Dec 21, 2023

How to Write a Big Emotional Scene: Fault Lines by Nora Shalaway Carpenter

craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman

Nora Shalaway Carpenter’s YA novel Fault Lines is a study in contrasts. It’s the story of Viv, a high school senior who lives in rural West Virginia, and Dex, a boy in her grade who moves to town. Viv works at a gym; Dex doesn’t do sports. Viv lives a middle class life; Dex is only recently out of extreme poverty. Viv lives with her dad, and her mom and favorite aunt have passed away; Dex lives with his mom, and is estranged from his addict dad. Viv is anti-fracking; Dex’s mom works on the pipeline. But Viv and Dex are drawn to each other. This dual point of view novel barrels straight toward a huge conflict between these two characters.

Carpenter handles the moment of greatest conflict with deft hands. Let’s take a look at how she writes a big emotional scene and helps readers connect with the characters’ emotions without getting maudlin.

Multiple Emotions in One Scene: Dex

Dex has just figured out that his relationship with Viv is not what he thought. She has cozied up to him under false pretenses. But readers have seen Viv connect with Dex for selfish reasons at first and seen her grow to really care for him.

Carpenter shows us Dex’s internal thoughts, so we understand why he’s so hurt.

For the first time, Dex had felt like he’d really mattered to someone, that another person had wanted him for who he was instead of who he could be if he tried harder. 

Then, we see his reaction to that hurt–lashing out at Viv, with a reiteration of the cause of his hurt.

“They were right about you,” he whispered. Viv hadn’t wanted him. She’d only wanted what he could tell her . . . . “People tried to warn me, and I wouldn’t listen, but they were right.”

The narrative camera moves to Viv, and we see her reaction from Dex’s perspective. That means we don’t get any interiority or understanding of what’s going on in her mind. We must infer, just like Dex does.

Viv’s body was stone still. “I think you should leave.”

This physical reaction and verbal action shift things for Dex. While he’s feeling hurt and anger, he also still cares about Viv.

Dex swallowed. He’d found her Achilles heel, he realized. Found and sliced it open. “Viv, I didn’t mean–”

By using three emotions in close proximity, Carpenter is delving deep into Dex’s character and showing the complexity of his emotions. This has the effect of making Dex a realistic, well-rounded character that readers can connect with. (Notice, too, the metaphor here. Carpenter extends the common metaphor of the Achilles heel–a character’s greatest vulnerability–to show us how Dex is thinking about his own actions. He has verbally attacked her, not realizing fully how cruel he was being.

Each emotion occurs in response to new information or thoughts. We see in real time how he moves from one emotion to another.

When dealing with multiple emotions in a scene, having a clear cause for the emotion keeps the reader from feeling what KidLit Craft contributor LA Biscay calls “emotional whiplash,” where the emotional landscape of the scene seems unpredictable and extreme. In this scene, Carpenter keeps us grounded in Dex’s perspective so we can read his emotions and feel alongside him.

Transitioning Between Points of View

The scene ends by returning to Dex’s sense of hurt, of being wronged by Viv, through his longing for her.

He wanted to hug her, to time travel back five minutes and never let her go.

Except that hadn’t been real.

How had it felt so real?

As he turned away, a crumpled sound broke the air, and Dex wasn’t sure if it came from Viv or his own heart breaking.

He didn’t stay to find out.

The next chapter (Chapter 40) stays with Dex as he returns home and has a confrontation with his mom about another topic. The important thing to note about that chapter is how the emotion from Chapter 39 carries into the scene and through it.

In Chapter 41, the story shifts to Viv’s point of view, transitioning smoothly out of Chapter 40–Dex starts texting her, and she receives the texts.

In time, the story has moved from Dex leaving Viv to sometime later when Dex is texting Viv. But we’ve missed a lot of time with Viv between those two points. Carpenter cleverly fills us in. Here’s the opening two paragraphs of Chapter 41.

Viv hadn’t known what she was going to do until she read the DMs from Dex.

After he’d torn away on the four-wheeler, she’d dropped on the cold ground, right where he’d left her, and cried. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d cried like that, bone-deep sobs convulsing her entire body.

This strategy is what writer and teacher David Macinnis Gill calls “First Things Second.” Carpenter starts the scene–most of the chapter is about what Viv is going to do next–and then fills us in on what happened in the time that we’ve skipped.

In some instances “First Things Second” just short-cuts some summary information, tucking it into the early part of the scene, but here, we get an extended return to Viv’s experience of the conflict with Dex.

It’s a clever move because readers have only experienced half of the story–Dex’s half–yet we needed to see Dex’s conversation with his mom in order to both stay with his emotion and move the plot forward.

Looking Back at Viv’s Experience

Looking back at Viv’s experience, instead of experiencing it in the moment, allows Carpenter to create some retrospective distance. It’s a key choice here because Viv has such a significant emotional response–sobbing. It can be hard for readers to connect with extreme emotion; it often has a distancing effect because deep emotional responses often make the person incapable of communicating.

Here, Carpenter puts Viv’s emotional response in the past tense: “She couldn’t remember the last time she’d cried like that.”

Then, instead of staying with Viv in her sobbing state, Carpenter takes us through Viv’s other painful moments–her beloved aunt’s death, her mom’s death, and then the terrible experience of watching her dad cry.

He hadn’t seen seven-year-old Viv creep into his room in the dark, hoping to curl up beside him since she couldn’t sleep. But she had seen him, the outline of him, and his shadow, curled on the bed and shaking, trying to muffle a low, raw moan with the pillow.

In this moment, readers connect with Viv as she witnesses her dad’s sorrow. And that feeling of Viv’s experience watching her dad sob transfers to the reader’s experience of watching Viv sob on the page. It’s a substitution that allows us to empathize deeply with Viv.

Limiting Physical Description and Action

Carpenter also limits her description of Viv’s physical response. She describes the sobbing in the second paragraph, as we’ve seen, and then includes only a few more physical details. In addition to the line above, in the two pages that cover Viv’s deep emotional response, we see:

–Yet here she was, balled up with her knees to her chest, gently rocking herself back and forth.

–her nerves felt completely overloaded

–. . . made Viv want to vomit

–She pressed her hands over her ears

–She trembled

In between, Carpenter includes Viv’s internal thoughts. (See our post on Interiority.) I recommend reading Chapter 41 to see how Carpenter develops the material in between physical description and action.

This strategy allows readers to connect with Viv because we understand the immediate context of her feeling, the historical context of her feeling, and the complexity of her current feeling.

Getting Out of an Emotional Scene

It’s true that sometimes people just stop crying. But as with everything in a novel, it helps if there’s a reason.

Carpenter gives herself a gift by introducing Viv’s dog Snick in Chapter 3. (She mentions Snick in Chapter 1, and we know he’s important if he takes up all-important real estate in Chapter 1!) In that chapter, Viv is coming down from a moment that scares her. Snick comforts her and she’s able to recalibrate emotionally because of his presence.

In Chapter 41, Snick also helps her recalibrate:

She trembled, and suddenly Snick was beside her, licking her face and hands, pawing at her arms. She opened her eyes, and it was like coming back to herself.

Viv has something outside of her prompt her to shift her emotional state. As readers, we come out of that emotional state with Viv, and the puppy helps us make that transition too. 

Now It’s YOUR Turn!

Big emotional moments can do really important work in a story, but they can go wrong in all sorts of ways. As you’re writing and revising scenes that hold big emotions, keep these strategies in mind:

  • Consider including multiple levels of emotion in one scene. What is your character feeling? And what else? And what else? Include those deeper emotions, but be sure to show the causes of emotional shifts.
  • Try “First Things Second.” Get started in a scene, and then include stuff readers need to know that happened in the time that has elapsed since the last scene.
  • Provide bits of vivid backstory to create context for the emotion. When else has your character felt or witnessed this emotion?
  • Use a small amount of physical description and action and a larger amount of interiority. Play around in your revision to find the right balance between the two.
  • Give your character–and your readers–a way out of the emotional scene. Try including some external cause for an emotional shift, or try some internal thought that causes the change.

For more on interiority and emotion, check out these posts!



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