2nd Person Point of View by Beth Webb Hart

Nearly every work of fiction is told in either the 1st person (“I”)  or the 3rd person (“he, she”) point of view.  There are various benefits and drawbacks of each and 3rd person has several choices within itself:  3rd person limited (essentially the same as 1st person as you are only in one person’s head), 3rd person omniscient (the God eye who can be every where, in everyone’s mind and jump in time and space) and 3rd person effaced (the camera who is not in anyone’s head.)

There is another point of view, a more experimental one, that is rarely used, but can be very effective in pulling the reader into a story or personal essay.  It’s called 2nd person (“you”) and functions much like an instruction manual.  In 2nd person the author is addressing the reader, and insisting that the reader become a part of the story.

While it is unusual, it can be fun to experiment with and it can provide a freshness and a new sense of connection (as well as complexity) to the story for the reader.  Also, it can provide humor in the midst of a dramatic scene.

Example from the “How to Become a Writer” essay by Lorrie Moore:

First, you should try to be something, anything else.  A moviestar/astronaut.  A movie star/missionary.  A movie star/kindergarten teacher.  President of the World.  Fail miserably.  It is best if you fail at an early age – say fourteen.  Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sentences about thwarted desire.  It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain.  Count the syllables.  Show it to your mom.

Example I wrote this week for fun:

“How to Pack a Five-year-old’s Lunch”

Unzip the smooth, black Darth Vader lunch box.  Wipe out the crumbs from last week.  Wash a handful of grapes, dry them with a paper towel and put them in a Ziploc bag.  Next, spread mayonnaise on the bagel and then put some sliced ham, being sure to trim off the hard edges which he says are chewy.  Add a bottle of water, some chopped tomatoes and a chocolate chip cookie.  Lastly, fold a napkin and draw a smiley face on it.  Wonder if he will notice your drawing, this little boy who you used to rock to sleep in the chair next to his crib.  Smile at him as he goes bolting by with his light saber aglow before turning around to make note of your presence.  Walk over and give him a hug.  Feel how he is thinning through the torso, notice that he is as tall as the kitchen counter now.  Kiss the still full part of his cheek and tickle him beneath the chin.  As he giggles, know that the baby isn’t gone just yet.

(For an extensive example, try the short story “How to Talk to a Hunter” by Pam Houston.)

Point of View Exercise:

Using 2nd person, create a how-to scene for something you can do well (clean a fish, change a flat tire, restring a violin, make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, feed a pet). Describe the process so that someone else could complete the task based on your directions. As you describe the seemingly mundane task, slowly reveal some tension or emotion connected to the task.

(This can be fictional, but start with something you know how to do and then create drama around it.  The distance 2nd person provides should make the drama all the more effective.)

Beth Webb Hart’s new novel, MOON OVER EDISTO, hits shelves Feb. 12th!  To learn more about the $100 visa gift card presale promotion as well as the story click here

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  1. Lisa Wingate says

    Girl, you’re brining back my days as a Technical Writer… lots of second person point of view there! It’s a great study for any writer. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Shellie says

    I learn so much from y’all! SBV is like a continuing education course for me. Thank you, BW! Amd I LOVED the sweet piece about the baby in the boy! Precious…

  3. Rachel Hauck says

    Ah, Lisa, I cut all pov when I was a tech writer. LOL. Okay, maybe I did use second person. Can’t remember now!

    BW, I love this. Siri Mitchell did an omniscient/second person POV in her book “A Heart Most Worthy” and I loved it. Thought it worked really well.

    Love the idea of writing a scene in second person just to see what is under the layers, unseen!

    Great post.


  4. says

    Thanks, Belles! Whenever I use 2nd person, I am always surprised in some way. Give it a try sometime if you haven’t already or if you’re stuck in a scene. (2nd person poems are neat too.) And Rachel, I’ll look forward to checking out Siri’s book.


  5. says

    I”m late to the party as usual…but LIsa and I were chatting about POV recently, too. I have always been drawn to first person. It’s interesting to hear what different readers prefer, and how different writers prefer one to another. Thanks for the writing class, BW.

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