Second person passage (~375 words)


"What I do is me: for that I came."
Feb 14, 2020
Hi. In one of my current WIPs I've decided to try writing some sections in second person. I'm not very practiced at it so I was hoping to get some feedback on one of the pieces I've written, specifically:
Does the "gimmick" of second person distract from the narrative?
Does it read well? Are there any phrasings that seem awkward?
If this were the opening of a short story or novel, would you be likely to continue reading? If not, why not?

I appreciate any and all feedback.
It was your last night in the city you called your home. You tugged darkness to you, wearing it like a favorite shawl. If the stars could have pierced the clouds, they would have watched you with worry. Did you choose this night especially because the stars were blind?

The stars were the first thing you stole from me.

The city was a forest of snow-hidden steeples, surrounding you with a thousand sounds and scents coated with distance. All near-sleeping on a winter’s night. The air was heavy with falling snow. Thick flakes dusted your hair and you brushed them away. You looked past the snow, looked past everything. You treaded carefully across white-packed roofs, following a familiar path that had become anonymous. A train’s soft rumble swept past you on ice-slick tracks; a tower tolled the time with muted tongue. The world slid silently by on skates.

You kept your hand closed tightly around two things. One was a piece of charcoal: a shred, scorched and blackened, that could only remember what it’s like to be warm. The other was a thrice folded-over scrap of paper crisscrossed by hurried sketches. Hidden somewhere on that scrap was the secret that created an urgency within you, but I can’t find it. There is silence where your thoughts should be.

The wind ruffled as you slid down a slanted rooftop. You dangled by freezing fingertips then dropped to the ground with a soft thump. There was an empty street, then an alley whose tightness pushed against you. You cramped through and found yourself in a plaza that felt forgotten. An undisturbed dusting on its stone terrain showed that there were no footsteps to follow in.

In the plaza’s center stood a temple to something that no longer has a name. Its windows were covered by cracked and twisted shutters that barely hid the broken rainbows beneath. Two solid doors barred the entrance. You stepped into their shadow, placed your palm flat against the unadorned wood, and pushed. A moment’s judgment passed, and the doors swung inward.

Darkness within, deeper than just the absence of light—a darkness that swallowed light. There was nothing inviting about it, only the promise of loss.

You chose to walk into that darkness. Why?
I found it hard to concentrate. I've read very little second person, and I have a memory at least one was a frame story. The formulation often seemed clunky to me.

Some parts work decently (You chose to walk into that darkness. Why?) and some were distracting (You tugged darkness to you).

But even where it works, like that last sentence, it works in my head more as a first person POV or third person POV speaking to someone else, perhaps a dead someone else.

What is the effect you are going for? First person and third person POV I understand the goal and tradeoffs. Second person I don't understand.

I found the middle bit, where action was going on, well written. There was some power to the imagery, because I imagined myself doing these things, because someone was telling me that, but I don't think I could sustain this for a while story.
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I like it. I think second person can be used to elicit a strong response in the reader. Perhaps make the reader feel uncomfortable, or even question their own values. For example, in the novel Complicity, Iain Banks writes the part of a serial killer in the second person. I'm not sure if that is where you are heading, but I like the idea of the second person being used to descfribe a villain, or a flawed individual.
The use of second person is certainly a bold choice and the references I have read say that it is intended to provide the closest possible link with the reader. Unfortunately, I have never encountered second person used in an actual story, only in POV references and those often only include one or two lines of sample text.

For me, the section failed to engage me as a reader and actually made me feel quite distant from the story. I felt that the POV was actually a narrator who was breaking the fourth wall. This was explicitly done in some places.
The stars were the first thing you stole from me.
Hidden somewhere on that scrap was the secret that created an urgency within you, but I can’t find it.

A lot of the text was written in a passive voice, where 'you' served as the object of the sentence rather than the subject. This seems to create some distance from the reader as the reader is being acted upon rather than acting. I can see the attempt to avoid starting every sentence with 'you,' but, at the start, the reader needs to be engaged as the primary actor.

I can see that this is intended to be more of a mood scene than an action scene, but that may only further disconnect the reader. Perhaps try to recast this scene as a purely descriptive, narrated scene and try using second person in a scene where the POV is being active?
While I don’t have any issues with the story itself, I have a huge personal aversion to second person, so there is no way I could read this for enjoyment.
The trouble that I see with these two portions are that you are wandering away from second person and it makes it sound like first person writing a letter to another person.

The stars were the first thing you stole from me.
This should probably be--as strange as it might seem:
The stars were the first thing you stole from yourself.
Hidden somewhere on that scrap was the secret that created an urgency within you, but I can’t find it.
Hidden somewhere on that scrap was the secret that created an urgency within you, but you can’t find it.

Second person is hard to sustain and to do well.
I think that you have to think about doing it much like first person and then get into the persons head for their thoughts in order to make it interesting enough to read. Delve into their senses put some more feeling into it and don't worry that it might seem to unnatural to do that since second person is going to read pretty unnatural used this way.
Thank you for sharing this. I'm impressed that you are even able to try this. It is at the very least well beyond my skill level. I am going to request your specific questions, but I may or may not succeed.

Does the "gimmick" of second person distract from the narrative?

I don't know if it distracts, but it does put me in a very specific frame of mind. Specifically, it made me view the narrator as a stalker, who has gotten really close to the "you" in the passage. It also made me wait for the moment when "you" died, so that the narrator could see the stuff in their hand.

Does it read well? Are there any phrasings that seem awkward?

Overall, it reads well. There are good details that give me a sense of space and place, and I feel like I know what the tone of the story is going to be. That is a major accomplishment in a short section. The only suggestion I would give would be move or save the "the stars were the first thing you stole from me" for later. It is a powerful line, but it takes me out of the scene for a bit. That said, I am really amazed how well you set the mood here.

If this were the opening of a short story or novel, would you be likely to continue reading? If not, why not?

I would, but I think I would prefer it if the 2nd person sections were short asides, like this, that occur between larger third or first person sections. I feel like the narrator's perspective, and limited knowledge, would keep me engaged. But I hope that you show us more sections.
I'd also question whether this is actually a second person narrative, and to my mind, as others have said, it's more a first person narrator addressing someone else -- "I can't find it" and "stole from me" -- which isn't quite the same thing.

I enjoyed the opening, but the longer it went on, the less happy I became, because of that confusion over the first/second person issue -- how is the narrator able to know all the things the "you" has done in such detail? So, for me, this would read better if you deleted the narrator from the scene entirely (eg make it "The stars were the first things you stole." and drop the "find it" line) or if the action were limited to what the narrator could know. If the narrator is in fact an omnisicent god-like being who can see everything, but is unable to read the thoughts of the "you" then to my mind it would be better to make that clear.

HareBrain uses second person to good effect in The Empyeus Proof if you want an example of where it works well. There a character is remembering something that happened to him and the second person does serve to distance us from what he suffered, but that works both to give a mystic air to it -- it's unsettling and strange for an unsettling and strange experience -- and also allows the character to distance himself from the memory as a kind of self-protective mechanism. It's also a short piece in a long book, which means it stands out but isn't overwhelming.

As a general point, this passage was very well written, with some lovely touches, but I'm not sure if it works as an opening in this form, since the use of second person does run the risk of alienating some readers. Also, for me there was a tension between the rather poetic language and almost slow-motion effect of the third paragraph, and then the detailed action of the later paragraphs which for me didn't sit well together, and also contributed to my getting a bit antsy as I read and which again might be alienating for some readers as a beginning. By the way, I'm not sure if it's a typo, but the change of tense into "There is silence" I found jarring so if it was deliberate, perhaps think again, and that "treaded" raised my nit-picking hackles -- the past tense is "trod"!

Overall, an interesting piece with a very good last line, and I'm intrigued enough to want to know what happens in the story and where the "you" has gone, but as a personal preference I don't think I'd want to read a great deal more in exactly this style.
I rather like this- it's atmospheric, and the sense of a hidden narrator observing the "you" and speculating on their motives is intriguing. I guess how much sense this approach makes really depends on the context. I wonder if it would be improved by the present tense? There's a sense of immediacy to it, but I keep snagging on the past-tense verb endings as though everything else in the passage is priming me to see it as present.

The most extended uses of 2nd person I've ever read: "Halting State," by Charles Stross, which riffs off the style of a text-based RPG. ("You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.") All three viewpoint characters are "you", but he somehow pulls it off. "The Raven Tower" by Ann Leckie: the lengthy 2nd person sections are in fact from the point of view of someone else closely observing the person addressed as "You." It's pretty effective.
Thank you all for your insightful comments, they've been very helpful to me. I've got a lot to think about now, specifically what I'm trying to achieve with passages like this and if second person (which, as many of you pointed out, is not true second person in its current form) is the best way to do it. I feel like I've learned a lot from your feedback. Again, thank you all.

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