craft review by Jen Jobart
In my last post, I talked about how Paolo Bacigalupi addresses the same powerful themes regardless of the audience he’s writing for. In this post, I examine how he does it.
Bacigalupi has a gift for really getting into a character’s heart and showing what it feels like to be that character. He does this with good guys, bad guys, and everything in between. It’s really apparent with his writing that everyone is a good guy, from their own perspective. His characters never make decisions at random. It’s always clear where their actions are coming from, and their decisions always make sense. It’s easy to empathize with his characters.
The Windup Girl is a masterpiece in character development as it intertwines several connected stories. It starts off from the point of view of a character who will spend the entire book trying to steal something from the other characters. It’s clear from the very first page that this is a book that is going to ask you to question your own perspective and biases, and it doesn’t disappoint. Throughout the book, you begin to empathize with all of the characters; many of whom have opposing interests. I even found myself rooting for the villain.
Showing not telling
Bacigalupi’s writing is a shining example of how to show, not tell. There is hardly any exposition in any of Bacigalupi’s writing. When he needs to give us background information so that we can understand the story, he does it in the context of the story itself.
Often, he’ll have the character notice things about their world as they are in the process of doing something that is critical to the story. Usually they’ll be on their way from one place to another, notice things as they pass by, and comment on what things they notice mean in the context of the story.
For example, in Zombie Baseball Beatdown, here’s the paragraph that introduces the meat factory. We know from this description that something is definitely not right about this factory.
We were sitting on our bikes, staring at the Milrow beef-processing facility, a whole series of big white metal-sided buildings and smokestacks puffing steam.
Beyond that, it was feedlots to the horizon, an ocean of cows all packed together, practically knee-deep in their own manure, feeding in long troughs full of whatever it was that Milrow gave its cows to fatten them up.
Differences in storytelling techniques
Even though these three books share common themes, Bacigalupi uses different techniques to tell the story, depending on which audience he’s addressing.
Zombie Baseball Beatdown
Zombie Baseball Beatdown (MG) used a classic Hero’s Journey structure. There’s an inciting incident, a midpoint, a climax, and a happy ending. Reading it is like watching a movie. The story is told in first person POV. There isn’t a lot of deep interiority; really just the main character trying to figure out what’s going on and making observations about the world around him.
Zombie Baseball Beatdown’s opening paragraph is:
It’s short and sweet and direct. From the very first line, we empathize with this kid. We don’t know anything about him but all of us know what it feels like to lose, so our hearts are with him right away. We stick with the story because of the character.
The language of Zombie Baseball Beatdown is emotional and easily accessible. Sentences are short. Vocabulary is accessible. The writing is there to facilitate the story.
Zombie Baseball Beatdown is non-stop action. Something is always happening. The book is funny and I often found myself laughing out loud. We don’t have to think a lot as we read. We just get swept along by the story. Although this book does address serious themes, they’re in the background; they’re not the reason we read the book. We read for entertainment, and then after we’ve read the book we find it’s given us food for thought. Though that part is seemingly by accident, as writers we can see Bacigalupi’s clever intentionality that’s just right for his audience.
Ship Breaker (YA) used a more obfuscated Hero’s Journey structure. The plot points are all there, but the story meanders. It ends on mixed terms. Nailer gets what he wants, but loses something in the process. It’s told in third person close POV. The interiority has more depth. Nailer is making observations about the world around him, but also about how he feels about things, and about what prompts those feelings.
Ship Breaker’s opening paragraph is:
Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free. Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose. He scrambled deeper into the duct, jerking more wire from its aluminum staples. The staples pinged about the cramped metal passage like coins offered to the Scavenge God, and Nailer felt after them eagerly, hunting for their dull gleam and collecting them in a leather bag he kept at his waist. He yanked again at the wiring. A meter’s worth of precious copper tore loose in his hands and dust clouds enveloped him.
The first sentence immediately draws us into the story. We don’t know what Nailer is doing, but we know he’s in a hurry, and we know the work is difficult. The tension of the story is immediately apparent. We’re inspired to stick with the story to find out what’s happening.
This paragraph draws us in with all of our senses. We see the clouds of asbestos fibers, and feel what that must be doing to his lungs. We smell the mouse droppings. We hear the staples pinging about the metal passage. We feel the cramped environment, and the desperation with which he’s braving these conditions to collect tiny bits of trash.
The language of Ship Breaker is more intricate. It’s a work of art in and of itself. Bacigalupi chooses the exact right word for what he’s trying to say. This leads to a more complex vocabulary.
Ship Breaker balances action with commentary on what that action means. It pulls us along in the story, but at the same time, it prompts us to think about what’s happening.
Windup Girl (Adult) clearly illustrates that there is never an ending that is happy for everyone. In the game of life, some win and some lose.
The first four chapters are written from different points of view, and at first glance, don’t seem to have anything to do with one another. Just when we think we kind of understand what’s happening, a new character starts telling a seemingly new story. It takes a long time before the common threads become apparent.
Windup Girl’s (Adult) opening paragraph is:
“No! I don’t want the mangosteen.” Anderson Lake leans forward, pointing. “I want that one, there. Kaw pollamai nee khap. The one with the red skin and the green hairs.”
Right away, we sense the tension between Anderson Lake and (as we find out in the next paragraph) the peasant woman he’s talking to. She has something he wants. We don’t know what it is, but we know they’re having trouble understanding one another and we see his resulting frustration. We feel the emotions of this book long before we intellectually understand what is happening.
The language in the book is complex. Not only is it a mix of English and Thai, but there’s a vocabulary that is specific to the world of the book that we learn as we read. The book is written in third person close from the point of view of at least four main characters. Each of the characters has a particular way of using language and expressing themselves that is in keeping with their worldview.
Windup Girl is very serious. There’s a tone of dread that overlays the entire story. Even when a character achieves what he wants, there is a sense of loss for the other characters that were not so fortunate.
A lot happens in Windup Girl, but it’s more political maneuvering and intellectual sparring than action in and of itself. The action is more subtle than in the other books.
Here’s what I learned about writing from Paolo Bacigalupi.
- Readers of any age can handle tough topics, as long as they’re presented in the right way.
- Complex, believable characters are important, no matter who I’m writing for.
- Nobody of any age wants to sit through boring, disconnected exposition. If I can’t work explanations into the action, they’re not important to the story.
Jen Jobart writes middle grade fiction and is always sending characters she loves on dangerous adventures. She is an active member of the SCBWI and has studied writing for children through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. When Jen’s not writing, she’s outside gardening and raising chickens at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her at www.jenjobart.com.