Pay Attention: The Use of Second Person in Flash Fiction

“You have only those brief, fragile, untested moments of exhilaration when you know: you are a genius. Understand what you must do. Switch majors.” ~Lorrie Moore, from “How to Be a Writer”

I want to talk a little today about the second person (“you” as opposed to first person “I” or third person “she/he”) point of view. Love it or hate it, the second person is gaining ground in flash fiction. Most of the published examples I’ve read recently are brilliant.

Flash fiction lends itself so well to innovation and experimentation, it’s no wonder it is similarly well-suited to the less common narrative approaches. (I’m thinking here too of another burgeoning approach, the first person plural or “we” point of view.)

There’s a weightiness to the second person. Perhaps that’s why we writers love it so much. Think about it: This is not how we tell a story orally! It powerfully conveys a sense of both intimacy and universality. This story could be about you or me or all of us. Direct and compelling, it is the literary equivalent of making good eye contact. You are saying to the reader: Pay attention.

See what Anita Goveas does with the second person in her flash, “Let’s Sing All the Swear Words We Know” (published in Lost Balloon):

“You tattoo all your Barbies with indelible ink and sing all the swear words your babysitter teaches you in a chant that all the slaps in the world won’t knock out.”

There’s such pain in this story that might otherwise be too much to relay via first person narration. There’s a bit of protective distance at work. Using second person may serve as a way into emotionally difficult or traumatic material.

Now let’s look at this excerpt from Tara Isabel Zambrano’s story, “New Old” (Southampton Review). And take note also of the time markers I’ve bolded:

Before your mother’s death, your father sat anywhere in the living room. Afterward, he’d place himself where he could see the urn holding her ashes. One day, he scoops out a tablespoon of ash and mixes it with his tea. Then he sits outside, up to his face in the pink evening as the light falls away.

A week later, when your father starts wearing your mother’s saris and polishes his toenails pink, you tell yourself his transition is no longer a temporary one. He’s still grieving, a relative says. Let him be.

One day, in the bedroom, you notice him blinking his kohl-lined eyes, the sparkle of your mother’s Mangal sutra on his neck bobbing a flash on the walls.”

In his craft book, The Half-Known World, Robert Boswell talks about “alternative universes” in stories, moments where the utterly ordinary takes on a measure of strangeness. That’s what I see happening in “New Old.” The story becomes increasingly strange and ever more powerful and moving. The second person point of view enhances this and is masterfully rendered.

Your Prompt:

Write a flash using the second person point of view in which an “alternative universe,” is revealed, a moment where the ordinary becomes strange and therefore compelling, beautiful, resonant. Use time markers, as Zambrano does above, to advance your story in an economical and straightforward fashion. See how using the 2nd person point of view might lend your piece a sense of weightiness and/or self-protection.

Recommended Reading:

I highly recommend this excellent article on 2nd person point of view by Siân Griffiths published in Waxwing Magazine: “Oh You!: A Taxonomy of the Second Person”

“Sojourner, along the outer orbits of empire” by Sarah Arantza Amador (The Airgonaut)

“Your Sons and Daughters Are Beyond” by Rosie Garland (Longleaf Review)

“Night Circus” by Joy Baglio (Pank Magazine)

“Walking on Eggshells” by Sharon Telfer (TSS Publishing)

“Taylor Swift” by Hugh Behm-Steinberg (Gulf Coast Journal)

“How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned this Cliché” by Lorrie Moore (New York Times)

“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid (New Yorker)