A key question to ask when writing your book is ‘who gets to tell the story?’ Whose perspective are you writing from? Most books you come across are written in either the first or third person. While editors don’t see eye to eye on many topics, there is one rule that many tend to agree on: don’t write a novel from a second person point of view.
Second person POV breaks the fourth wall, directly addressing the reader with the pronoun ‘you’. This is often done with the intention to convert the reader into a character, and thus experience joy, anger, etc. as their own feelings, rather than those of another character.
One reason a second person perspective is normally avoided is because readers can find it unsettling, direct, and even aggressive. It’s as though you’re being forced into a certain situation and then being told how you perform in it — robbing you of the safe distance from the story that you normally enjoy as a reader.
Why would anyone then even use a second person point of view? Well, there are instances where it does complement the story you wish to tell, like how-to books, epistolary novels, choose-your-own-adventure novels etc. So, don’t dismiss this style of writing without giving it a fair shot!
Here are 5 tips that might come handy as you set out to write in the second person perspective:
1. Take inspiration from those who’ve succeeded
While stories told from the second person point of view are less common than those told in the first and third, there are still exceptionally-written examples that you can learn from! Popular examples include Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. Pay close attention to how the authors above have tactically mastered and used the second person perspective to create a direct and intimate experience for the reader, drawing them into the story.
2. Use the present tense
The present tense maintains a fast-paced, intimate and tense tone, immersing the reader into the plot. This keeps things interesting, and makes them seem as though they’re happening in real time. On the other hand, resorting to the past tense often adds a layer of detachment between the reader and the narrative, defeating the purpose of using the second person point of view. Let’s consider this with a simple example:
Past tense: You woke up in your room, and looked out of the window.
Present tense: You wake up in your room, and look out of the window.
Doesn’t the second sentence in present tense feel more direct than the first one?
3. Be descriptive, don’t hold back
If you’re placing the reader in the shoes of your protagonist, you need to make it believable for them! So, engage the five senses and bring to life the characters, the setting, etc. This will help familiarize your reader with their character’s environment, give them a closer look into the world they belong to, and create the desired sense of intimacy. A good example of this is seen in Bright Lights, Big City: “Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment, and until you can clean it up a little you don’t want to invite anyone inside.”
4. Get inside your character’s head
Since the second person greatly reduces the distance between the reader and the main character, it is a brilliant opportunity to get inside your character’s head. This effectively gives the reader direct access to the thoughts of the character, enhancing the reading experience and making them feel connected to the story. You then no longer need to explain the logic behind their actions, as the reader can quite literally follow the reasoning behind the character’s behavior and understand them on a personal level. To give you an example: “Your family means the world to you. All your childhood memories come running back to you — the way they cared for you, the way they were always there. You must save them, or at least try to.”
In reading the lines above, don’t you start empathizing with and rooting for this character already?
5. Practice until second person feels natural
Admittedly, the second person point of view can be difficult to get used to and master. But as with most things, the more you do something, the better you get at it. An effective exercise to practice this craft with is to take a book written in the first or third person and then write parts of it from the second person point of view.
Try writing Pride and Prejudice in second person, for example, with Elizabeth Bennet being the focal character. It could start like this: “You know what society thinks: a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. This is not a truth that you acknowledge.”
Above all, remember that this is your story and your choice. Based on how you intend to publish your book (self or traditionally-published), you may feel less obliged to stick to conventional expectations and rules. We now hope that you’re better equipped to tackle the second person perspective. If you’re confused on where to start writing, look no further. Think it through, ensure that the second person point of view lends itself to the purpose of your novel, and get writing!
Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, where she advises authors and professionals on everything related to publishing; from marketing to copyrighting to querying agents and publishers. She lives and works in London.