Last month I shared the Point of View Menu, a tool I use to help students see the effects of their point of view and tense choices in a story. My students were floored by the possibilities, and they were particularly interested in learning more about second person point of view. Given the range second person point of view offers, I developed a tool to focus on three options of second person paired with the simple verb tenses past, present, and future. My students promptly dubbed this new tool the “Secret Menu.” (They then had to explain to me that a secret menu at a fast food restaurant is one customers can order off of, but only if they know it exists.) They were thrilled at the prospect of understanding a technique they had not deeply explored before.
To teach the “Secret Menu,” I review the indicators of each tense and some of the reasons why a writer would choose to write in each, as we discussed with the original menu. Past tense allows for reflection, present tense provides in-the-moment reaction, and future tense allows for prediction. We review the purposes of each point of view: first person gets us right into the speaker’s mind, third person gives us distance from the characters, and second person lands somewhere in between providing space between the reader and the characters.
The “Secret Menu” tool allows us to dissect this space second person offers. That space can shrink or grow, inviting the reader deeper into the story or putting up a wall, depending on the way the writer approaches the story. I then offer to my students three possible uses for second person.
Second person can be used as a masked first person, that is, the story is written with a “you” character as a protagonist that reads similarly to an “I” character. In this use of the second person readers can get almost as close the protagonist’s mind as in first person.
Second person can also be used to invite the reader into the story. The actions of a “you” might come across as if they are directed to the reader.
Finally, second person can be used to offer directions or suggestions.
Similarly to our first menu, I grid the three possibilities for second person and the simple tenses alongside each other. Again, as we fill out the resulting boxes, students see the many combinations of storytelling available to them. It’s important to note that many stories in second person fluctuate among these three uses, so I use dashed lines to indicate fluidity. A story might read as a masked first person and also read as a series of directions and suggestions.
2.A—masked first = fairly up close and personal
Reflection fairly up close and personal
Reaction fairly up close and personal
Prediction fairly up close and personal
2.B—speak to the reader as a character = invitation
Reflection w/ invitation
Reaction w/ invitation
Prediction w/ invitation
2.C—directions and suggestions
Reflection w/ direction
Reaction w/ direction
One of my favorite short stories to teach with the secret menu in mind is Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer.” Together, students look at Moore’s technique at the sentence level and identify how the second person point of view might read different ways depending on readers’ interpretations.
After this discussion, I find students are eager to re-read other second person stories with attention to how they might pull off this tricky technique. I then challenge them to try writing their own stories in second person, experimenting with these possibilities, and the drafts they submit demonstrate thoughtfulness and confidence in the voices they choose.