When to Use the Second Person

Is everyone clear on what the 2nd person is? It’s the “you” in a narrative. Many narrators, usually first person, use the “you” occasionally. Here are a few examples:

“My heart pounded with the kind of beat you only get after running for your life.”

“I’m telling you straight, man, she was so hot you could fry an egg on her.”

There’s also the implied 2nd person, which is sort of like the second example only the “you” is never explicitly stated. This implied 2nd person is usually used with a storytelling sort of voice:

“It rained so hard, honest to God, I never thought it’d stop.”

In all of these examples, there is either a “you” addressed or hinted at. The narrator is always talking to someone (usually interpreted as “the reader”) and breaking the fourth wall. (Theatre geek here, remember? “Breaking the fourth wall” is a theatre term, meaning the actors break the barrier between the stage and the house and address the audience directly.)

There’s also a less widespread use of the 2nd person… that’s when the “you” is another character in the story and the narrating character is talking directly to them. An excellent recent example of this is WHEN YOU REACH ME.

Finally, there are books that are written entirely in the 2nd person, where “You” is the main character. These do not work for me, at all, as the direct address feels like it’s pulling me out of the story the entire time. A book that I have recently been unable to get into, despite knowing how brilliant it is and having deep respect for its writer and editor, is (the aptly titled) YOU by Charles Benoit.

Now that we’re all clear on what the 2nd person is, I want to make a point about it. A lot of writers are very careless with the occasional 2nd person because it has become very common in our way of talking. Everyday speech is studded with expressions like “you know?” and they translate into our manuscripts. Sometimes a narrator will go on a 2nd person jag, and every simile has a “you” embedded in it. Other times, the “you” will be absent for hundreds of pages at a time only to show up randomly.

Be very careful with the 2nd person. It is confrontational. It breaks out of the 1st or 3rd person and crosses the line between story and reader, fiction and the real life of the person reading it. It makes the reader part of the story and, when used intentionally, can have a really cool effect (which I still probably won’t appreciate, as is the case with YOU, because I don’t personally enjoy 2nd person).

But I’m seeing a lot of sloppy, careless 2nd person outbursts in narratives that don’t necessarily demand the 2nd person. My tip, while you’re just feeling out a story and getting the hang of writing it, is to leave the 2nd person out, if you can. If used correctly and consistently, it rocks. Otherwise, it just seems spotty and annoying. From me, it gets the reaction of: “Leave ME out of it and get on with the story!”

So that’s what I’d say. Either you use 2nd person consistently in a manuscript (and I’m talking narrative here, not dialogue) or write a draft without the 2nd person and see if you miss it. All I’m saying, folks, is make it intentional.

Bonus Tip: If there’s one thing that bugs the jeebus out of me, it’s the use of a 2nd person rhetorical question to launch a query letter:

“What would YOU do if a flesh-eating virus was descending on YOUR town and only YOU had the antidote… locked in a small capsule in the base of YOUR spine?”

Um… are you honestly asking me? Because I’d probably mess my pants, eat a pint of ice cream and go hide in the basement with my back to the wall.

See, when you get the 2nd person involved, it automatically elicits a reaction from your reader. By starting a query with a rhetorical question, you’ll get on your reader’s nerves and most likely elicit the reaction of: “I don’t want to hear about ME, I’d rather hear about YOUR book, dingus!”

Not that any serious publishing professionals have ever been known to use the word “dingus.” (Okay, that might be a lie.)

14 Replies to “When to Use the Second Person”

  1. Great post. And I totally do this. I noticed it a lot more when I changed The Deathday Letter from past to present tense. I found that occasionally breaking the fourth wall made it feel like my narrator was confiding in the reader. That it made them feel like he was telling the story directly to them. Whether my editor agrees is yet to be seen 🙂 I agree though, this 4th wall breaking can be way overused.

  2. If a writer cannot write in the second person as brilliantly as Rebecca Stead does in WHEN YOU REACH ME (second person in the title, even!), my advice is: don’t. I think that’s what you said too.

    Thanks for the post, Mary. Catching up a bit….

  3. Do you think that *any* question addressed to the reader of a query letter is irritating? Is it automatically “rhetorical” if you’re not actually there to give the author your feedback? I never thought that it might be a turn-off; I thought it was “marketing”. My goodness, this query business is intimidating.

  4. Thanks for explaining this. Would you give an example of a book using 2nd person, please ma’am?

    Thanks,
    Sumner Wilson

  5. Fantastic point. We are taught to engage listeners when speaking one on one by steering the conversation around our companion, which does train us to imply “you” when speaking. We are encouraged to sound natural in our narratives for today’s literary market. It does require a delicate balance to be natural while adhering to the King’s English without incorporating our outstanding social skills. Even the compliments you received in response to your post imply “you.” Have definitely decided to gift myself the Chicago Manual for Christmas. Great wisdom, as usual. wink wink

  6. The only book I’ve read entirely in 2nd person is BRIGHT LIGHTS BIG CITY, and I didn’t enjoy the POV. However, the book I’m reading right now, THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS by e. lockhart is a 3rd person narrative told my an omniscient storyteller who frequently addresses the reader. Since this book is such a specific way of storytelling, it totally works for me. And if you haven’t read e. lockhart yet, you should. Hilarity personified.

    Thanks for the though-provoking post. I’ve noticed a few of these slips in my own writing lately, and I need to fix them! They annoy me even when I write them.

    – Liz

  7. Oh man, now I’ve got to go back through all my manuscripts and make sure I haven’t done this. I don’t think I have, but I also haven’t been as aware of this as I am now after your post.

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