VARIATIONS OF SECOND PERSON NARRATION


If you haven’t done this before, try bringing a second person into the act of creating a text.  Whatever form that second person takes in your mind, call it “you” when you narrate.   And voila, you have second person narration.  In the very act of choosing your next words, talk to the reader you imagine, as “you.” Or talk to another aspect of yourself (the conscious presence that is narrating), addressing it as “you.”  Or talk to another unseen character who probably won’t quite come into active existence in the story you are writing.  We like to think it's called what it is because it  always brings a second person ("you" - whoever "you" may be) into  MY  (the author's)  naration  throughout the very act that creates it.  If "you" weren't here then it would probably just be me  -- and my characters, of course, but I wouldn't have to go outside my fictional situation  in order to get the job done.

Whoever the "you" turns out to be, it isn't the surface aspect of the author who thinks she's doing the writing.  She always tends to remain "me" or the variations of "me" the author allows to be populating the personas of her characters at any given time.  "You," when the author narrates in second person, might be you the reader, might be an incorporation of the narrative persona, might be some other, inside aspect of the author herself, might be an imagined character who doesn't quite exist inside the actual narrative situation.  And all this can vary, as you'll see. so that even the author sometimes - maybe often - loses track (but isn't that just another amazing aspect of fiction writing, how it tends to take off by itself, beyond what the author ever thought of planning?) .

Because of the rich complexities that are intrinsic to good second person narration, you’ll see that talking about it and analyzing it are much denser than the simple experience of just doing it.  So, before we get into the analysis of how it affects story creation by the writer and perception by the reader, let’s just simply take a look at a few examples:

1.       Reader transmuted to protagonist. In this variation, the writer imposes upon the sometimes unwilling reader to adopt the position of participant in the unfolding of the story the narrator is telling.  In effect, the reader becomes the narrator’s alter ego or the protagonist character the narrator would otherwise be or create: At the subway station you wait fifteen minutes on the platform for a train. Finally, a local, enervated by graffiti, shuffles into the station. You get a seat and hoist a copy of the New York Post. (from Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City)  (See discussion of that novel and some samples here.)

2.       author addressing another aspect of her/himself – high self to lower level, alcoholic self to sober self or vice versa, judgment self to guilty self, unstable self to the part that is trying to hold things together: You always thought you were such a hotshot [or] You get born and you try this and you don't know why only you keep on trying it and you are born at the same time with a lot of other people all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with strings. (the latter from from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom) (Click here to access a more extended extract from Absalom, Absalom)

 3.       Reader as passive character: Then the plan had been made for the next night, to eat at a restaurant nearby, and would it matter - no, it would be fun - if those two long-lost buddies went on ahead, and you and I walked to the restaurant together, getting to know each other.(from Jeanette Winterson’s The Power Book) [Notice that in this version, the “you” technically shares the narration spot with the first person narrator.] And this "you"  doesn't refer to an actual character.  It's just a drop-in slot that Winterson has reserved for any reader who wants to play along as she tells the tale. Click here for an extended extract from The Power Book.

 4.       Reader as targeted object of the narrator/author’s attention: Have you figured things out yet? Actually, I’m pretty sure you haven’t at this point. So you ought to stick around and read on.  Oh, and try to avoid skipping ahead. That will just ruin the surprise. Trust me. Just hang in there. (sort of a modern version of what might be Thackeray’s “So you see, dear reader –“)

 5.       Narrator addressing an unresponding named character, as “you”:  You are angry, Elena. You are furious. You are desperately unhappy. Do you know you’re becoming bitter? (from Steven Millhauser’s New Yorker short story: History of a Disturbance) (Access the entire story by clicking here, )  Another fine example of this variation is Rachel Ephraim's story: Please Send a Published Copy to 101 Harris Road in the Apple Valley Review. (More about that one below.)

 6.       Epistle (I wanted to tell you before you left, but I just never got a chance to sit down and figure it all out while you were here.  And then you were gone. So I decided to write this letter in hopes that it finds you before you leave on your trip.)

7.   office manual:  Daniel Orozco wrote a wonderful story: "Orientation," that addresses an imaginary new employee with a variety of instructions that get deeper and deeper into office intrigue.  Notice how this first-person/second-person style involves not only the reader but also the writer in the intimacy of one on one communication.

 You can access still other examples by accessing the exercise that accompanies this discussion.

The “you” character you create will only be a shadow, but this will be a shadow that helps to energize you in the act of writing.  However you create the “you” character, know that the uniqueness of the technique is that you the narrator always own (sort of) the persona of the device.  It truly is a “second person” who assists the narrator and facilitates the telling of the tale.  That “second person” doesn’t escape into the story so that you are left to follow it around and report its comings and goings, as happens with the active characters that you create.  The second person presence remains a figment of narration, present and conscious in the act of its creation.

If the narrator enters the persona of a character, either as an “I” first person or a she/he third person, then the narrator absorbs into the story and has no allies in the narration.  Second person narration creates the alliance at the narrator level.  Both the narrator and the “you” persona can, in effect, confer and observe as the story unfolds.  This isn’t to suggest that second person narration is better than the other choices, only that it is significantly different -- and filled with possibility.

Generally, whenever the narrator of a piece of fiction refers to and in some way interacts with a ‘you’ that is beyond the narrative situation, we consider it to be second person narration.  And even when, technically the "I" narrator has not relinquished control, "you" rises to central importance in the narrative dynamic, usually without taking an active independent role in the telling of the tale. Think of the "you" device as narrator energy that the narrator doesn't relinquish to the independence of a third character. The "you"  becomes central, so that the reader is encouraged either to identify with the plight of "you" or to sense some sort of direct involvement in which the narrator has reached out to the reader in a familiar way.


We used to say the standard things about second person narration, that it isn't often used, that there are risks when the writer becomes overbearing in stretching the form, etc.  But then we came to recognize some of the wild creative possibilities that arise when the writer explodes the narrative into something that absorbs the reader into the fabric of the piece.  The narrator quickly interacts with dynamic personnae that might not otherwise find their way into a fictional portrayal. 
A writer taps an alchemy when utilizing second person narration in which the “you” that is chosen becomes simultaneously author, character and reader.  Effective second person narration requires the writer to step beyond the normal dimensions available to the traditional narrator of a written work.  Very often, the inability to decide who exactly is saying what – as the narrator – and to whom – even though it can be confusing -- can add to the complex power of narrative.

Whether or not you decide to adopt the second person narrative form for any major work that you do in the future, you should experiment with it seriously and evaluate how it changes the experience of creating fiction for you.  It is actually a technique we frequently use in ordinary speech because it honors the person we’re addressing by creating an identification, common ground, an assumption that the person we’re talking to actually has shared the kind of experience we’re talking about.

From time to time, you'll notice (see? right now in fact) that I lapse into a form of second person narration by seeming to address "you" as if we were actually sitting together talking about the subject of second person narration.   In fact, just because it interests me so much, I pressed the technique even further by exclusively using the second person narrative form to present a short evaluation of how the second person narrative technique might affect you, the reader of this piece.   Feel free to take a look by clicking here.  See how it feels.  I think you'll get a sense of some of the power that it has.  And then return to this discussion.

The form actually goes way back in the annals of literature.  Here is an example from a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Pure second person narration seeks to implicate “you” into the position of the protagonist/alter ego. "You" find yourself stepping into the shoes of some persona the author/narrator wants you to fill. You don't immediately resist because you are thinking, this might be interesting.  You have this sense that the author/narrator trusts you enough to cast you in this role.  Your guard is down, so you begin to go along with it, sort of like a child's game of 'let's pretend.' 

As I noted at the beginning, Jay McInerny wrote an entire novel: Bright Lights, Big City in the second person. (See some samples and a discussion of the novel here.) The narrator’s point of view becomes your point of view, whether you like it or not.  The effect is achieved through familiarity – this is how friends and intimates frequently communicate: You know how it is; you get up in the morning and never seem to have time to sit down to breakfast, so you just drop a pop-tart into the toaster and . . .

Whatever it is, the technique works, or it doesn’t work, depending upon the reader’s feelings about poptarts, or her general willingness to become involved in what the writer is about.  The danger of this form of second person narration is that the reader might not be willing to play along.

Sometimes, the "you" turns out to be another layer of the narrator’s persona, so that the narrator is carrying on an internal dialogue between parts of himself or herself, and the reader is left to eavesdrop upon the workings of the narrator’s mind.  Partly there is something of the hypnotically suggestive about this technique: Your eyes are feeling very heavy . . . .  But more than this, I think that the technique works because of what Quentin Crisp defined as the essence of being human:

in every human being there are two people. One who sits in judgment on the other. The worldly, the doing person, acts irresponsibly, or nobly, or wisely, or foolishly, according to the mood or the situation. But inside him, further away, is an abstract spiritual being who never changes and who sits in judgment on him.

Because we all recognize this essential multiplicity of personality, we resonate to the second person narration.  It is fascinating to observe the internal workings of a narrator experiencing the verbal combat between two aspects of himself/herself.

Second person narrative often mixes up the roles of writer, narrator, reader, and character.  Using it forces the narrator/writer to be keenly aware of the fictional dynamic, never to forget or neglect the reader, never to become too smug with imagined sole ownership of the position of narrator.

As we've noted, still another variation involves the narrator addressing an unseen, unresponding character as "you".  The narrator might identify "you" as Emily, but Emily doesn't respond.  The reader gets to experience the tension or conflict that Emily engenders within the narrator, gets to interlope into the narrator's sense of intimacy with Emily. See, for example, History of a Disturbance, by Steven Millhauser in the March 5, 2007 issue of The New Yorker Magazine.  Also, Rachel Ephraim's Please Send a Published Copy to 101 Harris Road dazzles with its imaginatively innovative variations. In it, the narrator addresses a former lover who is now inaccessible to her, and she imagines him receiving a copy of the very story she has written:      

 It (the literary journal) sits on the walkway table until you take it to the bathroom three days later and open the pages, reading its words with the same enthusiasm as you would the directions on the tube of toothpaste.  You were never much for drama.  It takes four or five trips before you get to my story.  To this.  You see your address as the title, my name as the author.  You feel paranoid, like the world is watching you.

Do you see how she uses the power of a persona, present in the author's mind as she narrates, to propel the piece, not only for herself, but for you the reader?  Do you see also how you the reader momentarily enter the former lover's shoes, so to speak, and become the object of the narration?  This doesn't happen in a conventional third person narration in which it's always clear that the reader is observer to the character. (And as if this isn't enough for one story, Rachel goes on to posit two other alternative possibilities for the former lover to learn of the story, with everything spinning within this variation of second person narration. Do not miss reading this story. It's short, it's cinematically visual, and it's filled with creative takes on the ways of fiction.)

The distinction between what we consider to be second person narration and a first person's simple reference to an active character is that the second person narrator is tightly controlling the "you" as a narrative figment, and even though the narrator might give the "you" some imposed and second-hand lines of dialogue, everything filters through the narrator.  The character doesn't establish an independent existence within the thread of the narrative.  Her thoughts and feelings, if she has any, all are filtered through the narrator.

Bruce Springsteen, in the lyrics to Matamoras Banks, goes so far as to begin the song by imposing upon “you” the listener the role of a decomposing corpse, floating in the Rio Grande River.  Then, after the first two verses, he shifts to occupy the corpse as a first person narrator, who then addresses his non-responding beloved as "you", thereby adopting another variation of second person narration.  This alone demonstrates not only the flexibility of the form but also its elasticity.  “You" flow into the role of a deceased and decomposing body of a man who had attempted an undocumented entry into the country, and then “you” are being addressed as his beloved, all within the same short lyric.  And everybody glides into and through the song without objection!

Or, you the reader might appear to be, in effect,  the targeted recipient of the narrator’s letter.  The narrator is addressing “you” because she is writing to "you".  In a sense, this “you” is always implicit in all forms of narrative.  I am writing this to “you” always, because there is always a “you” among my universe of readers. But when I take that extra step to identify “you” it becomes that much more intimate, that much more immediate and non-abstract as I engage in the writing.  I remind you that you are someone special.  And at the same time, I the narrator remind myself of the same thing (that "you" the reader are someone special).  Both you and I now both know that the story is written for you and not for some amorphous collection of “you’s” who may come into existence from time to time when the book is selling well.  And if I address a question to “you,” do you see how much more involved you become when you're aware that I am truly interested in you?  What did I tell you?  Don’t you just feel it now that you’re being personally addressed?  Can’t you sense the energy change?


Here is a variation: "you" as reader become the direct co-participant in this act which begins with me the writer. Again: Jeanette Winterston: “The story is reading you now, line by line.  Do you know what happens next?

For another, slight variation: you as one who is commanded. “Go on, open it.  Open it!” (from Winterston).

As you read along, you realize that you’ve somehow been able to enter the narrator’s imagination and suspend your own disbelief to play along with what you think the narrator might expect of you.  You don’t mind this sort of occupancy of a part of your mind, because you know the writer can only get away with this as long as you agree to play along. And besides, the writer is giving you some interesting things to think about, almost as if you’d actually had the thoughts for yourself.  And from the writer's standpoint, the device gives opportunity for a sort of sharing that interrupts the lonely solitude of the act of creation.

Again, if you haven’t already done it, to see how I did an alternative way of talking about second person narration, using the form of second person narration to do so, click here.

For further reading:
To access an entire doctoral thesis by
Dennis Schofield on Second Person fiction narration, click here.

There's also a book review article by  Dennis Schofield, titled: Beyond the Brain of Katherine Mansfield  that contains a fascinating discussion of second person narration techniques.

And here is an article by Graham Nelson, titled: The Use of the Second Person in Electronic Fiction


And finally, if this note has piqued your fascination with second person narration, then, going out the door, you might also want to read my additional note on the subject, from an article I recently wrote.