The Second Person: Powerful and Vulnerable
The second person is a powerful and vulnerable way to build your narrative, and can be used to great effect in both fiction and non-fiction.
While using the second person in non-fiction is very common, in the world of fiction it’s one of the most difficult points of view to write from, requiring a lot of finesse when crafting your words.
In this article we’re going to discuss what the second person point of view is, why it’s so powerful and some common mistakes authors make when writing from this perspective.
What Is The Second-Person Point of View?
The second-person point of view is a writing technique where you address your readers directly, breaking the fourth wall between author and reader.
As a result, writing a second-person narrative offers a much more intimate relationship with your audience, which other narrative styles cannot easily achieve.
The use of the second-person point of view is quite common in non fiction writing, especially books in problem-solving subgenres (e.g. the “how to” type.)
Although less common in fiction, it can still be used to great literary effect provided you take the time to master it first because it’s not as easy to pull off.
In either case, when writing from the second person point of view, authors get to have complete control over their audience.
Having said that, these are waters that must be navigated very carefully so as not to make your readers feel manipulated or uncomfortable as you address them directly.
Why Use The Second-Person Point of View in Fiction?
The second-person narrative can be an effective tool in your author arsenal because it places your reader front and center in your story — not just as an observer but also as a co-participant with your protagonist.
By making your audience feel that they are themselves part of the scene, you can take them on an exciting journey filled with surprise twists, thus creating a much deeper level of reader engagement.
How To Use the Second-Person Narrative in Your Book
In order to use the second-person point of view effectively, you need to focus your narrative on the use of second-person pronouns (you, your, yours). Note that sometimes these pronouns can be implied and don’t always need to be present in the writing.
While you can mix points of view by adding first and third person references, you have to make sure that you never dilute the presence of your reader as a key player in your story. This is particularly true in the non-fiction genre.
When you write a non-fiction book to address an issue your audience is trying to resolve (e.g. losing weight, quitting smoking, improving their relationships, etc.), your readers expect you to make your book about them and not anybody else.
They expect to be front and center in your narrative and will also want to be addressed as an audience of one. If you make your nonfiction book about you instead you’ll lose their interest.
Readers don’t want to learn how you solved your own problem, they want you to teach them how to solve theirs.
Having said that, this direct connection could backfire if you accidentally hurt their sensibilities. So, always make sure to write in the second person from a foundation of empathy.
If you’re writing a fiction story from this point of view, a similar dynamic takes place in that you’re making your audience become a character in your story, so make sure that your readers never feel manipulated by your narrative.
5 Tips for Using the Second-Person Point of Voice Effectively
Below are some useful second-person narrative tips to set you on the right path:
1. Use the second-person point of view to create a more personal connection with your readers
If you’re writing fiction, keep in mind that by addressing your reader directly you’re breaking the 4th wall.
So, always be conscious that you’re bringing an actual human being with feelings and emotions into your fictional universe and always engage your readers with empathy and respect.
2. For problem-solving nonfiction, always make the second person point of view center stage
If you’re writing problem-solving non-fiction (e.g. health, psychology, self-help, fitness and money subgenres, among many others), make sure to minimize the use of the first person in your narrative — i.e. readers expect your book to be about them, not you.
Your role then is to become a facilitator for information, skills and solutions to help your audience get to where they want to go.
3. For fiction writing, experiment with second person narratives in short stories first
Since in the world of fiction you’ll be making your readers part of your protagonist’s journey, try first to incorporate the second person point of view as part of a short story.
This narrative is hard to pull off for the full length of a novel unless you’re very skilled, so short stories are a great training ground to cut your teeth with.
4. Use the second-person point of view to create suspense
By addressing your fiction reader directly with a second person narrative, you elevate their commitment to your story since you’re involving them directly in your protagonist’s choices and outcomes.
As a result, you get to design how you want your readers to feel by selectively disclosing or withholding important information, therefore allowing you to keep your readers on the edge of suspense.
5. Read a lot of second-person fiction before you attempt it
Here are some great examples of the use of the second person narrative in the fiction genre. I recommend you read and analyze some of these novels and short stories to learn how this style is used by the pros:
- The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin
- The Book of Rapture by Nikki Gemmell
- Damage By A.M. Jenkins
- The Fifth Season By N.K. Jemisin
- Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Some Pitfalls And Challenges to Keep in Mind
- The second-person point of view is a difficult perspective to write fiction from. Make sure to read a lot of works from experienced authors before you attempt it
- If not done right, It can be hard for readers to understand who is being talked about
- The second-person point of view can be difficult to maintain for an entire novel. Begin practicing with short stories first and then build up your second-person writing muscle slowly
- Readers often find it hard to identify with the narrator unless they are clearly defined ahead of time, so don’t make your narrator unidimensional
- In order for your reader’s experience to be immersive, you must have a strong sense of who your audience is and what they’ll want to gain from your story. Don’t write for a generic reader, do your research
If you’re looking for a new perspective to tell your fiction or create an engaging narrative, consider utilizing the second-person point of view. This is a sure way to make your reader feel as if they’re living through the same experience as your characters.
In the world of nonfiction, the second person narrative is a requirement for problem-solving books where readers expect to be addressed directly by the author.
In all cases, keep in mind that by using the second person point of view you’re engaging with living human beings with real feelings that can be hurt, so always approach your writing from a foundation of empathy.
If you’re working on a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.