What are you looking at?
It’s rare, but when used effectively second-person narration can knock the reader’s socks off. Anybody who read Fighting Fantasy books when they were younger will know the second-person narrative style intimately: ‘You enter the cavern and see a werewolf dead ahead. What will you do?’ This viewpoint is something of an outsider in narrative theory, but when used well it can have a profound effect on your reader. It is ‘you’ at the centre of things, ‘you’ who is now implicated in the story, for better or for worse. Of course, the second person can also be used to express intimacy and companionship, as this book hopefully demonstrates!
Self-help books aside, you need a good reason to use second-person narrative style in your work. Think about what you are trying to achieve – do you want the reader to feel like a character? Do you want to boss them around, to force them into a certain frame of thought? Do you want to convey the sense of a shared, intimate experience? Or do you want to make the reader complicit in whatever is going on in the text? One striking novel that uses the second person for precisely this last effect is Iain Banks’ Complicity. Several of the chapters involve ‘you’ as the protagonist. Although it’s not immediately clear what you are doing, you soon realise that ‘you’ are a serial killer, and you’re forced to witness – commit, even – several horrific murders from a very intimate, and unsettling, viewpoint.
This feels like you’re behind the eyes of a killer. Whereas with a more conventional form of narrative you could distance yourself from the events, here you literally are complicit with them. Like it or not, you become the character and have to sit with a puppet-like empathy as you maraud your way through your victims. On a less disturbing level, the second person works to make reading the text as strange an experience as possible. People aren’t generally used to being addressed in a work of fiction. By doing so, you are creating an intimate bond with each reader, allowing them to take the front seat in your imaginary world. Used well, and your work will really stand out from the crowd. Used without good reason, though, or written sloppily and all it will do is confuse and alienate people.
Writing an entire text in the second person is an ambitious, and some might say foolhardy, undertaking, but there’s nothing to stop you addressing the reader every now and again. Back in the good old days when the novel was a relatively new phenomenon, narrators often made conversational asides to the reader. And whilst not as common today, the narrator can still throw in an occasional comment or two directed at ‘you’, just to make sure you’re still awake.
If you’re writing in a first-person viewpoint, especially one confessional in tone, this seems perfectly normal – just look at D. B. C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little. If you’re writing with a third-person narrator, however, addressing your readers explicitly may direct their attention away from the events of the text and towards its construction. All of a sudden, this disembodied, neutral observer has developed an opinion, and is talking to you like you’re its best friend.
If you want an example of how second-person narration is used to excellent effect, read Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Here, the narrator begins the tale by instructing you, the reader, to lie down, relax with the book, and tell your friends not to interrupt your reading – almost like an instruction manual for enjoying the book. It alerts you to the novel’s artifice, but it also creates a welcome sense of intimacy between the narrator and the reader.