The Solution is… Second Person Point of View

How many times have I been amazed when the solution to a longstanding problem appears suddenly, all by itself? I suppose I’ll continue to be amazed, and continue to wonder why the solution is so obvious once it arrives that I wonder why it took so long to arrive.

My nonfiction death penalty WIP has been stalled for over a year in spite of my having a ton of research material, and knowing what topics I want to include. New insights keep coming, about what I want to say, but exactly how I need to say it has escaped me. I’ve made a certain amount of progress, eliminating completely any hint of scholarly objectivity, and giving more weight to what the condemned themselves have had to say than most books do. Death penalty literature runs mostly to fact-heavy arguments for or against, or collections of death row prisoner writing, with commentary by the editors. Neither is what I’m aiming for.

What I want to do is break the mold of writing about the death penalty, to reach into the emotional core of readers and move them in a way that hasn’t ever been done. I want it be the kind of book that makes readers tell their friends, “Here, you have to read this book.” That’s a pretty tall order, I know, and probably far beyond my ability to achieve. But I keep thinking that if I can find the right structure and tone, I can come close.

I have a pretty good grip on the structure, but it’s the tone that will make the difference, and that’s what has been escaping me. Until yesterday morning, when I woke up thinking about the book, and writing scenes in my head, all of which were in second person. I was addressing someone in the place of a prisoner, experiencing what it would be like to live for the rest of your life, however long that might be, in a tiny room made of cement and steel. “You are pacing this space for the first of thousands of times, becoming familiar with every inch of it, trying to imagine yourself never seeing the sky again, or being touched by another human being, except accidentally, as you’re put into restraints for the short trips — to the showers, to the cubicle in which you’ll look through bullet-proof glass at your visitors — if you have visitors — those trips that are the only part of the world you’ll experience outside your cell.”

I usually forget all those wonderful little bits by the time I’ve washed, dressed and fixed my first cup of tea. And usually, I don’t worry about it because there’s always more where that came from. But sometimes I forego all the getting-up rituals because what has been drifting through my sleep-fogged mind is too important to forget. Well, I did forget what I was addressing that person about, but not that I was addressing them, personally, as if I were talking to them. And that was it. That was the tone I was looking for. Not for the entire book, which could become wearisome, but interspersed with the quotes and my own commentary.

Second person isn’t used very much in fiction, and when I Googled it, I found that its most usual use is in instruction-type writing, or self-help books. When it is used in fiction, it’s meant to provoke an emotional response. “… second-person breaks the fourth wall on your work and results in your prose directly addressing and commanding the reader. This can have the problematic effect of popping your reader out of their suspended disbelief because it’s actively calling attention to them as a reader. It implies that the reader himself is the acting character of the prose.” “…at its most simple level, the second-person point of view serves as an invitation for the reader to come fully into a piece with all of their baggage, all of their expectations, and, for a moment, to become fully immersed as a character in the work.”

I was sure, as soon as I was aware of what I was doing, that it was the tone I needed. But it was good to learn more about second person POV and confirm that my instinct was right. And now that I know it, I wonder — why did it take so long?


7 thoughts on “The Solution is… Second Person Point of View

  1. I’m glad this came to you! Such revelations seem to take a long time, but I’m sure your mind was working through the problem at a level below your consciousness during the time when you felt stuck.

    POV can be tremendously powerful. I had to rewrite my entire forthcoming novel, changing from first person to third because first person just wasn’t right. Using second person for yours sounds right and I think your idea of not continuing it through the entire book is a good one, too. It can get tiresome for the reader.

    1. Ouch! I don’t envy you, changing the POV of a whole novel. I did just the opposite, for a WIP that wasn’t even novella length yet — from third to first. And I still keep finding leftovers from third as I work through it.

  2. Fascinating. The second person pov is very intense, and few carry it off well. I can see it working the way you talked about, for that purpose, because you WANT the reader to break that separation in this kind of book.

    Because it is intense, it will be interesting to see how much of it your instincts end up telling you to use. You do tackle the tough ones, don’t you?

    Somebody on the outside has to – if a prisoner writes that, it will be discounted as self-serving. Because a reader being dragged into an emotional reaction is looking for a way out. Don’t let them escape.

    1. I never plan on it being tough, and it’s frustrating as hell to work out the problems, but it’s *so* satisfying when it works. My fingers are tightly crossed. And yes, there are also plenty of first-person accounts of death row, and some of it is self-serving. Even when it isn’t, the very fact of having been condemned for a violent crime leads readers to see a bias rather than accept the facts as they’re given.

      1. Exactly. But you both put it into an emotional form in 2nd person and presumably have to have external confirmation before you believe someone who has been tried and condemned.

        But there are enough people who were later released to make most people think very hard about these questions.

        And prison conditions are appalling.

        For one thing, I cannot imagine the boredom. And being around so many other dangerous people.

        Blessings on your work. It is a hard row you’ve chosen to hoe.

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