Don’t suffer from Nancy Drew Syndrome

“Gee whiz, that person is doing something mighty suspicious, let’s follow him and see what happens…”

And hence the story begins.

This is fine for Nancy Drew or the Famous Five, but if you want to keep modern adult readers engaged, you’re going to need to be a bit more sophisticated than that.

Pretty much all stories are based on change and transformation, either of a situation (if the story is more plot driven) or if a character (if the story is character driven). In order for transformation to take place, there needs to be a reason. 

If Sarah has been plodding along at her nine-to-five for the past ten years and nothing changes, she’ll probably plod along for another ten. You can’t just have her wake up one day and decide she wants to be a ninja archaeologist – nobody will buy it. There needs to be some trigger, preferably which can’t be ignored.

Triggers can be ‘towards’ or ‘away from’.

‘Towards’ triggers will be something the character desperately wants. This could be a the appearance of a person, a job, a prize, an environmental outcome, a wealth opportunity etc.

‘Away from’ triggers will be something the character definitely does not want, that they are fleeing from. This could be a looming, life-threatening danger, or could be more subtle than that, just something that will disrupt their comfortable life.

Here are some examples of triggers that oblige a character to act from popular literature:

  • Nala coming to tell Simba that the pride needs his leadership in The Lion King
  • Juliette is offered the job of Sheriff of the silo in Wool
  • Danny’s dad doesn’t come back from a poaching trip in the woods in Danny the Champion of the World.
  •  James Herriot is offered a new job as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales in If Only They Could Talk

Think back on the last few books you have read and make a list of the turning points or calls to action that the main characters encountered. 

Next make a list of ten triggers or calls to action that you can think of yourself. Make five of them ‘towards’ triggers and five of them ‘away from’.

Feel free to add your ideas in the comments below!

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