Writing Q&A 22: Using "you"; what's so bad about adjectives?
Published: May 8, 2007
|When is it appropriate to use "you" in fiction? |
When using second-person point of view, writers use "you" to refer to the main character of the story. Similar to first-person point of view, second person is limited to knowing what this single character thinks and experiences. And the "you" character isn't a general, vague everyman, but rather a specific individual with his own personality, traits and life experience. An example of second-person point of view is Jay MacInerny's Bright Lights, Big City:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But there you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.
Some authors use this point-of-view strategy to complement the kind of story they're telling. Junot Diaz does this in "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie." The main character--"you"--reveals a lot about himself and his life in this story written as a primer on dating in his neighborhood:
As you walk to the restaurant talk about school. A local girl won't need stories about the neighborhood but the other ones might. Supply the story about the loco who'd been storing canisters of tear gas in his basement for years, how one day the canisters cracked and the whole neighborhood got a dose of the military-strength stuff. Don't tell her that your moms knew right away what it was, that she recognized its smell from the year the United States invaded your island.
Second person is still a rare approach, but when done well it can feel fresh and engaging.
"You" can also be used to refer to a specific listener in fiction. In David Benioff's "Neversink," a first-person narrator speaks directly to the woman who broke his heart:
I got your number from Michael and called you the next night, but you were busy that week, and busy the week after, and I resigned myself to never seeing you again. But then you called me, one month after the birthday party, and invited me to watch the meteor shower.
Writers will also use "you" to refer to people in general, much like we do when speaking casually. John O'Farrell does this in the opening of his story "Walking into the Wind":
There's a moment when you're up on stage when you suddenly become aware that everyone is looking at you; that the entire room is totally focused upon what you are doing. In that terrifying split second your performance can crash to the ground or it can soar to great new heights; but the fact that you have the power to throw it all away is partly what's so thrilling about being in the spotlight.
The word "you" has its place in fiction, but be careful with it. Use it when it is in line with the voice of the narrator, or satisfies a clear and apt storytelling strategy.
|I like using adjectives, but I often hear they make for weak descriptions. What's so bad about them? |
Certainly adjectives, which modify nouns, can be essential. If your character comes upon a dead skunk, it will be important to include that adjective--dead--lest the reader expect that skunk to run and hide or, worse, feel threatened and spray.
However, nouns and verbs are the foundation of writing, and you should choose them carefully, rather than slathering on adjectives (or adverbs, which modify verbs). A man could "walk slowly," but it would be stronger to say "he stalked" or "he plodded." A garden of "bright flowers" isn't nearly as vivid as one with "irises and lilacs." Note the difference between the first sentence, laden with adjectives and adverbs, and the second, which depends upon strong nouns and verbs:
The large, sleek space shuttle went through the clouds precisely.
The rocket pierced the clouds.
The noun and the verb in the second sentence accomplish more. "Rocket" creates a distinct image and carries the force of such a machine. The verb "pierced" implies the precision that's directly stated in the first sentence and avoids the blasé verb "went through."
Once you become meticulous in choosing your nouns and verbs, you can then save the adjectives and adverbs for the moments when you really need them.
Perhaps Mark Twain said it best in a letter urging another writer to revise: "Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by."
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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