Saturday, February 19, 2011

Second-Person Point of View

"You enter a dark, foul-smelling room and immediately notice a large chest on the dirt floor. Perspiration beads on your forehead, despite the chill in the dungeon-like basement. Glancing around, your gaze falls on the broken hasp on the front of the mammoth trunk."

If you open the chest, turn to page 64.
If you turn around and go back the way you came, go to page 42.

I fondly  recall my love affair with Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. It started in fourth grade. I would place my order, carefully marking the news-printed Scholastic Book Order form and gathering up my rumpled bills and hidden change. I'd wait anxiously until the day that, coming in from recess, I'd spy the box with the red lettering sitting on the teacher's desk just waiting to be sorted.

I remember curling up in the burnt-orange velour side chair, slurping a sticky candy cane, reading by the lights of the Christmas tree. I devoured book after book, exhausting every possible scenario. And I loved every minute of it.

Fast-forward nearly thirty years. (Stop doing the math! Just go with it, people!) Okay, I'm a little older now and a little more pressed for time in my reading for enjoyment. But as I scan the library shelf for Book 3 of a series I've been enjoying, I see another book I haven't read. It's by an author I've enjoyed in the past, it has a catchy, one-word title, and a captivating cover. I slide it off the shelf, read the back cover copy, and add it to my stack of books to be checked out.

As I open the book to read the first page, something about the point of view jars me, takes me back, and messes with my mind. Then it registers--the book is written in second-person point of view. I get my bearings and keep reading. But the reading is difficult. My heart races, but not in anticipation, but rather with anxiety. I keep reading, not necessarily because I can't help it, but because I'm a "finisher" and I want to get to the end of the book. The writing is stellar; the plot unique; the characters well-fleshed out. But I. Can't. Stand. This. Book.

Over the last few days since finishing it, I've wondered what it was about that book that I didn't like. I love the idea of trying a second-person book. I loved those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books, too, remember? But I think I've finally figured out what turned me off. It wasn't that it was a second-person POV, but that the character was so different from my personality that being in his head made me panic. I'm not a thirty-something married father of two (nor have I ever been or hope to be). I don't take business trips. I don't take chances; or give out my number to strangers; or feel the need to rescue attractive women in distress. While in the C-Y-O-A novels of my childhood, I could pick the path that most appealed to me, I felt drug along for the ride in this current book.

It is interesting to me, both as a reader and a writer, that the author's use of this POV to draw the reader into the story, just made me want to flee from the book, take a shower with Lysol, and smack somebody up the side of the head. The use of any other POV would have given me enough distance from the story that I may have enjoyed it--maybe.

I'm curious about the rest of you: Have you read a book done in second-person POV? Did you enjoy it? Did it pull you in to the story?

How about as a writer? Would you risk trying a second-person book? Would you rather your book evoke a strong reaction in a reader even if it was a negative reaction or would you rather go with another POV and solicit softer feelings?

Nikki Studebaker Barcus


  1. POV can be a personal choice, second person when used is usually only a fleeting scene, I find a lot of early post-modern books try this and I must admit I am not a fan of post-modern fiction (it just does my head in). I don't think I could write that POV at all (unless it was very short prose).

  2. This is great insight into why 2nd person POV is so chancy. I've never been tempted to try it, but this would be a warning if I were. (Give me good old 1st or 3rd person any day.)

  3. I haven't read a second-person POV book, and from what I saw I doubt I will. Rather than drawn in, I felt pushed away and distanced by the constant use of "you." But out of curiosity, I'd be willing to look at a well-written book, if anyone has one to recommend.

  4. My personal opinion is that second person POV can work well in a non-fiction article (particularly in the intro) or for a short fiction story. (I used it for a couple of CYOA stories that I created for Clubhouse magazine.) But for a novel, it gets wearisome. I don't need an unseen author jabbing a finger at me and repeating "You, you, you!"

    For my Gunner's Run novel, I used first-person POV, and I believe it was much more effective. Even a lady in her 70s wrote to say that she felt she was right there with my young male character every step of the way. She enjoyed the adventure WITH him, but she didn't want to BE him.