “you” and is not part of dialogue, it’s likely you’ve accidentally transgressed into another narrative perspective. (I would recommend revising the offending sentence if that’s the case.)

Second-person narrative perspective is pretty limited in terms of its interaction with the other elements of good narration. Unlike the other perspectives, you don’t get a lot of choice. Take a look at the way each narrative question interacts with second-person perspective.

Characterization: Is the narrator participating in the story? 

The narrator is telling you, the reader, what is happening to you. If the narrator is participating in the story, they would have to use the word we: “We looked down the chasm and noticed the body at the bottom.” If the narrator is using the word we, then really, it’s just first-person inclusive. By definition, second-person narration has to have an observational and non-participatory narrator.

Time: Is the narrator telling us the story from the present or future?

You have a little bit of flexibility with this question, and most fictional second-person is a blend of past and present narration. If the second-person narrator is telling you the story from the future, they would be telling you, the reader, what you were doing in the past. “You crawled through the air vent, and waited, breathing quietly.”  If they are telling you what you’re doing in the present, it would sound like this: “You are crawling through the air vent and you see a grate in front of you. Slowly you approach it and peer down into the room below.” Both options will allow you to occasionally narrate something that happened in the far past, but narrating in the present does not allow you to include information that happened in the future (because it hasn’t happened yet).

Omniscience: Is the narrator all-knowing? 

Well, they had better be, right? The narrator is dictating your actions to you. If they don’t know more than you do as a reader, this story couldn’t be happening, now could it? While the second-person narrator doesn’t have to be truly omniscient, they do have to know enough about what’s happening outside the situation at hand to help the reader understand how they are orientated in this unfamiliar scene. Generally, that orientation will require including information in the narrative that is outside of the immediate perception of the reader.

Reliability: Is the narrator believable?

Second-person narration requires the reader to suspend disbelief. If the narrator is telling you that you are crawling along an air duct so you can spy on someone in a hotel room, and you know that you are sitting in your armchair reading a book, you have to trust the narrator is telling you the truth in order to participate in the story in the first place. As an experimental exercise, you could certainly explore second person bias by creating an unreliable narrator dictating a biased perspective (like second-person insane asylum horror/suspense–think narrating the Blair Witch Project). It’s worth trying in order to explore the limitations of the style. If you go for it, I wish you luck.

Advantages of Second-Person Narration

As you might be able to tell, there are not a ton of advantages to second-person narration, although second-person narration can be very successful in situations where the author wants to give the reader choices that effect the outcome of the story, like Choose Your Own Adventure. It can also be useful in gimmicky fiction or parody, and you might have some success employing second-person in a sexually-charged romance. With the exception of the CYOA, first- and third-person perspective can be just as effective, if not more so, and are generally more traditionally accepted in the fiction world.

Disadvantages of Second-Person Narration

Second-person is not impossible to pull off, but it is very difficult to write serious, effective fiction in second person. I won’t say that it can’t be done, but it’s not something I would recommend tackling on a first novel. One of the biggest issues with second-person is that is creates a situation that is essentially untrue. Your reader is never doing the things that you tell them they are doing. In order for your reader to enjoy the story you’re presenting, they have to agree to allow you to dictate their actions, and this is not the most comfortable (or enjoyable) position.

Another significant disadvantage is that you have to narrate the scene to the reader so they see exactly what you see, while still keeping the pace and appeal of the story intact. In conventional first- or third-person perspective, you have a little more flexibility to describe your surroundings because the story isn’t founded on dictating actions to the reader. You can take a paragraph to describe a big, scary goat behind a fence, so that when the main character approaches it, you (the reader) understand why they are scared and run away.

But in second-person, these descriptions can break up the flow of the text: “You’re running away from the thugs. You see a white fence to your left, and consider jumping it. As soon as you place your foot on the rail, a giant goat, with red eyes, fangs, and horns as sharp as razors, sees you and begins to bleat angrily. You pause, confused, and decide to run in another direction. You’d rather take your chances with the thugs.”

If you want the reader to understand, you have to tell them exactly what they’re looking at. If you don’t, you are telling the reader they are running away from a goat, which is confusing for the reader if they don’t realize it’s a freaking demon goat, as that’s not necessarily the first incarnation of a goat that would come to a reader’s mind.  In order to make sure everyone is on the same page, the author has to describe what the reader is seeing, but describing the goat takes the reader out of the pace of the action. It’s unnecessarily difficult to pull off.

One of the biggest disadvantages of second-person narration is that you limit your readers’ ability to interpret the story on their own. One of the most engaging aspects of fiction is the interpretation of the text. As a reader, we witness the event in front of us and come to an understanding of the characters and the situation that is larger than the sum of the text. We can guess how characters feel by the movement of their eyes. The author can show us a scene, and we can intuit what happened before we arrived. This is why reading is such a rich experience.

With second person, the ability of the reader to interpret is diminished. The narrator has to tell the reader what is happening around them, and because the reader becomes a character in the story, the narrator has to tell the reader how to feel, which creates distance and can disagree with how the reader actually feels. If the author tells you you’re afraid of the demon goat when you wouldn’t be in real life, the experience can pull you out of the narrative.

Examples of (Successful) Second-Person Narration

I hesitate to laud examples of second-person narration, simply because it is incredibly difficult to pull off effectively, but I won’t go as far as to say that nothing second-person is worth reading. If you’re interesting in doing some reading to explore second-person on your own, check out these examples:

Ultimately, creating effective second-person fiction is going to be a challenge, even for the most experienced of writers, although I certainly welcome you to try. I’d love to know if you’ve had good experiences with second-person or come across some truly amazing second-person fiction. And of course, stay tuned for third-person narration next week!

Trackbacks

  1. […] This week’s installment focuses on third-person narration. If you’re new to this series or want to review some narrative background information, I would recommend starting with the first post in the series on first-person narration and last week’s installment on second-person narration. […]

  2. […] information, I would recommend starting with first-person narration and working your way through second-person narration and third-person narration, part […]

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