Second-Person Tense – a Literary Unicorn?

Posted: September 27, 2018 in Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

Air horse illustration

We’ve all read or written in first-person (I) and third-person (he/she), but where is the elusive second-person (you) novel?

Second-person seems to be exclusively the realm of the choose-your-own-adventure novels (which had their heyday in the 80’s), Internet fan fiction, and instruction manuals.  There is one notable literary exception: Jay McInerney‘s Bright Lights, Big City. In this novel the narrator is actually talking about himself from a distance to separate himself from his own trauma.  Whereas in the choose-your-own-adventure books and most fan-fiction, the “you” in the story is the reader, who steps into the role of the hero.

So, there are specific examples, but they are so specific and far-between (and non-commercial), that writing in second-person has become kind of a trick, a gimmick, a badge of being different for difference’s sake.  And yet….

As a children’s author, the notion of writing an adventure (in which I will do the choosing, ahem) has much appeal.  As readers, children are much more forgiving and willing to experiment than are most adults.  Children expect the unexpected, and are drawn to books that are unique in their own way, be that in the setting or characters, the shape of the book itself, or in how the story is presented on the page.  My gut tells me that an adventure story featuring a young person solving puzzles, getting into wild scrapes, and being heroic would be a natural fit for second-person narration.  Particularly if written in such a way as to allow readers to immerse themselves in the story even further than traditional stories allow.

Consider the following (rough) opening paragraph, for example:

The young pearl-diver gulped another great lungful of early-morning air then scrambled again for the bottom of the ocean.  The mermaid has to be here, he told himself.  He had seen her!  He kicked and swam his way down toward the sunken hull of the ancient ship, the pressure in his lungs burning.  The pouch at his hip slapped his thigh with every stroke, reminding him of the wicked gull woman and her terrible price.  But now he had the enchanted ring, and soon … even his very dreams.

Now in first-person:

I gulped another great lungful of early-morning air then scrambled again for the bottom of the ocean.  The mermaid has to be here, I told myself.  I had seen her!  I kicked and swam my way down toward the sunken hull of the ancient ship, the pressure in my lungs burning.  The pouch at my hip slapped my thigh with every stroke, reminding me of the wicked gull woman and her terrible price.  But now I had the enchanted ring, and soon … even my very dreams.

More intimate, right?  You feel like you’re more inside the diver’s head, as opposed to just a distant observer.  But second-person goes even further.  And by putting it in present tense instead of past tense, the story becomes immediate:

You gulp another great lungful of early-morning air then scrambled again for the bottom of the ocean.  The mermaid has to be here, you tell yourself.  You saw her!  You kick and swim your way down toward the sunken hull of the ancient ship, the pressure in your lungs burning.  The pouch at your hip slaps your thigh with every stroke, reminding you of the wicked gull woman and her terrible price.  But now you have the enchanted ring, and soon … even your very dreams.

Did you find yourself holding your breath?  Do you think a child might?  I said my gut tells me such a story written in second-person present tense would be a natural fit for a kid’s book.  Unfortunately, agents and editors are all adults, and while many of them represent (and adore) children’s books, they are only willing to represent something they believe will sell.  And there is no historical market trend for such a book.  It’s a risk — as much for me as for a prospective agent and any subsequent publisher.  Plus, it screams “gimmick.”  Is it enough simply to write a book in an almost entirely unique style, or is there some reason this particular book must be written in that style?  Jay McInerney found such a reason, but that reason isn’t going to work a second time, and it isn’t going to work in a book for 10-year-old readers.

So this particular unicorn eludes me.  But I haven’t given up the hunt.  I may find an approach that makes second-person irresistible and absolutely necessary.  And when I do, I’ll be willing to risk it.

  1. I’m okay with 2nd person for short stories, or novelettes (something the length of a children’s book). Full length is hard.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. S. D. Henke says:

    So thrilled to come across this in my feed! I recently published my debut Literary fantasy children’s novel that opens in the second person-close/hybrid interchange in first as this choice proved paramount to the narrative. This manuscript stood in the wake of two years worth of queries that led to requests for full but these ultimately ended in reluctant rejections. Many of which responded in kind to what you discussed in your post about the industry. I heard over and over that it wouldn’t be marketable. My situation is unique in that I’ve been able to work closely with young Beta-readers that I have access to since I teach and work with young readers and mentor young writers. My decision came as more of a natural narrative option based on the fact that the story is about memories and trauma. My MC’s experience is akin to what clinical psychologists I’ve interviewed term as the ‘survivor voice’ -recounting their trauma from the second person point of view. My story did, however, evolve into a true hybrid with first person as the MC’s perspective shifted. It was much too heavy a load with the themes and undercurrent content to maintain that flow of intensity and emotion. It sold with a publisher last July and will be debuting this month!

    I really appreciate the post and I will most certainly share it out! My publisher is all about bold voices and she was willing to take the risk in a great deal for both of us! It is possible if you deem it so! Write that novel and trust your instincts. Kids are all about instincts!


  3. Rick Ellrod says:

    It *is* possible to write a non-gameish story in second person, though. One pathway is that of the epistolary novel, composed of letters or other messages — which are typically addressed to a reader, of course.

    I have in mind a very funny time-travel tale by Murray Leinster, “Dear Charles,” in which a 20th-century MC writes a letter to his many-times-grandson hundreds of years later . . . which, when found in a moldering book of old-time stories, sets the wacky plot going. The short story is one long letter, and the diction is half the fun.


  4. D. E. Butler, PhD says:

    THIS book Is perfectly awesome in second voice (as unicorns often are) A rare treat, indeed!


  5. […] childhood trauma, PTSD, and what lies in between. Story Bends is a truly unique and magical tale, exploring the rare unicorn of Second Person POV, and leaving you lost in a fantastical world known as the […]

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Deborah Patz says:

    Rabbit Ears by Maggie deVries is a novel that makes brilliant use of second person POV. The narrative alternates chapters between two sisters and one uses first person POV while the other uses second person POV (to distance herself from the events and choices of her life) yet you feel like you’re reading both girls via first person POV. As the one sister comes to accept herself, her POV moves to first person POV and the reader feels the subtle sense of self acceptance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s