The Magic of Writing in Second Person
You probably know what second person voice sounds like. At least, in theory. If you’re writing a story in first person, you might say something like “I sipped my morning latte.” Change that to third person voice, and instead you write, “He sipped his morning latte.” By extension, writing in second person changes the sentence to, “You sipped your morning latte.” It’s not a very common form of writing. Most of us only use it when writing informal nonfiction — like this blog post.
However, as any childhood fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series will tell you, there’s a certain magic in reading fiction written in second person voice. It’s an invitation to the reader: Let’s play pretend…
Stories that place the reader in the role of the main character can intensify reader engagement, drawing your audience deeper into the story and blurring the lines between fiction and reality. They give readers a feeling of control, let them feel like they’re participating in story events. In the case of a “choose your own adventure” type tale, the reader influences the story’s outcome.
But, you say, I don’t really want to write a choose-your-own-adventure book.
Don’t stop reading!
Opportunities abound for using this tool to engage and connect with your readers. That’s because modern entertainment has become more and more interactive. A decade ago, second person voice used outside of a choose-your-own-adventure book would have been considered an artistic statement at best and, at worst, simply confusing.
Today’s audiences recognize the invitation posed by a second-person narrative–the author’s invitation to enter the story and play. They’re ready to play along!
This post is the first in a 3-part series. In Part 1 (this post), we’ll take a look at the three most common ways writer use second-person voice. More importantly, we’ll look at how these three different approaches affect your readers’ ability to suspend disbelief and enter into your story world.
Three Most Common Types of Second-Person Writing
When I started looking for examples of second-person voice, I found that they could be divided into three categories. I’ve dubbed them
- The Normal
- The Classic CYOA (Choose-Your-Own-Adventure)
- The Invitation
It’s worth dividing them this way because readers relate to these three types in very different ways. Read on to see what I mean….
1. The Normal Second-Person Narrative
Believe it or not, there are numerous examples of novels, novel sections, and short stories written entirely in second person voice. For instance, John Scalzi uses second person voice to put you, the reader, into the shoes of one of the story’s characters in the aptly named “Coda II: Second Person” section of Redshirts.
You’ve heard it said that people who have been in horrific accidents don’t usually remember the accident — the accident knocks their short-term memory right out of them — but you remember your accident well enough. You remember the rain making the roads slick, and you reining yourself in because of it. You remember the BMW running the red and seeing the driver on his cell phone, yelling, and you knew he wasn’t yelling because of you because he never looked in your direction and didn’t see your motorcycle until it crushed itself into his front fender.”
—Coda II: Second Person, Redshirts, by John Scalzi.
Notice how this narrator differs from the choose-your-own-adventure main character. He’s a fully developed character, complete with memories and backstory–which could make it more difficult for the reader to suspend disbelief and put himself or herself in this character’s shoes. It works because the reader is already invested in the story when they get to this point in the book.
It also works, frankly, because the entire book is a little wacky in terms of blurring the lines between fiction and reality…but that’s another issue entirely!
Does second-person voice deepen connection with your reader in a traditional novel or short story? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a tool that can create a unique reader experience!
2. The Classic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure
You hesitate for just a moment. The leader does not wait but fires a gas-loaded pen in your face. You choke on the small cloud of dense gas, feel your senses numbing, and fall to the earth.
The three men load you roughly into the helicopter and zoom off.
When you come to, your head feels heavy, your eyes sting, and you are dizzy.
If you pretend to still be unconscious hoping that you can figure out some plan for dealing with these people, turn to page 74.
If you decide to deal with the situation immediately and try to strike some bargain, turn to page 76.”
–Jewels of Nabooti, page 54
In an actual choose-your-own-adventure story, you can follow a variety of different narrative trails to reach a variety of different endings. Jeff Atwood shares this flowchart of all of the possible endings for the first Choose Your Own Adventure book, Cave of Time:
Not all possible endings are happy. Jeff points out, “Of the 39 possible outcomes in the book, only 11 are positive. More than two-thirds of the outcomes either result in the player’s death, or being trapped somewhere in time, leading out an alternate life.”
You might wonder why a children’s book would dish out so much gloom and doom. I can tell you from experience, though–reaching an ending like this one only compelled me to turn back to the beginning and read the book again with even greater urgency:
Then it happens! The floor falls away under you, and you spin dizzily down and down, coming to a nasty crash on a sodden, damp earthen floor. It is pitch black. There are no exits; there is no food, no water. You are doomed.
–Jewels of Nabooti, page 67
Modern-day choose-your-own-adventure stories (yes, they’re still being published!) come in an array of different styles and genres. Choice of Games was founded in 2009 and has been successfully publishing “text-based interactive novels for mobile platforms and the web, combining the delicious freedom of the 1980s’ choose-a-path gamebooks with the depth and scope of a bestselling novel” ever since. They publish everything from romance to mecha sci-fi to high fantasy. (And many of their titles are free, so go check them out!)
3. The Invitation to Join–Come Play in the Story World…
Second-person voice isn’t just an artistic statement or storytelling gimmick. It’s a way to bring the story world to life for your readers.
Second-person narratives let you invite readers to come play in your story world.
It’s a way to convert readers into fans.
The young adult series, The Amanda Project, did a fabulous job of building a community of readers through a website that one of the characters creates at the end of the first book. The website is dedicated to solving the story problem–finding a missing high school freshman named Amanda–by soliciting readers to share their stories about Amanda. Story characters (eg, Cornelia and Callie, below) participated in the forums (which, sadly, are no longer active). Readers adopted imagined roles as Amanda’s friends and acquaintances and helped to solve the ongoing mystery.
Scholastic Publishing encourages readers to enter the 39 Clues book story world on the 39 Clues website. Readers can join the characters’ around-the-world hunt for clues. They can share information and ask questions on the website’s moderated message board. The website also provides additional story world content, games, and puzzles, all of which let the reader imagine themselves as part of the larger story.
Invitation Types in Second-Person Writing
I know, I know–that’s a LOT of info.
The point is that there are different types of second-person writing, and that each requires the reader to fill in more or less information about the main character–the “you” in the story. As a result, each type of second-person writing poses a different invitation to the reader’s imagination.
This video sums it up in a more visual way, for those of you who process images better than words. You might want to watch full-screen, to make sure the writing is readable.
Knowing the different types of second-person writing can help you choose the best one to help bring your story world to life.
Make sure to come back next week for the follow-up “Idea Box” post–a collection of ideas for how fiction writers can use this powerful tool to deepen reader engagement!
PS–The video is a work-in-progress, as I experiment with different ways to think about (and explain!) the different approaches to second-person writing. If you have any comments, criticisms, or suggestions, I’d love to hear them! Please share in the comments