Do you want to try writing fiction in second person point of view? In this post, we’ll show you how to write a narrative in second person. Read on!
1. Have a purpose for using second person narrative
Any writing class teacher or a good editor will tell you that using second person is inadvisable as a general rule. And, you might wish to think that all writing rules are meant to be broken. Both of those things are very true.
However, while there are literary short stories and novels written in second person point of view that are amazingly well done, second person point of view is very difficult to get right. For most readers, second person narrative is not a hit; it’s a miss.
Generally, second person is meant to immerse the readers even more into the story, by making them feel like it is happening to them directly, due to the use of “you” and “your” in the writing. But quite often, when it is not done right, that narrative type often has the opposite effect, and makes the readers stop reading.
Because of that, before you start writing a novel or a short story in second person point of view, be very sure that such a narrative type is the best type to use in your story. Have a specific purpose for using it, and be sure that no other narrative type (first person, third person limited or third person omnipresent) will work better for the story you’re trying to tell.
Do not write in second person point of view just because you think it is cool and it will make you sound original as a writer. If that’s the sole reason why you wish to write in second person point of view, then we strongly advise to reconsider if maybe another type of narration would work better instead.
2. Read literary works written in second person
If you decide to do write a short story or a novel in second person narrative, then before you start writing, you need to read as many pieces of work written in second person as possible. You need to read all short stories, to longer novellas, to full novels written in second person that you can get your hands on.
Ensure to read a variety of acclaimed and non-acclaimed work. Acclaimed meaning the piece is considered literary and has been critically lauded and received rewards. For example, Margaret Atwood’s short story Bread, or the novel Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. But also, try to read other short stories or novels, even if they are not acclaimed.
Reading a variety of short stories and novels written in second person will enable you to passively learn what you like about the narrative type, what you do not like, what you believe is good and what you believe is not good. It will help you to determine and understand in what kind of stories that narrative type works better. Then, you will be able to decide if the story you wish to tell is suitable for the second person narrative type.
3. Use the present tense in the narrative
Second person narrative rarely works with using past tense. For example, let’s take in the following example written in past tense:
“You woke up late. You dressed in a rush, just tucked your shirt into your pants, and drove to the office 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. You walked into the office to glares and side-eyed glances from your colleagues. You were twenty minutes late, but your boss wasn’t in yet, so you weren’t in trouble.”
Now, let’s take a look at the same example written in the present tense:
“You wake up late. You dress in a rush, just tucking your shirt into your pants, and drive to the office 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. You walk into the office to glares and side-eyed glances from your colleagues. You are twenty minutes late, but your boss is not in yet, so you are not in trouble.”
Using the present tense paints an image of immediacy. Whatever is happening to the character (in this case, the reader), it is happening right now, in real time. That is why present tense is more immersive to use when writing in second person narrative.
4. Use the word “you” and the name of the character sparingly
Since the goal of using second person narrative is to immerse the reader as much as possible in the story, it might seem like a positive thing to use the word “you” as much as you can. However, overusing that word can lead to the opposite effect and actually act against the immersion, and basically annoy the reader.
In the second example in the previous tip, there is an overuse of the pronoun “you”. The same can be rewritten in the following way:
“You wake up late, dress, and barely tuck the shirt into your pants. Drive to the office 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. Walk into the office to glares and side-eyed glances. Twenty minutes late, but the boss is not in, so you’re not in trouble yet.”
The passage becomes much easier to digest (reading-wise). The reader already knows the pronoun “you” is meant to be in many spots in the paragraph, but the lack of its use works in favor of the immersion instead of against it.
Additionally, the same applies to the name of the protagonist. In the novel Bright Lights, Big City, the name of the protagonist is not even mentioned. In fact, often, the name of the protagonist rarely appears in a novel or a story written in second person. It does not mean that you absolutely shouldn’t use it. You can, but only when other people are addressing the protagonist, and even then, it should make sense within the dialogue itself.
5. Be descriptive of the world
It is advisable to be very descriptive of the world, the characters, and the protagonist as well when writing the story. Use as many sensory details as possible to make the reader really feel like everything you are describing is really happening to them, even more so than you normally would in other narrative types like third person or first person.
Moreover, make sure to not only describe the world, but to have the protagonist react to said world in certain ways. If it’s cold, the protagonist should react to it. For example:
“Stepping outside, cold wind blows in your face and enters your bones. You start walking, shivering and wishing you had the money to buy a proper coat.”
Every description is an opportunity for you to convey just how the protagonist is feeling and what they are thinking about at a certain moment. If they do not, if you just state how things are without having the protagonist react, then you are allowing the reader to fall out of the immersive experience of reading your book.
6. Do not forget about story, plot, and character development
A piece written in the second person narrative, even if it is just a short story and not a novel, should still tell a story and have a plot. It also needs to have consistent character establishment and development of both the protagonist as well as the major secondary characters in the story.
You need to have a story to tell, not just present a series of ramblings of the protagonist, or a series of images, trying to create an immersive experience by using the second person narrative type without telling a specific story.
Additionally, the story needs to have a plot – the protagonist, even when referred to as “you” should have a problem to solve and we still need to follow them on their path of solving the problem, and experiencing the outcome with them.
Last, but not least, the protagonist needs to be well established: have their own positive and negative traits, which we get to see in the course of the story. You also need to challenge the beliefs and emotions of the protagonist and develop their character.
Just because you are using the pronoun “you”, it does not mean that you are putting the reader in the place of the protagonist. It does not mean that the protagonist should be a “blank slate” where the readers can put themselves into. Quite the opposite. You need to create a well-established protagonist and develop them over the course of the story.
7. Practice with short stories
In order to gain a better feel of the second person narrative, it helps to practice first by writing short stories. Start by writing very short flash fiction pieces (with plot, a beginning, a middle and an end) that would not be longer than 1000 words. It will give you an idea of how the second person narrative works, and it will enable you to notice how well you can keep writing in second person.
Writing in second person can be difficult and it can be easy to slip back into first person or third person, if you do not have enough practice. With shorter pieces of less than 1000 words, you can train your muscles to tell a story in the second person.
After that, you can move forward and try your hand at longer pieces, from 3000 to 5000 words perhaps, and write short novellas with a few chapters. Practicing with longer pieces will help you learn how to develop scenes and descriptions without breaking immersion for the readers, how to handle the establishment and development of a protagonist in second person, and prepare you better to start writing a novel in that narrative type.