“This is a hell of a story, but I’m not sure this is the way to tell it.”
A number of years ago, I submitted a story titled “Ghost in the Graveyard” to an anthology called Gothic Ghosts, edited by horror legend Charles L. Grant. I knew Charlie a little from the Genie boards (a forerunner of today’s social media), but not so well that I felt comfortable writing him and asking him to clarify his comment. I didn’t really need him to explain, though. I knew what he was reacting to: the story was written in second person. For some people, reading a story in second person is an acquired taste. while others would rather gargle with battery acid than subject themselves to second person.
I can’t remember if “Ghost in the Graveyard” was the first time I wrote in second person, but a quick glance at my bibliography shows that it was the first such story I had published. It appeared in All Hallows in June 2000. Since then I’ve written around twenty more second-person stories, which is about a seventh of all the short fiction I’ve had published. Not a huge proportion of my overall output, perhaps, but enough to form a collection of its own. As the years go by, I seem to be writing in second person more often, and one of my most recent second-person stories, “How to be a Horror Writer,” has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.
If readers have been exposed to second-person fiction at all, it’s most likely through Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. But unless they read literary fiction or were an English major in college, they probably haven’t encountered it anywhere else. Which is a shame, because second person can achieve effects that first and third person can’t. Here are some things to consider when writing in second person.
· Use present tense with second person. Past tense – “You were eating an apple and you thought it was delicious” – doesn’t work well with second-person stories. Using you already keeps the reader at a distance from the story (which I’ll talk about later), so using past tense would push them away even farther. Present tense works better for second-person stories. Present tense is weird in fiction. You would think that present tense would indicate to readers that the events they’re reading about are happening right now, this very instant, creating a sense of immediacy and urgency. But instead present-tense narratives come across as passive and lacking in energy. This is one of the reasons literary writers often favor present tense. They want to avoid any hint of melodrama in their work, want it to appeal to the intellect rather than emotions. The passive nature of present tense can intensify the distancing effect of passive voice.
· Second person creates cognitive dissonance in the reader. You’re constantly telling the reader that he or she is doing something when they damn well know they’re not. It’s almost as if their subconscious is always reminding them that You are not this person and you are not doing this thing, you are not this person and you are not doing this thing. This is one of the main reasons readers have trouble with present-tense stories, I think. But it’s also one of the great strengths of second person. Instead of inviting readers to relax and fall into the story, second person makes them wrestle with it mentally. Reading is always an interactive experience for readers, but second person creates a different sort of interaction. This effect works well for horror and weird fiction. Readers feel uncertain, unsure what to expect. They aren’t safe. Safe fiction is comfort food for the mind, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that. But unsafe fiction can affect readers far more deeply and leave a lasting impression.
· Second person creates a distancing effect. It puts the reader in the position of being an observer rather than a participant in the story. It keeps them at arm’s length, keeps them off balance. This isn’t the normal way a story is told (as far as they’re concerned), so they aren’t quite sure what’s going to happen. They aren’t sure of the “rules.” As I said earlier, they aren’t safe. And good horror fiction – any fiction that matters – should never be safe.
· Second person creates a numbing effect, and it has a flat, steady pace. If a character is experiencing something outside of what they believe to be the norm, something that is unreal or nightmarish, second person can create the same sort of detached numbness people experience when they’re dreaming. Second person allows readers to experience the same dreamlike detachment that the viewpoint character in a story experiences. The flat pace works well to create a sense of creeping menace, of a slow, inexorable progression toward whatever awfulness awaits at the end.
· Second person tends to work better at short lengths rather than long ones. Jay McInerney’s famous second-person novel Bright Lights, Big City is a slim book, running under 50,000 words. I think the effects of second person – the distancing, the observer effect, the numbing, the flat, steady pace – can wear on most readers after a time. The effect can’t be sustained past a certain point. Exactly where that point is depends on the individual reader, but in general, I’d say that second person works best at short story or novella length.
· Second person appeals more to readers of literary fiction than readers of commercial fiction. This is another reason narratives written in second-person are rare. Commercial fiction doesn’t necessarily mean hackwork. I write a great deal of commercial fiction, usually for the media tie-in novels that I do, and I strive to make these novels just as good as anything else I write. But commercial fiction is intended to appeal to the widest audience possible. To do this, it needs to be relatable and readable. It needs to welcome readers to the story and its characters, not keep them outside the story, as second person does. Since Choose Your Own Adventure-type stories directly address the reader at each decision point – If you want to open the door, turn to page 37. If you want to leave the door closed, turn to page 113 – second person works well. This is the only regular use of second person in commercial fiction that I’m aware of, though. Second person is more of a literary technique than an entertainment-focused technique.
Second person can broaden a reader’s perspective on what fiction is and what it can do. It’s always good for readers to encounter narrative styles they may be unfamiliar with. The more varied reading experiences they have, the better readers they become overall. Stronger readers are more likely to expand their reading tastes and try new types of stories, which in turn makes them even better readers, further enriching their lives. Second person can be one more tool to help readers gain a deeper appreciation of literature, making writers better ambassadors for our art form.
How do I decide when to use second person?
1. When I want to create any of the previously mentioned effects.
2. Instinct. Sometimes a story feels as if it should be written in second person. Why, I don’t know. When I feel this, I don’t question it. I just go with it.
3. When I’m not sure how to find my way into a story, I play around with different techniques. My short stories tend to be less plotted out than my novels, and they often focus on very abstract or imagistic ideas. This means that I’m not always certain how and where to begin a story. I’ll draft different beginnings, using different techniques and voices, and whichever turns out to be the key to unlock the story for me, that’s the one I use. Sometimes second person is that key.
4. What I’m writing is very personal. I mentioned Bright Lights, Big City earlier. McInerney’s novel is based on his experiences as a young man living and working in New York City during the 1980’s: lots of partying, lots of coke, lots of sex. He had trouble writing the book until he tried second person. I believe using second person created the distancing effect he needed in order to write about his experiences, even in a fictionalized form. It works the same for me. When I’m writing a story that’s drawn very closely from my own experience, so much so that it could almost be a personal essay if I wrote it differently, second person gives me the distance I need in order to write about that experience. It helps me be a more detached observer of my own life, which allows me to work more effectively with my experiences as words and ideas on the page.
5. When I’m having trouble getting started on a story, I often go straight to second person without trying different techniques. Writing stories in second person is as natural to me as breathing. The words pour out of me like water when I use second person. I’m not sure why. Maybe there’s a part of me that’s always a detached observer of my own life. (I wouldn’t be surprised if most artists are like this.) Writing in second person allows me to tap into that observer part of me. I serve as a mentor for the Horror Writers Association, and a while back I was mentoring a gentleman who was an award-winning playwright and teacher of playwrighting. He wanted to learn to write fiction more effectively, but when I read his stories, I could see that he was writing them as if they were plays, just with more words – description, narration, etc. – surrounding the dialogue. I knew that he was writing stories from the same perspective as he was writing plays: from the perspective of someone sitting in the audience and watching. I wanted to show him that he needed to write with a close attachment to one character’s viewpoint, as if he were one of the actors on stage experiencing the events of the play as they progressed. I wasn’t sure how to explain this, so I sat down to write a story, paying attention to how I focused my awareness when I wrote, hoping that I’d come up with the right concepts and vocabulary to communicate to my mentee the difference between writing from an audience member’s perspective and writing from an individual character’s perspective. I wrote a second-person story, which already has a detached observer’s point of view embedded in the technique. It worked. I was able to show my mentee the difference between the two ways of approaching writing. And the story I wrote just as a teaching tool? It was “How to be a Horror Writer,” the story that was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award.
If you’ve never tried to write fiction in second person, read some examples then give it a shot. You might find it an interesting and rewarding, challenge. You’ll add another technique to your writer’s toolkit, and who knows? You might discover a new voice to speak with.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
If you’d like to check out an example of my second-person fiction, you can read one of my stories for free on my website. “Portrait of a Horror Writer” was originally published in Cemetery Dance 48: http://timwaggoner.com/portraitof.htm
If you’d like to read “How to be a Horror Writer,” you can find it in Vastarien Volume 1, Issue 2: https://www.amazon.com/Vastarien-Vol-1-Issue-2/dp/0692141456/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1556892690&sr=8-3
The Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented at Readercon on July 14th. Wish me luck!