I’ve been reviewing a lot of writing samples lately for the ghostwriting company I train writers for, and I’ve noticed a trend of using sections of second person narration and directly addressing the reader quite frequently.
While second person narration can be used effectively, it’s generally not ideal for commercial adult fiction. Directly addressing the reader can be used sparingly, but it is often jarring and pulls the reader out of the story by reminding them that they’re reading a book.
Second person narration is when the story is told in the voice of an onlooker (the reader). “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.” Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City
Directly addressing the reader is when the narrator “breaks the fourth wall” and speaks to the reader directly using YOU. “Good. Now I know I can trust you. You’re curious. You’re brave. And you’re not afraid to lead a life of crime.” Pseudonymous Bosch’s The Name of this Book Is Secret
Why these are rarely used in fiction:
Directly addressing the reader is NOT a replacement for an omniscient POV. This is often used to remind the reader of something (Now, I told you this wouldn’t have a happy ending) or tell the reader what will happen next (If only she had known the cable was lose, she wouldn’t have climbed out onto it.) If a story is not being written from an omniscient POV, this is incorrectly breaking out of the POV and is jarring to the reader. Choose a POV and stick to it.
They break suspension of disbelief. It’s very difficult for a reader to suspend disbelief and feel they are immersed in the story when they are being asked questions, told direct information, or reminded that they are being told a story.
Both are extremely difficult to use correctly. To make these techniques work, they have to be done consistently throughout the story, to avoid startling the reader every time they are addressed. Few stories are suited to constant commentary from the narrator and can frustrate and tire the reader.
The use of YOU reminds readers of children’s fiction, blog posts, and self-help books. The Tale of Despereaux has a wonderful narrator voice that explains difficult words and concepts to young readers and helps them understand the story. When adult readers are directly addressed, many feel they are being condescended to or instructed on how to read or enjoy the story. Both can be major turnoffs for readers.
It is difficult to develop characters and a story that suits second person narration. The narrator is limiting to watching from a distance with second person narration. Even when omniscient, the reader never truly gets inside the characters’ heads and feels less involved in the story.
Second person narration is difficult to maintain in pieces longer than a few pages. Second person narration is tiring for readers to read. It feels like they are being asked to answer questions or be actively involved in a story rather than enjoying it as an observer.
For a list of more things readers don’t like, check out the link below!
4 thoughts on “The problems with second person narration and directly addressing the reader”
Yes! Second-person narration would be so weird in novels, but when it comes to blog posts or articles though, they can have a pretty awesome effect. Thanks for sharing the exact reasons why it’s weird. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but I now know why.
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Second person definitely works much better in blogs and articles! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂
There is an interesting point in the Gospels, that breaks the fourth wall… John 20:31 “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” I’ve read through the Bible several times, and am well familiar with this verse. It’s the first time, tho, that it dawned on me that this is breaking the fourth wall… Any thoughts you might have on this would be interesting. Also, do you know of other ancient literature that also breaks the fourth wall?
Scriptural texts are an interesting example of direct address and how it can help forge a personal connection between narrator and reader. Self help books often use a similar approach to build trust in the reader so they will implement whatever tactics or behaviors are being presented.