Study Guide

Ship Breaker Writing Style

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Writing Style

Straightforward (Mostly) and Descriptive

Nothing says action like realizing you're sitting on the edge of your seat, right? To make sure we're right where he wants us—with our butts barely in our chairs—during fights, escapes, near-drownings, and more, Bacigalupi combines straightforward language and short sentences to convey the experience of being in the middle of high-intensity moments. For instance, he writes:

Out of nowhere Pima lunged, her knife flashing.

Nailer tried to cry out, to warn her, but his father beat him to it. He slammed Pima aside. She sprawled on the decking. Her knife skittered across the carbon fiber and disappeared over the side. (12.73-74)

Subject, verb, repeat. He did this, she did that. Short sentences move us quickly through the action, bringing us to the edge of our seats, and keeping us there as we wonder what will happen next. It's a really common style for an adventurous tale, but it's also not the only style Bacigalupi uses—he saves it for the moments that are high energy, and super intense.

At other points, Bacigalupi mixes up his adventure-y prose with much more complex descriptions and sentences. He almost always slows us way down when we get insight into Nailer's thoughts and feelings, which is great, because it invites us to really pay attention to what's being revealed and, in doing so, develop a more thorough understanding of our main man. Here's a passage where we see both the short sentences and more detailed ones combined:

Nailer hesitated.

"Well?"

"I lost it."

Silence stretched between them. "Lost it, huh?" was all his father said, but Nailer could tell that dangerous gears were turning now, fueled by the rattle of drugs and anger and whatever madness caused his father's bouts of frenzied work and brutality. (5.141-144)

Here, Nailer is trying to avoid a rising confrontation with his father, so we see the abrupt dialogue. But the last sentence packs clause onto clause, and this slows us down. We realize that Bacigalupi does this because it lends a different kind of intensity, one that's emotional in nature, to the confrontation.

Bacigalupi's writing also becomes much more lyrical when he's describing the world in which Nailer lives. At one point he writes:

The train rose into the air, rail pilings lifting it over the swamps below. They passed over cool green pools full of algae and lily pads the white flash of egrets and the whir of flies and mosquitoes. The entire elevated track system was reinforced against the city killer storms that rolled into the coast with such astonishing regularity, but it was the only evidence that any people successfully inhabited the jungle swamplands now. (16.52)

When there's action in the novel, Bacigalupi avoids a lot of adjectives and adverbs; he lets the plot speak for itself. But when there's a break in the action and we read about the setting, or when a character develops, or when Bacigalupi needs to create more of the world, we see much more descriptive language and longer sentences. This detailed language and more complex sentence structure lend a lyricism to the prose that doesn't really exist in the high-action parts. It's a complicated style, which fits the novel's complex content.

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