The Problem With YOU.
Well, guess I should start the first article of the year with Happy New Year! Although, let’s be fair, that mood has long passed. Still, I hope so far 2022 has boded rather more positively than the last couple of years.
January and February usually signify to me a slowing down period. A time to refocus, get things done before spring pops up and everybody’s out and about again, and some semblance of a social life creeps back to the forefront. The excitement of Christmas and the sense of things coming to a perceived end has passed and new projects and endeavours begin. And this year that has been mostly true. I have embarked on a new project in collaboration with a colleague which has kept me occupied. Thing is, although I’ve known this project was looming for quite a while, January for me is normally a time where I get to focus on my own writing – usually revisiting my NaNoWriMo project from last year. This year, however, I’m working on a new teaching endeavour. One I’m hugely excited about. One that’s filling me with guilt that I’m not working on my own fiction right now. (Also not helped by an English pub opening up in our quiet village. But – Yay! – a pub!) Anyway, I’ll share more about that later in the year.
In my last post of 2021, I said I would blog over Christmas about using second person POV. I failed. I took a week off after ‘the big day’, watched Netflix with the kids, went to the Christmas market and took them ice skating in the town square. I totally ignored anything to do with work. And my golly did I feel better for it! During a pandemic, where getting away is just another headache, another task, it’s easy to forget that you can take downtime at home, too. It was great. So, late, but here:
The Troubles With Writing in Second Person POV and What You Can Do About It.
When I was just a mere newbie writer and had no editing experience to speak of, and back when I sought all the information I could on how to hone craft, it was a common opinion that you simply DO NOT write in second person POV. No one really went into detail about why. It was one of those typical urban writer myths: you just don’t; publishers don’t like it.
That was back when I was only practising with short stories, but my primary intention was to write novels. Since then, I fell into the short form and into editing work both by happenstance rather than by design (happy happenstance – I love what I do). Although writing techniques and styles of execution often apply to any form of prose fiction, some become more prevalent than others, depending on form.
It’s only since I began working at Flash Fiction Online that second person POV really came into focus in my writing and editing life. Although FFO is not the first short fiction magazine I’ve worked for, it’s the first one that focuses solely on this particularly short form. And second person POV features in our submissions pile way more often than I’ve ever experienced before. I do not know why this is. Are writers practising with different narrative POVs as a writing exercise and sending us the results? Is there some trend I am unaware of which seeks to break the old adages and strike up the new? Or is it, maybe, an attempt at being more literary or poetic, in the belief that contemporary literary greats have employed this narrative mode, and so it must be okay? I can’t answer these questions, but what I can answer are the varying forms of ‘you’ that I experience from the stories I read in our submissions queue.
One thing to understand with the ‘you’ form of narrative mode is that, unlike ‘I’ or ‘s/he’, it does not form a neutral voice for the story. Sometimes authors are aware of this, but most often they are not. Quite obliviously, they apply an emotional slant on the story that they never intended. Many times, I feel as if I’m being persecuted for something in the narrative while I read. Sometimes I feel that the story’s narrator is angry at me. Sometimes I feel 'you' is everywhere, to the point I almost can’t see the rest of the words.
So, let’s just break that down
This is where the narration is talking to a perceived audience, in the sense of: I suppose you’d like to know how Suzie got stuck down the well. Let’s go get a coffee and I’ll tell you all about it.
The thing is, too often, ‘you’ never features in the story, makes no intrinsic contribution to it, and I’m left wondering who the narrator is talking to and why this narrative mode has been employed when ‘s/he’ would have done the job just as - more! - effectively. This is particularly important when invisible ‘you’ is employed with…
When you get to hearing that story and you just can’t shake the feeling that you’re going to hate it, but you’re compelled to listen, anyway. And when you do, you curl up inside like you’re some kind of shell creature, hiding yourself from all those predators out there, waiting to eat you.
When the pronoun features this often, it’s all I can see (and that’s just an example I ran off the top of my head; actual stories that suffer from this tend to employ the pronoun and its derivatives way more frequently, and for up to 1000 words). The other details fade into the background as the ‘you, yourself and you’re’ jump out at me each time, like some kind of acrobatic flea circus. ‘You’ is not a discreet pronoun.
Tip: When using ‘you’, employ the pronoun as infrequently as possible. And if you are using a perceived audience, justify why the story must be executed that way – what do they contribute to the actual story?
This one is probably the most common, the most difficult to explain, and the one that is most used without realising the effect it has. This is the form that often appears when we are talking to ourselves in our own heads. It’s the instance where, technically, ‘one’ should be used as a pronoun, but it sounds too formal and so ‘you’ makes a better alternative. Or does it?
You wouldn’t think it would matter, would you? (One wouldn’t think it matters, would one?)
You’d think they would get the name right! (One would think they would use the right name)
How do you cook a pie, anyway? (How does one cook a pie, anyway?)
And why would it matter?
They couldn’t even get the name right!
In what way is this pie cooked/ How to go about cooking this pie?
You might wonder why this last one matters so much. Aside from the reasons given with Invisible You and Suffocating You, this is where we get into the unintentional emotions or tones of the piece while using this POV.
Do you want me to feel like you’re accusing me of something? You come along, write this story and you expect me to just like it, no questions asked? You took out your pen with no consideration of how your words make me feel. You should go back and read what you wrote, work out if you really wanted to create that effect or if you’re mistaken. Maybe you should tone it down a bit.
Feels a little aggressive, no? Sometimes this can be deliberate – the narrator is referring to the villain of the piece or deliberately expressing the narrator’s frustrations. But a lot of the time, it’s unintentional. The writer believes they are employing the Impersonal You, because that’s how it sounded in their head when they wrote it, not realising that for the person – audience – on the other side, without that context of narrative voice, it sounds like the narrator is having a pop at them.
In a much subtler (and possibly more unsettling!) way, that accusatory tone can be pernicious without being quite as in your face as my made-up example.
The best way I can explain an instance of Accusatory You working to great effect is to refer to the Netflix TV series YOU. It uses this narrative mode in a way that maybe Dexter attempted, though I’m not sure if that series quite reached the depths of Joe’s disturbed logic. Both embody the psyche of a sociopath into the voice, but in You it constantly pushes the narrative (and by proxy persuades the viewer) to put the blame on the current ‘you’ in each series. ‘You’ being whichever of his unfortunate victims has befallen to his latest obsessive gaze.
This falls in line with how sociopaths and psychopaths work - it’s never their fault, the consequence of their abusive behaviour is always because of ‘you’, the object of their abuse, and never themselves. And even though it goes against every moral fibre in your being, there’s a little part of you (as in ‘you’, the viewer) that can’t help but root for Joe. If second person POV were not employed here, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful.
‘You’ has a particularly persuasive way of reeling in the viewer and making them complicit in the action. In fact, Iain Banks wrote a novel where the POV switches often into the perspective of the killer, using ‘you’ as its narrative mode, specifically to create this effect. And he even named it Complicity. (I’ve started the novel but haven’t finished it yet, so can’t make comment on how it elicits an effect over the entire book).
Over the span of the three You series so far, the narrative tone changes. What starts out at the beginning as a romanticised, messed up perspective of love and finding ‘the one’ gradually turns towards victim blaming and the narrator (Joe) positioning himself as the undeserving victim who is forced into taking actions he’d rather not pursue. By season three, bitterness and resentment has crept into his narrative voice, putting a whole new slant on what can only be described as an F-d up relationship.
Tip: Have someone else read your piece aloud to you. Does the narrator sound like a Joe, or like it’s accusing you of something? Is that the effect you want? If not, reconsider your narrative POV, or tone it down.
(If you haven’t watched You yet, I’d take advantage of a Netflix free trial and do the whole three series if you can (if you like stories about murderous sociopaths). I tried to find some online clips to demonstrate the ‘you’ narration, but couldn’t find any that really highlighted my point adequately, so you’ll have to go watch it.)
There are other areas of second person narration to explore and many more reason why they are unsuccessful in fiction, but that’s all I’m talking about today. If you have any pieces written in second person and they are getting no traction, it might be that using this form of narration simply isn’t justified in order to execute the story. The word ‘you’ can be interpreted in so many ways, can leave the reader feeling so many things and can apply so many tones. It’s important to know what you want to achieve by using it and employing it with a clear intention in mind.
Tip: In giving feedback to other writers, try to avoid using second person in the critiques. It makes it sound much more like you wish to help rather than tell the writer what to do or -worse - make them feel as if they are being berated.
Are there any subjects you’d particularly like me to write about? If so, leave them in comments.