by Gary Paulsen
Analysis: Writing Style
Detailed, Immediate, Unedited
Calling the style detailed doesn't require much explanation. Where another book might gloss over some of the smaller points of the main character's life, Hatchet often takes us step by step through all the little things that make up Brian's days. Sometimes it almost feels like a how-to book. You know, how to survive with just a hatchet after your plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. Even if you go into the story knowing nothing about nature, by the time you reach the end, you'll be well on your way to constructing a bow and arrow, building a fire, or making a fishing spear. We dare you.
You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Reader
Okay, so what do we mean by "immediate" and "unedited"? Well, here at Shmoop we think that Paulsen's style works really well to create a sense of urgency, and to reflect pretty directly how Brian feels throughout the book. It almost feels like there is no narrator; what we're looking at is an attempt to represent in writing (without any fuss or authorial rearranging) what it would be like to have a direct line into Brian's consciousness.
Paulsen achieves this by using lots of sensory detail and by varying his sentences a lot, using whatever sentence structures most accurately represent his protagonist's state of mind—even if those sentences aren't something an English teacher would necessarily let you get away with on a term paper. There are fragments and run-ons and lots of sentences that come at you so fast that they make you feel almost breathless.
Here's a good example of what we're talking about. This is the point where the rescue plane suddenly arrives while Brian is out looking for wood to make a bow:
A persistent whine, like the insects only more steady with an edge of a roar to it, was in his ears and he chopped and cut and was thinking of a bow, how he would make a bow, how it would be when he shaped it with the hatchet and still the sound did not cut through until the limb was nearly off the tree and the whine was inside his head and he knew it then. (12.17)
Wow. That's a lot to stuff into one sentence, huh? Can you see how reading it kind of feels like running, like you can't quite stop and catch your breath? (Actually, try to read it out loud, and we'll bet you will have to stop and catch your breath part way through.) Here's an idea—let's rewrite that paragraph, and see how it might sound differently with a few more breaks and joining words in it.
A persistent whine, like the insects only more steady with an edge of a roar to it, was in his ears. He chopped and cut and was thinking of a bow, of how he would make a bow, and how it would be when he shaped it with the hatchet. Still the sound did not cut through until the limb was nearly off the tree. The whine was inside his head and he knew it then.
Can you hear how much calmer it sounds this way? How much more controlled and regulated? But with take two, how much further you are from Brian's panic and excitement? When it's written this way, it's a lot less intense, and it loses some of that feeling of immediacy, that feeling that you're right there alongside Brian, experiencing the same things he's experiencing. Sure, it might be technically more correct, but it's a lot less powerful than Paulsen's "incorrect" way.
Goes to show you: sometimes (writing) rules are just made to be broken.
P.S. If you want to be all fancy, you can call this writing style "free indirect discourse." Free indirect discourse is a big clunky phrase that describes a special type of third-person narration that slips in and out of characters' consciousness. In other words, characters' thoughts, feelings, and words are filtered through the third-person narrator. It's almost as if Paulsen is Brian, except he's still that third person. He just has a backstage pass to Brian's soul. Bonus!