As is the case every single day that ends in y, you pick up a book. And whether it’s just-pressed fresh, or hills-old and tattered, it looks and smells delicious – each individual page tempting your nose towards a sniffywhiff, and collectively, begging you to fan them towards your face just so you can snort their entire essence right up the ol’ snout in one go. Shaven, pulped wood feels more natural to you than the trees whence it came; books just make you happy, gosh darn it. Good ones – happier still.
Some books are bookier than others, though: they were not all published equal. The one in your hand now, for example, has certain majestic qualities from its smart artwork to a title embossed in tall metallic lettering. And until you unshelved it, it had just been sitting there lording it over all the other little books, knowing it looked good with its subtle swank and promises of unputdownability.
But there’s a thing, and the thing is this: this particular volume is written in the dreaded second person, the thing they tell you never to do. The technique they insist you should never, ever, employ. The perspective of, they suggest, sad madmen, hairy-knuckled bookdraggers and those with more than a smattering of ruthless conceit. And because they say those things all the time, on a loop, they must be right, right?
Balls. What utter twaddle. What absolute cobblers, you say. You’ll be the judge of what makes a book a good ‘un; regardless of the author’s choice of perspective, yours is the one that counts.
Just what, then, is it about a book that begs you to devour it? Perhaps it’s something as simple as having been written by your favourite author, or blurbed to Bookdom Come by those whose opinion is Gospel to you. It could be that it’s the right price, in your genre of choice, or it might just have an incredible cover by an even incredibler artist whose creativity acts like a beckoning finger to your salivating, tingling artishness and readerhood. And maybe, just maybe, you’ve read a review that’s made you hop on down to Waterstone’s. Or, y’know – to the nearest laptop, i-thing, or smarter-than-you ‘phone.
George Orwell asks a similar question, which you will already know if you have ingested The Decline of The English Murder and Other Essays (if you haven’t, you really need to get on that). In the essay-wot-bears-the-same-title-as-that-of-the-collection (this description being deliberately cack-handed because of your utter detestation of the uber-wanky term titular), he takes you straight into a warm, cosy setting; you snuggle up, and settle down:
“It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood … In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?”
You can see how, straight away, he’s made you at home, having even given you a choice of fodder – what a considerate host he is! Of course, the next choices on offer are of the infinitely more sinister variety; after answering his own question and telling you what you want to read about, which is,
“Naturally … a murder. But what kind of murder?”
You know these are going to be relatively nice murders, though. The good old-fashioned sort. Accordingly, you don’t fret too much at this stage – ol’ Orwell’s got your back. (At this juncture, your brain takes a little deviation as you wait for some smart arse to chime in on the comments section with George’s real name as if it’s the Ark of the Covenant, because there’s always that one guy)…
…aaaand you’re back. Back to the beginning. Just read that first line again – go on.
“… preferably before the war.”
Considering this essay was first published in 1946, our George speaks of a war through which you know he’s lived. Of course, you know that anyway, because you aren’t too bad at the ol’ history – and even if you are, you could do the maths and work it out. (You also know that maths has an s on the end, because you’re British, what.) And, bless his stiff-upperness, Orwell wants you all cosy and comfy, not smack bang in the middle of an air raid.
You realise soon enough that he doesn’t stay in Second Person, of course; you adore George for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that he knows how to mix it up. As he jumps around from second person to first, swapping tenses and playing wordball (whatever that is) with the reader, so you notice that he gets away with it – because he can. And so, using Orwell as your example, you feel empowered to do away with all the rules yourself, as long as you’re familiar with ‘em first. You might even say yes-yes to the big no-no of opening a sentence with And so.
It’s not just reserved for non-fiction, either, this stuff. Some of your favourite –and more contemporary — authors have been known to employ a crafty little Second Hand technique or two. Remember the first time you sat down with a brew and a copy of Ramsey Campbell’s Heading Home? Remember when you noticed the horror, and how menacing it was? Remember how ghastly? How immediate:
“You know he’s a butcher, because once he helped one of the servants carry the meat from the village. In any case, you could have told his profession from what he has done to you.”
(You can work out how wholly unthreatening and rather dull the events would’ve been, had they been told in a first person alternative, “I know he is a butcher … in any case, I could have told his profession from what he has done to me.” It’s just not a mustard-cutter, is it?)
Campbell continues to direct the movie that’s playing in your mind now, with a reminder that this IS YOU, so you’d better be paying attention, now:
“You hear your wife’s terrified voice, entreating him to return to her. There’s a long pondering silence. Then he hurries back upstairs.”
You’re still not sure if it works? How about third, then? “He hears his wife’s terrified voice, entreating him to return to her…” Nah. Too far removed from the horrific happenings for your liking, isn’t it? Come on, admit it. You WANT to be in on it. You want to put yourself smack bang in the middle of the protAgony – and you have to admit, second person is the smartest – and nastiest – way to do it. You know this. You know this because Campbell knows this. And as soon as you reach the end, like all good stories would have you do, you go straight back to the beginning. Yep – that which you know now has been pretty much spelled out to you from the start in a way you didn’t know you knew, y’know?
Or something like that.
Here’s another thought: remember when you discovered Ray Bradbury’s The First Night of Lent, and noticed that he does the swapping-of-perspectives thing very well?
“So you want to know all the whys and wherefores of the Irish? What shapes them to their Dooms and runs them on their way? you ask. Well, listen, then.”
This isn’t so much a case of breaking the fourth wall, but starting with its bricks in a pile on the floor and assembling them into a partition with the mortar of the second paragraph. You then quickly find that Bradbury has flicked over to first person. And now that he’s fluck, he can tell you about Nick, the “most careful driver in all God’s world, including any sane, small, quiet, butter-and-milk producing country you name.” Did he just slip back into second again there? Why, yes. Yes he did.
Nick is sweet, and calm, and Bradbury wants you to understand that. After giving you some more of his first-person thoughts, he once again provides you with a bunch of instructions – pay attention, now:
“Listen to his mist-breathing voice as he charms the road, his foot a tenderly benevolent pat on the whispering accelerator… Look, compare. And bind such a man to you with summer grasses, gift him with silver, shake his hand warmly at each journey’s end.”
There’s a reason for this, of course. You’ll find out when you get to the next bit. Then get thee hence to the end of the story and you’ll see the beautiful, inharmonious harmony; the point of it all, where twains shall meet, and where somehow, your idea of a decent story has been toyed with, juggled, put through a blender … and been reassembled into perfection, just like Bradbury’s wall.
This technique can –if executed correctly– get you into someone’s head far quicker than any of the other perspectives. Just think about the humdrum things that happen in your everyday life, when you find yourself asking Second Person things of a friend. You know the sort of thing: “Ever get an itchy arse in public, and you just HAVE to scratch it?” or even asking yourself, “isn’t it annoying as fuck when you can’t get the last bits of blood off yer hands?”
What? You are a horror fan, aren’t you?
Speaking of the real life things, let’s not forget the hypnotherapy lark – for those of you who go in for that. How does the therapist talk to you? Well, the answer’s right there in the question: they talk to you. They don’t say “I’m walking into my house, try and imagine it with me,” do they? They don’t tell you about a man who is “walking through his front door, and sees a wall, painted in white…”. No – because how on earth would you be able to engage with that?
Proof of the second pudding is in the eating: this is how you can talk to your readers, too. So, after a long hard day at work, you come home and open the front door. Walking through the hallway, you put down your bags, hang up your coat, and enter the living room. There, you take a seat on the sofa, and pick up your notebook. You’re feeling verrrrry sleepy…
WAKE UP, WILL YOU? You’re supposed to be WRITING.
For “YOU”, the you that the second person often suggests, read “ME.” Me, Myself and I. An author’s choice to use pronouns beginning with Y, is not, as some may suggest, a jarring degree of separation, but quite the opposite. It’s a way – if done correctly – to pull the reader over the ropes and become the fighter in the boxing ring of the story … and you might just be kept up in the air with left hooks until you’re given permission to land.
A crackin’ example of this comes from John Skipp, in Empathy, a good ol’ rompy mindfuck of a headmessin’ story. The Skippmeister does a good ol’ bit of bouncin’ around between first and second person, one of your favourite things they-tell-you-not-to-do. You don’t know why he does it – at first. But as he draws you in with a dash of persuasion, a peppering of suggestiveness and a threatening air of filth and intrigue, so you realise you must stick around. And you know you’re bad, for he tells you so. You’ve:
“…done a horrible thing. And you’ll do it again. I know.”
As you continue, Skipp helps you to lull yourself into a sleepfully waking state, feeling, as an engaged (yet slightly inebriated) reader, the “ripple as the veil of sleep parts.” It’s Empathy 101, this, whether you like it or not. This way, when it’s necessary for the first person to take over, your mindframe is in the appropriate state to receive any perspective on offer.
“I don’t even want to think about you. No offense – you know I love you to death – but you’re a total fucking loser, and you’re making me sick.”
You almost feel guilty for making your partner despise you so. What have you done to them? You MONSTER! So, you read on, to find out what the frig kinda things you’ve been up to … and to unravel all the what-the-fucknesses. And as in Campbell’s story, once you figure out the hitherto unfigureoutable, you realise the answer’s been laid out for you all along. Quite literally, in this case.
Even though you’ve put the story down, now, it hasn’t done the same to you. It still has you in its grasp. As you read it for the second time in five minutes, you find yourself,
“Laying there like a lump. Scintillating as mud, and sexy as a tumor.”
Ouch, man. Ouch. Must lay off the carbs. Must … step … away … from that cake.
Speaking of cake, to make the batter, you must first combine the butter and sugar…and to make a story work in an alternative perspective, first you must …
… see all of the above.
Like a recipe written in second (which all good recipes should be, giving to-the-letter, direct-to-the-person instructions), a story in that same perspective will ask –nay, demand –something of the reader. That extra little requirement – the suspension of disbelief a little bit further than they are normally willing to suspend it.
The pre-requisite of a decent attention span comes with a teasing carrot of danglement that offers the reader the choice to step right inside the head of the protagonist for a wee while. As the reader, it’s for your own good in any case – do you want to lose yourself in the story or not?
So you do. You suspend that disbelief, and relish having proved the know-alls to be know-nowts. You allow yourself to become the YOU of the story, and you enjoy a fresh, empathic experience from which there is no escape. And then, you go and write the hell out of your own imagination.
— ‘Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays’. — 1950.
— ‘The Orwell Reader, Fiction, Essays, and Reportage’ — 1956.
— ‘Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays’. — 1965.
— ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell’. — 1968.
 First Published:
—’Conscience’ – 2004 (now available through Crossroads Press)
—’Demons – Encounters with the Devil and His Minions, Fallen Angels, and the Possessed’ – Black Dog and Leventhal – 2011.