Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Second Person Narrative

I sat down at my old cast iron box of a manual typewriter, and I began writing a story:

"Aren't you dumb? Here it is past noon and you're still lying abed. Not that you can see the light, huddled here in the southwest corner of the basement on your bed with those blankets over the windows to block out every ray of light.

"Block out every ray of light: that's the important thing now. It's been the important thing for a long time."

Typing, typing, typing... the story grew and unfolded, unremitting and disparaging, addressed directly to the protagonist in the second person. It was entitled "Yellowstripes," and it simply rolled off my fingers onto the keyboard:

"...And your memory slips back to last fall, to the wind and the leaves and to how you met her and to how you became a yellowstripes... Aren't you dumb?"

More than twenty years ago, I sat down at my typewriter, and wrote a short story entirely in the second person. You discover it's not easy to write in the second person; it's something of a tour de force. It's certainly not anything they ever taught us in English class, where we learned about first person narrative and third person narrative. Second person narrative was passed over in silence; it was not so much as mentioned, not even to say that it can't or shouldn't be done.

Turns out it is done, once in a while. Though only very rarely.

I'm sure I'd read a few stories in the second person before I wrote that short story of mine. Chan Davis's science fiction story "Hexamnion" springs to mind. But they didn't make much of an impression on me. Fleeting oddities often don't.

Most stories you read are in the third person. The protagonist is referred to as "he," "she," "they." In English class, they may have taught you that there are third person stories, and then there are third person stories: back in Victorian times, the author could present a third person narrative from an omniscient perspective, taking you inside the mind of any and all of the characters; whereas nowadays, the author is expected to grant you that kind of access to the mind of only one of the characters, or at least only one character per story thread.

First person narrative is easier to write, especially for the beginning writer. "I did this, I did that, then I said..." But for that very reason, the English teachers were prone to warn us away from it, more or less as an older and more severe generation once admonished us wiseacres: "Laugh before seven, cry before eleven."

Second person stories are, like I said, almost unheard of. But in the writing of them, you learn something about how they tick. Second person narrative creates a very powerful and intense emotional connection for the reader. The author can grab the reader and shake him around violently by the metaphorical shirt collar. And at the very same time, second person holds the reader at a strange distance.

But in second person it's very difficult to maintain a consistent tone for any length of time, even over the length of a short story. There's a tension that builds up, and the tone of the story keeps wanting to veer off into the ditch, like a vehicle propelled by an overwound mainspring.

I also find (and maybe this is just me) that in a second person story, I can build a mood, and pile detail upon detail, without ever having to clarify or explain just exactly what's going on, or why. In that sense, it's something like writing down a dream. I'm not sure how much of that, though, is inherent in second person, and how much of it is just me as a writer.

My interest in second person narrative was piqued again recently when I stumbled across a site called in a second, which is largely a collection of Harry Potter fan fiction(!) all written in the second person. The site also has some interesting interviews with the authors.

So tell me, what is it about second person narrative that makes it so difficult or so rare or so just plain cutting-against-the-grain...?

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1 Comments:

Blogger Bryan said...

Cool. As I do chores around the house I like to listen to old radio dramas like "Suspense" and "Escape". I recall a fair number of them being presented in the second person.

I suppose it was done for exactly the dramatic reasons you describe. It also allows for the narrative to flow without the clunky audio overhead of first- or third- person exposition. And, in the case of radio, keeping everything inside the character's head certainly kept things simple.

Monday, December 06, 2004 10:51:00 PM  

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