In the debates of qualities between 1st person narration versus 3rd person, or 3rd limited versus 3rd omniscient, or the absolute scorning of the dreaded ‘head-hopping’ there is one point of view that is more polarizing than any of them: Second Person Point of View.
Que the dramatic music.
Quick primer if you’re rusty on your terminology.
1st person pov - I said.
3rd person pov - he said/she said.
2nd person pov - You said.
After seeing that list, you might be thinking you’ve never seen anything written in 2nd person, or you’ve never seen it outside poetry or fanfiction (which tends to allow for more experimental forms). If you’ve been around the block submitting short stories to literary magazines, you might’ve noticed that “2nd person” often ends up in the “What we’re not looking for” list of their submission guidelines.
Not only in 2nd person rare in fiction writing, it is also often unwanted and unliked in fiction writing. If you drop a 2nd person story in a writing critique circle or workshop, you will probably get people who hate it because it is second, with no other consideration. You’ll have people quote the writing rule “No second person” at you. You might have some people who just like it because it is different and they’ve never seen it before. Amongst that, maybe you’ll get someone who gives you actual, meaningful feedback.
But this is not a rant about critique groups. It is, however, a commentary on how second person is received by writers and readers in general. But me? I believe in second person and its potential.
I first experimented writing second person when I was fist experimenting with writing overall: in high school while writing fanfiction. I’ve always harbored belief in the potential of second person narration even through years of hearing nothing good about it from most corners of the writing community.
In my adult writing life, I’ve written two original short stories in second person, one speculative and one literary. How have they fared?
One of my second person stories placed 2nd in the 2017 Baltimore Science Fiction Scoeity’s Ameteur Writing contest, which allows entries from across the state of Maryland. Meeting the facilitators of contest, I was told the competition was particularly tough that year. A few months later that same story made me not an ameteur anymore as I made my first pro sale with it to Deep Magic E-Zine. They told me it was the 1st time they had published a second person story.
The other second person story of the realistic literary genre has just made the long list of finalists for a different writing competition, the top ten percent out of 600 entries. Fingers crossed for how that will turn out.
What this proves? That people can like reading second person. That second person stories are publishable. That they are able to place in contests. That my long held believe in the potential of second person stories has been validated.
But wait, you say, that’s only two short stories.
Yup, that’s right. I usually write in 3rd person, and very occasionally first. Second person is definitely not a point of view that should be used for most stories. It is very particular and, as I stated before, very polarizing.
Second person should not be used willy-nilly. Sure, experiment with it. Have fun. Learn. Practice. That’s what writing is about. But if you’re looking for direction on when to use second person… I’ll get in to that right now.
For both of my original second person stories, I chose to use second person for a particular reason. For -- to use a wonderful term I learned from Larry Brooks in Story Fix -- a narrative strategy.
The concept and the plot are the story.
The narrative strategy is how we tell said story: POV, order of events, narrator, length, style of prose, etc and so on. These are things we consider to tell the story in the best way or with maximum impact.
Second person, when used, should be a deliberate part of your narrative strategy.
In my speculative story, I was trying to create a Twilight Zone-feel. The second person was supposed to enable the reader to step in the main character’s shoes, and for the “character” aspect to almost vanish. I go out of the way to avoid gendered details. The character doesn’t have a name. The character is you-the-reader living through the motions.
In my literary story, I had quite a different reason for the strategy of second person. The character is very particular, has a name, and has a detailed life. She is also suffering from depression. The second person, with all it’s “you” statements was used to create a sense of dissociation, like the character was watching herself go through the motions.
So that’s two different reasons I used second person and two different ways I used it. There are probably plentiful more to be discovered.
I think it stands to reason, like most writing rules, guidelines, and cultural preferences, when you as the writer are going to break them, you have to do it with a sense of strategy. Or… just to have fun.
(Or Reaffirmed The Fact)
((In Roughly Reverse Order))
4 & 5
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater and Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
I’m pairing the four books of Stiefvater's Raven Cycle and Rowell’s Carry On for two reasons: (1) I read them for the first time the same year, just a few months apart, and (2) they reaffirmed the same main emphasis.
That emphasis being that YA lit could be complex and told complexly, with alternate character POVs, and lots of tangled history behind the infrastructure of the story that holds up the main narrative. As a writer who was struggling with writing a tangled, multi-character narrative that was more heavy on character than plot, I was so frustrated by conventional wisdom about YA lit -- the narrative needed to be simple, follow one character, not head hop, and so on. I was so pleased, reading these book, to realize that these complicated stories were things you were allowed to write as a writer, and that readers want to read.
More individually, The Raven Cycle enriched me with a beautiful, clever, original prose style that I want to make love to. Carry On, in how it riffs on Harry Potter and fandom, showed me that they words of fan culture and original story were not opposites, but could flow together.
Both of these YA marvels were door openers.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This book came out a few years ago to some acclaim, popularity, and award-winning, and it showed me what was possible in genre-mashing story. I was formally trained in literary fiction in my undergraduate writing program, but my reading interests have always fell on to the sides of things not considered the highest quality amongst the literary elite: ya, children’s, scifi, fantasy, chick lit, mystery, and fanfiction.
In this post-apocalypse story in which a band of actors and musicians in a traveling caravan try to live out the importance of art and meaning in a world previously decimated by a sudden epidemic and the following violence, Station Eleven takes the best of speculative fiction -- the imagination and what ifs -- and the best of literary fiction -- the character focus and thematic resonance -- and put them together. Additionally, it didn’t focus on action plot beats like post-apocalypse fiction usually does and injected the ending with a big dollop of hope. Station Eleven showed me the potential for stories and how they did not have to be neatly packaged into one genre box or the other, with all the surrounding conventions.
Literally, when I got to the end of this book I said to myself, “This is the kind of book I want to write, but I didn’t know I was allowed!” What a freeing read.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I feel like so-called “classics” are getting a bad rap as of late as things that no one actually wants to read or likes reading. But, heck, I sure liked this one when it was assigned to my AP Lit class in my senior year of high school. I’ve since then had to reread it for college, and have reread it for myself.
It is not so much this entire book -- which is slim and bit a heavy on detail and a bit slow on plot and very much a portrait and condemnation of the time and place and the people -- but moments in it. Moments profound and powerful in their twisting poetic prose, in their themes, and in how they pay off for what had been built to before.
I think that’s an important thing to a note of a book that has slow or beleaguered parts that ultimately have a wallop of a payoff at some point -- that the payoff is robbed of its power if that build up hadn’t been put in place.
But, yeah, I totally flip back to different passages and pace around reading them outloud because they’re so good.
“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” ←I know you can’t tell, but I totally typed that from memory. No lookups.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Ah, the mother of them all. The Outsiders is often considered first modern YA novel. While in the big picture this novel about a group of brothers and friends struggling with poverty, classism, and gang violence in 1969 Tulsa may have helped birth a genre, it was also the novel that showed me that books could be profound.
It was assigned reading by my 8th grade teacher. For years before then I had been a greedy reader of Nancy Drew and other mysteries, American Girl and other historical fiction, as well as Lord of the Rings and other fantasy. Being such a vicarious reader, what made The Outsiders such a changing point for me? Perhaps it was the character focus. Perhaps it was the realism. Whatever it was, I definitely had that ‘I’m being moved by great literature’ moment that most English teachers probably hope to inspire in their students.
Knowing that a book, a story, a narrative could have that much power, could mean so much, could real, could move me… well, it was something I wanted to try my hand at too.
Here on another edition of Behind the Story, I present...
Don't Lie To Me
Originally published by the Devilfish Review in March 2018
Don’t Lie to Me is the third story on this list of publications to be written for a magazine’s prompt/theme, to be rejected by said magazine, and then later find a home elsewhere. This is the second story to be written for one of The First Line’s first lines.
The process of taking a prompt to a full story for this example was different than the previous two stories. The previous two, the prompt was the inspiration and I built from it. For Don’t Lie to Me, I had the broadstroke concept for the story in mind, and seeing the first line prompt, thought it would pair well.
Backstory -- I’m a superhero nut. I’m all in for the superhero craze. I grew up with the animated shows like X-Men the Animated Series amongst others. I was there for that 2000s run of the original Spider-man trilogy and for the X-Men universe. The DC Animated Universe (note I said animated), heck yes. Teen Titans, wow-za. The MCU, yup.
Don’t Lie to Me is not a “superhero” story, but that is its inspiration and roots. It is, however, a “superpower” story, with a quiet, unassuming young woman with a small if potentially powerful and personally devastating superability: She always knows when someone is lying.
Think about that concept for a moment. What would that give to you? Even more, what would that steal? People lie for a lot of reasons, and not all of them are bad.
Pair those questions with a meek character with crappy boyfriend who gets in debt to a loan shark… then what do you get. Well, what you get is: Don’t Lie to Me.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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