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How to Avoid "Head Hopping": Second-Person Point of View

To recap, point of view refers to the way in which an author tells a story. It dictates how they present the characters, settings, and events of a novel or story, as well as establishes the narrator’s position.

Sounds simple, but knowing and putting into practice are different beasts. In fact, one of the most common mistakes I see writers make is confusing point of view.

There are a few point of view options available, each with unique opportunities—and limitations—for creativity. There are rules you need to follow when writing in a specific point of view.

Why? Because confusion in point of view will cause confusion in your readers. They’ll lose the thread of the story, and will very likely discard your work for something else. And who wants that?!

It is worth taking time to consider the best point of view for your story, as it lays the foundation for the ever-so-important voice of the work.

I outlined first-person point of view last week, so this week’s post tackles second-person narration. If this lesser-used perspective is new to you, read on!

THE BASICS

Second-person narration is very rare in fiction, and is predominately found in nonfiction works, professional communications, and the like. In the second person, the author directly addresses the reader and uses the pronoun “you” to convey action.

Let’s look at an excerpt from Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. 

“Things happen, people change,' is what Amanda said. For her that covered it. You wanted an explanation, and ending that would assign blame and dish up justice. You considered violence and you considered reconciliation. But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name.” 

No doubt this direct point of view can make way for some very unique writing. The entire story is from the perspective of an onlooker, who is usually the reader themselves.

ADVANTAGES

If looking to stand out from the crowd, this is one way to go about it! The second person point of view is rare in fiction, so any author who uses it successfully will likely catch some attention. It is more common in nonfiction and blog posts, as they offer advice or sell an idea. Using “you” creates an intimacy between them and the reader.

To be honest, there are little advantages to this point of view, as it takes a lot of time to master and is difficult to maintain over long works.

DISADVANTAGES

Why is this type of narration so difficult to master? To start, when not done well it can easily confuse readers. As a result, it is best in shorter works, so novelists tend to avoid the second person. Some also feel it is hard to fully develop a story or characters with this limited point of view.

WHERE IT ALL GOES WRONG

It is easy to “head hop” when writing in the second person because it is easy to confuse with another point of view. For example, some authors (especially of the classics), address the reader although the narrative may be in the first or third person. An author may break this distinction when they wish to comment on their own character or plot—as an aside in a play. The most well-known example of this is from Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.”

Second person is also confused with third-person point of view. This happens most when the character poses a question. “Do you know where my earrings are?” is an example of a question asked by a narrator speaking in the third person. In second person, this would be phrased as “You know where her earrings are, and so will go retrieve them.”

TRY IT OUT!

By no means do I mean to discourage you from trying the second-person point of view. It may even help you out of a creative rut! It would be especially interesting to explore over short fiction, so why not give it a shot?

If interested in reading more examples of second-person point of view, check out the following titles: Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss;  “How to be an Other Woman” from Self-Help by Lorrie Moore; “Anticipation” from The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern; If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.

Until next time, friends,

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P.S. Were you inspired to try it out? Share below!

P.P.S. Don't forget to also read How to Avoid "Head Hopping": First-Person Point of View