Welcome to our final installment in our series about point of view in writing. Point of view is the window through which a reader experiences your story, and it impacts greatly how the story is told.
For example, consider writing a major battle. Written from the perspective of one soldier, it will feel very different from the same battle written from the perspective of a soldier on the other side. Both will feel different from a dispassionate, separate observer watching the battle from afar.
We’ll define it, examine how it’s used, and identify the most common mistakes people make while writing it.
What is Second Person Point of View?
In second person point of view, you use the pronoun “you” when describing the actions, thoughts, and emotions of the protagonist. It implies that the reader themself is in the story and the events of the narrative are happening to them.
The most likely place you’ve seen second person point of view is in Choose Your Own Adventure books. Otherwise, it’s most often used in nonfiction genres like self-help and business advice.
Very few traditional fiction books use second person. Two famous exceptions include The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and parts of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.
Why Do People Use Second Person Point of View?
We wrote in an earlier post about how first person POV puts the reader immediately into the narrator’s head, creating a level of connection and investment sooner and more deeply than in other perspectives. That’s even truer of second person writing.
Beyond that, second person writing offers several other benefits:
- It can distance the narrator from the experience, allowing the reader to play the role of conscience or guardian angel.
- It reinforces the core ideas driving the story because it can go the deepest into thoughts and motivation.
- It demands more of the reader, and can even be transgressive, both of which make a book stand out more.
- It can be more disturbing and visceral to the reader and bring out a more pronounced emotional reaction.
The Ten Biggest Second Person Point of View Errors
1. Straying Into Other Perspectives
Even more than with first person, second person offers a very limited point of view. Any time you describe something that could not be seen, heard, sensed, or otherwise experienced by the reader/protagonist, it breaks connection.
This is especially important in second person perspective. The technique requires the reader to already engage a lot of willing suspension of disbelief (they’ve lived their life, and know they haven’t experienced what the story says) — any small thing that makes that more difficult can lose the reader entirely.
2. Thinking Instead of Acting
This is an issue in first person as well, but avoid the temptation of spending too much time in the thoughts and feelings of your protagonist. It comes at the cost of action, but in second person there’s another important reason.
Your reader will have their own thoughts and emotions about what happens on the page. If they think one thing, and you write “you think (this other thing)” that is jarring and can lose the reader. It’s much better to show what happens and trust the reader to have the thoughts and emotions they need most from your book.
3. Using the Word “You” Far Too Much
It’s very tricky to write something in the second person without using the word “You” entirely too often. It’s even worse than “I” in first person. That’s because there aren’t a lot of synonyms for “you”.
Don’t torture your prose looking for alternatives. That’s almost always worse. But do find ways to not have to use the word at all — usually in your editing draft. During the first pass, just use the word as often as you need to.
4. The Autonomy Issue
If your protagonist does things the reader would not do, it will be much harder to maintain immersion and suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, the entire point of reading fiction is to experience thoughts and actions the reader doesn’t have in normal life.
The key is to make every other aspect of the writing excellent — tone, pacing, word choice, structure, every last little thing — so when the reader experiences some cognitive dissonance, they’re not thrown out of the story entirely. They want to keep reading even with the mild psychological bumps and bruises.
5. Missing out on Character Development
On one hand, you don’t want to push against the reader’s autonomy and honestly felt emotions while they read the book. On the other, if you leave everything to the reader then the protagonist never develops.
This is an extremely tricky needle to thread. The best second-person fiction presents the action on the page in ways that slowly, subtly, and surely change the reader’s perspective so they grow along with the protagonist.
Look, I never said this would be easy.
6. Getting Too Personal
The power of second person is that it connects viscerally with the reader — but that can also be its weakness. If you dig too deeply into taboos, phobias, fears, and other difficult subject matter you can lose your reader.
For example: a second-person portrayal of a superhero is an easy pitch to the reader. Everybody has wished they had super powers at one time or another. Compare/contrast this to a second-person portrayal of a serial child murderer. Tread carefully here.
7. Plot Twist Issues
This could be considered part of the point of view mistake above, but is important enough to warrant its own section. Plot twists rely on not giving the reader information, then surprising them with that information as the story unfolds. With second person, you are limited in what you can reveal and what you can hide in ways not even first person limits you.
You can beat this with careful planning. Know what the twist is, and where it’s coming. Foreshadow it subtly from very early on, and — most important — have realistic and logical reasons for the protagonist to not think of or predict it until the moment you expose the twist.
8. Too Much You in the the You
With second person, the protagonist has to be a blanker slate than with other points of view. This is because it has to be open for any reader to step in and feel like they really are the person in the story. One pitfall of this is that many (if not most) writers will start to fill that slate with their own opinions and traits.
Being disciplined with your writing can help with this, although that’s not very useful advice. A practice that works better is to remember to focus on actions and events, not thoughts and emotions. This will leave you little chance to insert yourself into the protagonist’s head.
9. Confusing You and I
“You” and “I” reverse themselves when talked about outside the medium.
If you read a first person story, and tell somebody about it later, you say “He” or “She” did the things in the tale. If you participated in a second-person story, you say “I” did the things in the tale — or you use some convoluted language to clarify it wasn’t you but rather the protagonist.
Either way, in my various editing jobs I have noticed how frequently that reversal causes word choice errors in the manuscript. Have your editor keep an eye out for it, even if you’re thinking right now how you would never make such a mistake.
10. Getting Trapped in A Perspective Corner
I’ve already noted that second person is the most restrictive when it comes to point of view. Sometimes that puts you in a position where you’ve written your plot into a corner that can’t be resolved without information the protagonist cannot get. There are two basic ways to solve this dilemma.
The first is to go back and revise earlier parts of the manuscript, giving the protagonist a realistic way to have the information. The second is to plan your story carefully and already have that in place by the time you get there.
Bonus Error: Writing Too Long of a Story
This is more of a rule of thumb than an outright rule, but reading in the second person is exhausting for the reader. Putting themselves into that headspace can take more effort than reading in first or third person.
There are a few strategies to tell a story successfully, though. You can either write a shorter story, or you can shorten your individual chapters to make it easier to take a break. As with all stories, though, making it easier for a reader to put down a book also makes it easier for them to never pick up your book again.
If you’ve read them all, congratulations! You have all the information you need to decide which perspective to use in your news project.
Now all you have to do is make a choice and write it.