Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tales of Caution - Second Person Narrative

A writer has three choices for grammatical person in telling a story: first, second or third person. Which “person” you choose determines which pronouns you use. In general terms a first person narrative is told to the reader by a narrator and uses “I”, “me” or “mine”. Second person uses “you” or “your.” Third person, the most common form for contemporary fiction, uses “he”, “she” or “it” and all the related permutations. For a detailed review of these narrative styles, see Grammar Girl’s excellent podcast on them.
When writing in second person. the writer often breaks the fourth wall, and talks directly to the reader. It works well for blog posts since I am talking directly to you. Writing second person fiction, on the other hand, is a risk. Modern readers aren’t use to it. When done well
in fiction – like in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - it’s a powerful tool, and forges an instant connection between the reader and the main character. Done poorly, this technique is a disaster.
Recently, we had a few second person stories come through the submitted to Flash Fiction Online. Second person narrative fiction stories are hard to sell. I don’t reject them just for being second person. I want to see another Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But I don’t want to filter the thoughts of a serial killer as if they were my own, which is what second person does. I don’t want to be told “you draw the knife over the milky white throat. Warm blood spurts from the severed vein and coats you.” Yuck.
If your main character is vile or does vile things, you might not want to tell his story in the second person. I read and loved Dan Wells’ I Am Not A Serial Killer series about a teenage boy, John Cleaver, who is trying not to become a serial killer. John does some bad things, and some very bad things for good reasons. I worried about him. I wanted John not to slide down that very slippery slope. Dan told John’s story in the third person. Similarly, the main character in the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay is a serial killer. The series is very popular, has a strong cult following, and has spawned a related television series. Dexter is written in first person.
But please don’t tell me a pedophile’s, murderer’s or rapist’s story in second person. I WILL reject it. But I might not reject the same work of fiction if the same story is told with some distance between me and the main character – in other words, third person or, even, first person. Good writing means knowing the “rules” and deciding whether the price you’ll pay for breaking them is worth the cost. Before you write fiction in second person, think about who your main character is and whether your reader wants to identify that closely with him. If not, you might better serve your story (and reader) by using a different voice.

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