In articles on writing, new writers are often cautioned to start with third person limited point of view. That makes sense to me, because readers are likely to read it as the default and focus their attention on other aspects of the story that the novice writer has more experience with. However, the rules for new writers are almost never absolute “thou shalts” or “thou shalt nots.”
For any technique in writing a story, the question should not be “Do the rules allow this?” but rather, “What effect will this have on the reader?” If the author doesn’t know the answer, it might be a good idea to experiment in workshop and see how other authors have approached the technique.
Today, I will look at five examples of short stories that feature a second-person point of view. Each one uses it in a different way to influence the reader’s relationship with the author and with the story. Naturally, I can’t speak directly to authorial intentions except in my own work. However, I hope my thoughts on these stories will encourage you to think about second-person point of view in different ways and perhaps explore using it in your own writing.
“For Your Time” by Jamie Lackie poses a thought-provoking question: How much is your time worth to you? Using second person aims that question more squarely at the reader. It sidesteps the fictional characters and jumps off the page to make the choice “yours.”
“The Venus Effect” by Joseph Allen Hill (Violet Allen? I’m not sure which byline to use.) uses second person POV in a very deliberate way to extend the theme of the story into the reader’s world. It says, pointedly, to the reader that, ultimately, what the fictional characters do is not nearly as important as what the reader chooses to do in the real world, where real lives hang in the balance. This is in my view one of the most effective uses of second-person point of view that I have seen.
“Astronauts Can’t Touch You” by Carlie St. George uses the astronaut as a metaphor for emotional and cognitive distance. The second person point of view accentuates that distance by placing the viewpoint character outside the story. The page separating the writer and the author evokes a sense of isolation that adds poignancy to the story. Like “The Venus Effect” it accentuates the story’s unreality; but in this case it is the reader, and not the fictional characters, who feels powerless.
“10 Reasons Why We are NOT Invading You” Matt Cowan uses second-person point of view in a straightforward way to establish the reader as a target of a (rather depressing) message, placing the reader in the story without the mediation of a narrator. Without that immediacy, I believe that the story might feel more like an info-dump or an essay. It also allows the author to dispense with setting and character and allows the message to stand on its own, which can be very effective in flash fiction, where space is at a premium.
“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky uses a similar tack as in Cowan’s story, but to a more personal and emotional end. In this story, “you” are not simply an undefined human but the narrator’s partner. The message is specific and heartfelt. The stripping away of story elements here allows the story to focus on imagery, metaphor and emotion, while allowing the elements of the story to filter through that lens. This, I think, is a moving and effective use of second person,
I used second-person point of view in “We’ll Always Have Sybaris.” In that story, it was a natural result of an instructional frame, where the narrator was giving advice. However, I think second person also placed the reader in the story as a recipient of the company’s message. It also underscores that “you” the reader have agency in charting the course of your own love life.
In any case, I hope you check out all the stories listed above. Feel free to tweet me and let me know what you think.
As always, happy reading and happy writing!