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Reading Challenge: Funeral Home Break-in

Have you ever been reading and realized . . . it’s been four pages and no one’s said anything?

Oh, just me?

Readers and writers alike know there’s a lot more to a story than just dialogue. This handy dandy TADA acronym I just learned lays it out—it stands for Thoughts, Action, Dialogue, and Appearance. Gabriela Pereira from DIY MFA discussed how these four elements are what help bring a character to life on the page and introduced me to a tool called the Character Compass that helps us see how much of each is happening in a given scene.

For this part of the 2021 WriterIgniter Reading Challenge, I’m taking this technique and applying it to a scene in the novel I’ve been reading for the challenge: The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson.

Let’s be real—I’m going to have to spoil a bit of the story to properly breakdown the scene, but I won’t give everything away.

I’m choosing a scene from pages 44 – 53 that I’m going to refer to as the “Funeral Home Break-in.” To give you some context, this scene features our protagonist, Jake Baker, his Uncle C, and the new kid in town, Billy Yellowbird. The three of them break into the Funeral Home so Billy can say goodbye to his grandmother who passed away.

A circle with a vertical and horizontal lines through, each line is labeled starting from right to left: Thought, Action, Dialogue, Appearance.
DIY MFA's Character Compass

I drew the above Character Compass on some paper and labelled the lines like it they did with the four TADA words. I reread the scene in my book with these four elements in mind:

Thoughts – Can also be considered feelings. Take look at what the character is thinking about in this scene, but also observe what they’re not thinking about because that can be just as interesting. As the scene gets going it’s pretty clear Jake Baker, our main character, is freaked out by what they’re doing, but goes along with it because he doesn’t want to be left out and he doesn’t want to disappoint his uncle.

Action – This is anything that a character does. It could be a mundane as taking a walk or as thrilling as fighting a dragon. Pay attention to if anything is happening and whether that supports or contradicts the other TADA elements. Poor Jake starts to reach for his uncle’s hand to hold because he’s scared, but stops himself just in time, to avoid embarrassment.

Dialogue – Easy, right? For funsies, let’s define it. This is what characters are saying to each other. A character could be talking to themselves or there could be a group of them talking to each other. Does the dialogue in your scene mirror the character’s thoughts or is something else happening instead? Billy apologizes to Jake for grabbing him because he was spooked, “Sorry. I . . . thought I saw it move.” Which encourages Jake’s paranoid imagination to run wild about what that could mean.

Appearance – More than just the character’s outward looks, there are layers to appearance. Are they tapping their foot? Do they have red eyes? Are they yawning? A character’s demeanor reveals the subtext of how they’re feelings (in this way, appearance can be linked to Thoughts). Pay attention to things they’re doing that aren’t deliberate, too, like a tick or a quirk. After accomplishing what they came to do in the Funeral Home, Jake realizes the owner is silently watching them from a corner. Just as he intends to say a warning, Uncle C looks right at the owner of the Funeral Home and gives the tiniest nod. While Jake doesn’t address it, the reader can infer that Uncle C and the owner of the Funeral Home are in cahoots. What does that mean? We don’t know . . . yet.

After analyzing all that in “Funeral Home Break-in,” I thought about just how much of each TADA element was present. There was quite a lot of thought and appearance, so I placed a dot along the line I made on my compass close to the edge of the circle for each category. The characters were moving almost the entire scene until the end, but that didn’t seem to be the focus of the narrative. I placed a dot a little less than halfway along the line for action. The talking was sparse until the end of the scene when Uncle C did a lot of talking, so I placed the dot a little less than halfway along the line for dialogue.

At first glance, the scene doesn’t seem balanced, but after rereading it a few times, I think it was exactly what it needed to be. The story is being told through a lot of Jake’s Thoughts, so it doesn’t surprise me that it continued to be reflected in that way.

Have you tried using this technique with your writing or a book you’re reading? I’m debating about which scene from my current work-in-progress to test out. I have a feeling it’ll lean more heavily on dialogue, but who knows . . . I might surprise myself.

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