Posts Tagged ‘Second-person’

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.