Stuck in the Middle: Second Person and You
Ask ten people what they think about second person, and a good seven or eight of them will say that McInerney did it once, sure, and did it well, but outside of Bright Lights, Big City, second-person’s just a gimmick, is best left trapped in all the choose-your-own-adventure series from the eighties.
I can kind of understand this, too.
With stories, we have default settings: first- and third-person, with third really being the deviance from the norm, the deviance from first-person. First-person is our natural delivery method, isn’t it? If you’re telling somebody about the amusement park last week, you do it like: I was standing in line for like ten hours, and then this clown laughed at me and it had to be eight thousand degrees and on and on, I’ing your way into some perfect punchline of a conclusion. But you, if your name’s Jimmy, say, never go Jimmy was standing in line for ten hours, and then this clown laughed at him and it had to be like eight thousand degrees.
Note too with those examples that part of our natural mode for fiction, it’s past tense. This is because fiction is narrative, and narrative is selection, and selection is from pre-existing events, and events only pre-exist if they, you know, happened before.
So, if the natural mode or method for delivering fiction is first-person past-tense, then why ever shuffle across the room to third-, right? What people get from third—or, what they think’s unavailable via first-person, anyway (David Jauss says otherwise, and’s right)—is scope: instead of being ‘trapped’ in a room with their narrator and his or her limited field of view, they can now traipse across this world they’ve built or discovered, go to every last corner and look around, GRRM-style. And they can get away with it. And third-person has the added benefit of not being ‘locked’ into a single time, either. With first-person, you often have to come up with all these fake excuses and cool visual effects to vault back fifty years—look, is this a real and actual diary? can I read it out loud for a while? With third-person, you just drop a sub-heading, something nifty like “1964,” and you’re there, no excuse needed. I mean, you’ve got to have the reader’s trust by that sub-heading, and this guided stroll down memory lane has to actually matter, and you have to be able to sell “1964,” but those are all different issues.
As for why writers will adopt present tense, though—remember that bit from The Stand, where King indicts one of his characters as the type who writes horror stories in present tense? That’s exactly it: present tense is the easiest way to automatically up the tension, because, if you’re in a first-person job, then what present tense is whispering from verb-one is that this character may not survive this story. Which then escapes the story from having to mess with actual suspense techniques. And, really, this is a halfway graft from that specific type of tension built into the epistolary novel: these letters don’t necessarily mean these epistolarians died, but that’s a very distinct possibility, yes, wink-wink.
But using present tense in third-person, it tends to be less about tension and more about trying to lend the story or novel a fable kind of tone, about trying to inject it with some fairy tale feel. However, whether first- or third-person, the main pratfall associated with present tense, it’s time management: how do you get from morning to evening without the condensing that past-tense allows, and without section-breaking every three or four paragraphs? It can be a trick; beginning writers often end up watching their characters’ toes step into frame again and again instead of ever actually looking up the road, getting a bead on the horizon of the story.
All of which leads to the prejudice against second-person: it’s neither the ‘natural’ angle from which to tell a story nor is it the legit deviation. In addition, it’s weighed down with the moment-to-moment laboriousness of present-tense.
Still, sometimes you step into quite naturally, don’t you?
But then we come back out as quick as possible, usually using a paragraph break to indicate we’re out of the rhetorical, back in-character, move along, nothing to see here.
Why ever even get stuck in the middle in the first place, though? Why not stick with first- or third-, already proven tactics? Variation’s part of it, of course. Dropping into second person can break the rhythm, can act as a sustained form of emphasis—can pull the reader into the paragraph, let them look around from the subject’s point of view. People are easier to convince when they’ve been abducted like that. Especially if they’re not even aware of the abduction, quite.
So, the rule would seem to be: Second-person can work, yes, but in small, brief doses. But be wary of it. Don’t fall under its influence, lest you start thinking you’re Michael J. Fox. Or, more recently, Robert Coover (Noir).
And, before all that, even, the real reason most cite for selecting against second-person, it’s that it’s so repetitive, that it’s like being shot directly in the mind with a hundred pronouns a minute. With third-person, you can at least refer to your character by a name or two, and then vary from there with some he/she/it-fun. Not so with second-. That character can have a name, yes—many won’t—but it’s used almost exclusively by other characters, when referring to that ‘you.’ To do anything else is to fall out of second-person.
Of course, too, second-person is all icky with present tense. It’s just part of the mode; if you ever fall into past tense with your ‘you,’ then the reader’s defenses go up, some peanut-gallery part of their mind resisting, saying, “But, but—no, I didn’t just eat popcorn. I can usually tell when that’s happened because I’m thinking about young Mickey Rourke again for hours.”
However, what second-person opens up, tense-wise, it’s the future. More than that, a kind of indeterminate subjunctive future, which is this made-up place that, though so well-imagined, might just not be actually happening. Like this: “You’ll step into the room, and it might be green or it might be blue, but either way you’ve taken too much niacin by then and are starting to itch.”
The idea with that is that you, the reader, are going to apply whichever color feels right to you (as you choose-your-own-adventure, here), that you’re going to allow that wall to be maybe-this or maybe-that color. And you’re not even going to snag on the future tense hidden under the apostrophe in You’ll.
Second-person is, I submit, the fastest way into your reader’s head. Like McInerney was perhaps modeling: the readers are inhaling the story, snorting it right up into their brain.
Don’t just think second-person is something you can sustain for seventy- or eighty-thousand words without running into walls every few pages, though. And not the usual kind of walls you find in novels, of the what-comes-next variety, of the how-to-get-from-here-to-there variety, of the oh-no-you-mean-I-have-to-address-this-too? variety. No, over on the dark side of second-person, what you have to deal with time and again, it’s:
- finding some magic way to escape the built-in time management difficulties inherent to present-tense, and finding a way to do that that doesn’t lean the story overmuch on paraphrase;
- avoiding your pages looking like somebody ate all the You-blocks from fifty sets of magnetic poetry then threw them up here, and also here, and there as well;
- proving to your reader that this story needed to be told in this ‘unwieldy’ mode that’s requiring them to use muscles they didn’t exactly know they had;
- using the same kind of second person, or at least knowing the difference, and applying each intentionally, maybe even rhetorically.
To deal with these in order, now: present-tense with second-person. It works much more like third-person past-tense than first-person present-tense. Which is to say that, actually, it’s built for you to be Scotty on the Enterprise, and beam your character from this place to that place, from Thursday morning to Saturday night. And you don’t have to drop section breaks to indicate it all the time either, or use sub-headings. What you find is that hitting that hyperspace button in second-person, and zooming your character ahead a few hours or a few days, it creates these gaps in the story that engender trust in the storyteller. It’s that old narrative-is-selection thing: the reader sees that we skipped Friday because Friday was one boring day. And they thank us for that. And they come into Saturday evening with us, with the character, with a new faith, a new assurance that this is the place to be, now—it’s what we wish we could do as well: fast-forward over all the food poisoning and spam-mail. Meaning the reader doesn’t just accept this ‘you’ they’re riding inside, they kind of like that ride. That hyperspace trip into the heart of Saturday night, it wasn’t a cheat, but a rush, a ride, a slam down the roller-coaster.
But, granted, not all readers like roller coasters.
You’re not writing second-person for those readers.
As for how to avoid saying the dreaded ‘You’ with every sentence, that’s just, you know, writing. The diligent management of words, mixed with a little bit of a sense of prose rhythm. Best trick? Imagine your worst enemy is your first reader, and don’t give him or her opportunity to take you to task for anything. Another good exercise is to, when in third-, call your character by his or her full, boring name. Just for a draft or two. Of a whole novel. The name has to be absolutely boring for this to work, too. What you find is you’re writing around that name in ways that feel more and more natural, just because you neither want to see nor type that name anymore. It’s the same with the ‘You’ in second-person; your first draft may very well be littered up with the word. Go back in, now, massage it deeper, smudge it around on the page, vary your sentence structure. And, read your Mike Hammer, maybe. See all the clipped sentences? It’s because Spillane was often avoiding restating the subject over and over. The result is this cool, gritty noir kind of voice. But that’s not what you want to pay attention to. Instead, note how he’s writing first-person in an almost second-person fashion. It’s slick. Steal it, and run away fast.
That’s probably the main rule of writing, really. Aside from that you have to actually write.
The third obstacle with second-person, proving to your reader that this story needs to be in second-person, that second-person isn’t just a gimmick, that can be trickier. And this of course is just a smaller part of the much bigger “When to apply each point-of-view/tense combination?” If only there was some magic 8-ball under fairy-tale injunction never to lie or give vague answers. I’m not that 8-ball, sorry. Though of course it is odd that first- and third-person don’t have to ‘prove’ themselves as second- does, isn’t it? I think the best case to use second-person is when you want to break out of that ‘look at me/look at him’-mode the novel’s been in since its Lacanian toddlerhood, when they were all styled as these fake memoirs: there was something scandalous about watching and listening to Fanny Hill, yes? Whereas, if ‘you’ were planted deep in her head via second-person, then it’s a completely different story. One we the reader has to live, one we no longer have distance from. It ceases to be a vicarious experience. Better yet, it starts to get kind of cloying. Which isn’t to say only upbeat or funny stories are a good fit for second-person, of course. Just that, with a horror story, say, for it to work, the reader’s going to have to step into that protagonist’s shoes anyway. It’s not scary otherwise, as it’s not happening to ‘you,’ it’s just something happening over there, to someone else. Using second-person to accomplish that kind of substitution, then, it can—provided the rest of the story’s in place—feel like the writer’s pushing too hard, like the writer’s nervous we’re not going to engage. Like the writer’s desperate, instead of the reader.
This isn’t to say I haven’t done some second-person horror stories, of course. But it was very tricky. In one case, I had the ‘you’ be a kid, to try to re-instill some of that objectification that second-person was erasing, just to try to bring things back in balance, meet in the middle, and in the other case, the big reveal was that this isn’t second person, but a dramatic monologue—which is a trick you see often enough in second-person, but usually not in the first draft of second-person. That particular surprise narrator tends to show up only after you’ve cued in that this isn’t working as-is. Which is to say that that surprise narrator’s a kind of band-aid. Hopefully flesh-colored and missable, but not always.
Hopefully I haven’t said anywhere that second-person was easy.
The fourth obstacle, then: using the two kinds of second-person intentionally, with purpose. I never realized there were two until I got deep inside second-person with Not for Nothing, either. But it’s obvious: there’s descriptive, and there’s prescriptive. And they’re chained hard and fast to tense.
You walk through the front door, off the porch, into the road. It’s hot. There’s a bird up there making a racket in the sky. It’s not dead yet, but that’s just because you don’t have your shotgun. It gets a pass, then. For today.
You’ll walk outside, into the yard you maintain because you like a maintained yard, not because you’re turning into your father. Your cousin won’t be there anymore—she chose gophers over you again, like that’s a slight you’re not going to feel for two or three weeks.
The first is descriptive, it’s describing things as they happen, and the second is prescribing how things will happen. You can have nuance and depth in each, the same as you can have them in anything you write, but one’s ‘real,’ while the other’s a lot more subjunctive. Prescriptive is a lot like an invitation: come test this hypothetical out with me? I promise to make it worth your while. Descriptive second-person, though, it’s pretty much either first- or third-person in present tense, just with this oddly persistent pronoun.
Of the two varieties of second-person, descriptive is approximately five hundred times easier for the reader to track. Just because it doesn’t fill their RAM up as prescriptive does, with everything being subjunctive, with everything waiting to be applied with the magic key of your perfect ending. However, of the two, prescriptive has so much more potential for magic, for resonance, for surprise.
And, going off everything I’ve read in second person, and everything I’ve written in second-person, I’ve found that, while you can open a story up with the ‘invitation’ prescriptive provides, very soon after that you need to gear down to descriptive, just so the story can be concrete, can be ‘real.’ However, the same way that you drop a ‘had’ at the first of a paragraph, and so make it (‘had’) also be there in front of all the other verbs in that paragraph, burying them all in that same past, so does prescriptive second-person brace or blanket or umbrella descriptive second-person, if you’ve got a steady enough hand.
Or, forget ‘blanket.’ Go instead with ‘bookend.’ We all know about opening and closing frames around stories, don’t we? It’s the same with prescriptive second-person: if you open with it, then, after the reader’s forget this is all subjunctive, you come back around to it at the end, so as not to strand the story too much in the mundane world of the descriptive. And what’s beautiful about that is that then the reader has to make that choice you always want them to make: to invest themselves in this anyway. Because they’ve fallen in love with it. Because that’s them in there, man. Because they believe.
Second person, when it works, it leaves everything else behind. All you’ve got to do is hold on.
Stephen Graham Jones’s latest, Not For Nothing, a novel written in second person, is out now from Dzanc.