The Uses of You

Many writers treat the grammatical second person like the missing thirteenth floor in a hotel, a numerical anomaly, skipped without note. But there are some interesting uses for it.

Dale Stromberg
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My reading diet at a certain young age was dominated by Choose Your Own Adventure stories. These are written in the grammatical second person: “You are hiking in Snake Canyon when you find yourself lost in the strange, dimly lit Cave of Time…” Some claim that second-person narration is too highbrow, too affectedly literary, to be of general use—but this never bothered me as I paged again and again through those tales.

Since fiction for grown-ups conventionally features either first- or third-person narration, many writers treat the second person like the missing thirteenth floor in a hotel, a numerical anomaly, skipped without note. But there are some interesting uses to which you might put the second person:

Thou shalt

While not exactly imperative in form, the second person can feel rather bossy. “You do this, you go here, you say that.” At least in grammatical form, such narration tells the reader that these things are happening to her, like it or not. You might use this to create an all-encompassing sense of the main character being manipulated or bullied, perhaps by fate itself. Such an effect seems ripe for use in a dystopian novel, for example, or any tale of inescapable circumstances.

Youdunit

Likewise, the accusatory nature of you statements can make the character, and perhaps the reader, feel judged. While a hectoring tone may annoy readers, if you play it right, your story might set up an effective gestalt shift—initially leading the reader to decide that the narrative you is a swell fellow indeed (and don’t we all think so), only to upend things midway through with a gut-wrenching j’accuse.

The eerie closeness caused by the use of you—the fact that, as it were, the reader is being dragged into the line of fire—may subvert the so-called willing suspension of disbelief in provocative ways: Can one suspend disbelief in one’s own goodness?

You know what?

You can also be addressed by an I: a technically first-person narrator who wishes to tell the story of the other person, so that you predominates on the page. Perhaps the narrator is reminding the main character of an old story – for example, after a bout of memory loss. Or a child could be imaginatively reconstructing a departed parent’s life, addressing her or him directly, asking questions, posing hypotheses.

While an imperative or accusatory you might fit with darker, more negative material, this “telling you a story about yourself” model could just as easily be warm in tone.

Further, how the first-person narrator tells us what “you did” or “you said” (and, just as crucially, what she leaves out) will show us something about that narrator herself, whether she intends this or not—making the second person an interesting choice for an unreliable narrator.

Get a hold of yourself

Perhaps the narrator is feeling dissociated from himself, or trying to gain objective distance by using you instead of I, or even just talking to himself. “What the hell were you thinking?” could be the first line in a tale of remorse, mortification, or just embarrassment after a night of too many rum-and-cokes.

Tales are often, in some way, about distance—between characters, between author and reader, or between me, myself and I. The distancing effect of the second person can be another way of exploring this.

 

All these are reasons—and I’m sure there are more—to think twice before skipping from first to third when enumerating your narrative options.

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