The Second Person

The vast majority of mainstream literature is written from one of two main points of view.

  • A first-person narrative is where the narrator talks from their own perspective; for example, ‘I saw the fight,’ or, ‘He hit me first.’
  • A third-person narrative describes what other characters are doing; for example, ‘Greg saw the fight,’ or, ‘Joey hit Greg first.’

Within these points of view, there are variations, and some writers even use a combination of the two within the same work.

But what is a second-person narrative? Quite simply, it’s where an author uses you rather than I, he, she, or they. Depending on the context, the second person can be used with different intents. The author could be:

  • addressing the reader directly. This is common in choose-your-own-adventure stories, where the reader is asked to select from different potential outcomes.
  • treating the reader as a character by describing how they look or what action they’re taking. A few novels are written in this way.
  • writing an open letter or similar to a third party, but the reader is privy to that letter. This is common in poetry and song.

It’s a personal opinion, but I find the second of those three intents to be the most jarring.

An author might write, for example, ‘You’re a tourist. You’re wearing a summer dress and sipping coffee in a bistro on an autumn evening.’ I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief to such an extent that I can inhabit that character.

On the other hand, if the author had described a third party so richly, I would find it easy to inhabit that character’s world. I don’t think twice about the other intents when I encounter them.

Here’s a short story by Paula Morris written in the second person. Have a read and decide for yourself whether it works or not.

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Ellipsis

This week, I’ve had a conglomeration of events, most of which weren’t related to writing. Unfortunately, these have left me no time to construct a full entry, but nor do I want to throw together a substandard post.

Instead, I’m going to encourage you to make use of the time you would have spent reading this entry. Perhaps edit a poem, perhaps plan your diary for the week, perhaps send that e-mail you’ve been drafting.

Whatever you do, make it productive, and I’ll catch you back here next week.

Share in the Community

On Thursday, I took part in the Echo event at Dundee Contemporary Arts. This is an open call for artists and writers to respond creatively to the current exhibition; this season it’s Kate V Robertson and Andrew Lacon.

Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, UK
Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been taking part for roughly three years and each one is different in character, in mood and in style. Still, the last time was particularly unusual as there were no visual artists, only poetry and storytelling. The DCA collated some of the pieces into a leaflet to be given to the audience. The pieces are performed in the gallery itself, often in front of the artwork that inspired it.

Echo is not a paid gig. The participants volunteer their own time and the DCA benefits from increased visitors. On the face of it, this sounds like a one-sided deal in favour of the gallery, but I like doing it because I believe having a deadline keeps my skills sharp.

I’ve also come to realise that when I write a piece, I like to know my words will be seen by someone.

When I was completing my MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree, one of the tutors wanted us to complete a daily routine called five-finger exercises, where you take an existing paragraph and rewrite it in five different prescribed ways. While I understand this might be useful for beginners or creatively blocked writers, I found I was generating all that material for no useful purpose.

With Echo, I find I still have that freedom of experimentation, yet the fact it’ll be heard helps me to raise my standard as high as I can. I do occasionally write just for myself, but that’s only by exception.

I was advised that the next DCA exhibition will be ‘bonkers’, so I look forward to seeing what arises from that.

 

Edditing Other Peoples Piece’s

A couple of friends have recently asked me to look over pieces they’ve written. At one time, it would have been difficult for me to do this as I didn’t like to give negative feedback. Having received honest critiques of my own work, I now feel comfortable about identifying areas of improvement in others’ work and making suggestions for improvement.

Firstly, I received an 11-line poem. Among other suggestions: I could see that each line began with a capital letter even in run-on sentences, which is unconventional in modern poetry; I swapped around a couple of clauses to create a stronger image; and I broke up the poem into three stanzas instead of one. These suggestions are partly personal preferences, but they’re informed by reading a lot of poetry and considering what works well and not so well.

Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel hard job.
Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel difficult job.

The other piece I looked over was an application for a university course, and I had help from a friend who has experience in this field. In this instance, I didn’t know all the specialist terminology or concepts, but there were aspects common to most writing styles that I could point out: using shorter paragraphs to create more negative space, which is easier on the eye; thoroughly checking spelling and grammar, for which I suggested reading the piece out loud while alone; and moving a certain project nearer the top of the application as it stood out among the others.

Ultimately, the writer has the final call on how to present their own piece. As such, I made it clear that the corrections were merely suggestions.

There is always a risk that the other party will react badly or become disheartened, particularly if you don’t know each other very well. It’s impossible to police another person’s feelings, but there are ways to make an unfavourable outcome feel less harsh. A classic is the Bad News Sandwich: a positive greeting, the negative result, a positive next step. Here’s a rejection e-mail I received last year:

Thank you for entering the August 50 Word Fiction Competition.

Unfortunately, your story was not selected as the winner this month. It was another very busy month and very difficult decision for our judges.

If you’d like to enter again, we’d love to see your words.

So when I close that message, I don’t think What an arrogant bunch, I think, I’ll up my game for September.