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What Is a Second-Person Narrative?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 03 September 2016
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A second-person narrative is a story written in the second person. That is, the narrator is described with the second-person pronoun “you” rather than the more common “I” of first-person narratives or “he/she/they” of third-person writing. This has the effect of engaging the reader, partially because the writer seems to be addressing the reader directly, and partially because second-person narrative is so unusual. Although rare, second-person narratives have been employed by several prestigious writers, mostly in modern and postmodern literature.

First-person narrative, in which an author appears to describe events that he or she personally witnessed, has been used in literature for centuries. Prominent examples include Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Third person is by far the most common narrative voice for both fiction and non-fiction, as it allows an author to describe any aspect of the story, even those events that would be hidden from an actual participant. This technique is sometimes called the omniscient or objective point of view. Readers find these formats so familiar they will usually accept them without hesitation when starting a story.

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The second-person narrative, by contrast, alerts the reader that something unusual is afoot. This is one reason it is often disdained; many writers prefer to avoid techniques that call attention to themselves, as these can be seen as distracting attention from the story. In sustained narratives such as novels and short stories, however, the reader will quickly become accustomed to the style and proceed as if it was a first-person narrative. In most cases, readers are not invited to actually consider themselves participants in the story, although there are some exceptions.

In the Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books published in the 1980s and 1990s, young readers were invited to direct the plot of the story. They did this by choosing which actions to take at crucial points and then reading the chapters that corresponded to the results. The popular series pioneered the genre of interactive fiction, which has since appeared in computer games and DVDs and on the Internet. The magical realist author Italo Calvino took a different approach in his experimental novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Odd-numbered chapters describe the reader’s attempts to read various novels, which are presented in the book’s even-numbered chapters.

Second-person narrative has been employed by other inventive authors of the modern era, including William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, and Margaret Atwood. Perhaps the most famous example is Jay McInerney’s bestseller Bright Lights, Big City, which explores an unnamed character’s adventures in the New York City club scene. Tom Robbins playfully employed second-person narrative in his 1994 novel Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. In his short story “Just Another Perfect Day,” science fiction author John Varley employs this technique to describe the effects of an alien invasion. The story is presented as a long letter to the protagonist, who has catastrophic memory loss and cannot remember the invasion.

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Mor
Post 3

@pleonasm - I actually quite like second person narratives if they are done well. I've read quite a few science fiction short stories that have used that point of view in a way that really enhances the story.

I've also read some narrative poetry that uses the second person to try and put the reader into the shoes of the protagonist with some success. It can be awkward and it's not easy, but then I don't think any kind of writing or reading should necessarily be easy.

It's more important for it to be interesting and second person will definitely help with that.

pleonasm
Post 2

@clintflint - It depends on what kind of second person narrative you're going for though. It's a rare author who can carry out second person intending to address the reader, and who isn't doing it for children. But the "you" in the story might be intended to be someone other than the reader.

It might be written, for example, as a story told by a grandmother to a specific grandchild who is expected to know or not know specific things. In that case it can be more difficult for the author because they have to establish two characters who might not otherwise be in the story.

Or it could be an epistolary novel, which means the narrative is explored through letters (and other documents), in which case the letter writer will naturally be using the second person all the time (although I suppose they might just as easily use the first person, depending on the structure of the story).

clintflint
Post 1

Second person is extremely tricky to do well if you're doing it in a literary sense because it really brings the reader out of the illusion by addressing them all the time.

This is particularly true if the writer says things like "and then you were scared" because the difference between what they are insisting you feel and what you actually feel is going to be jarring.

It can be done well, but I usually avoid anything in the second person that isn't extremely highly recommended.

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