In almost every story, there is a pill that makes something exciting happen. Whether it brings love, stardom, or calamity in your book is up to you.

Have you ever seen those ads for weight loss supplements? Whether it’s a pill, a drink, or a fad diet, do you really believe anyone lost 50 pounds in a month without a tapeworm – or perhaps losing a limb?

When it seems that good, it can’t be true.

We’d all love to have a magic pill that makes weight drop off. Or pills that do a range of others things, like bring us love, make us rich, or fulfill our other fantasies. But… while it’s too good to be real in this world, such pills are a staple in books. Maybe it’s not weight loss, but it’s always something big.

How about wishing for a love and then the perfect guy falls out of the sky, metaphorically – or perhaps literally, if it’s a sci-fi thriller. He falls head over heels in love with you and only you. This would be the pill in Twilight.

What about a pill that gave you a stratospheric rise to stardom with little effort? Anyone might take that. It never happens in real life, but somehow in books it becomes possible. It works so well, because we want to believe such pills exist.

This is the pill of perfect detectives, who always crack the case. This is what makes Nancy Drew mysteries so delightful. The opening of doors as she tracks down the culprit, and she always does. When the case seems hopeless, Nancy, or Poirot, or even Jack Ryan, just pops another pill and a clue appears.

Want the ability to do magic? That one makes the Harry Potter story. Want to leave an awful home life? Harry Potter too. Go from being a nobody to a somebody everyone celebrates? Again, Harry Potter.

How about “They need you! It can only be you. Here is your mission, if you accept it: Adventure beyond your wildest dreams! Just for you. Let’s get going!” That is Harry Potter again, but we’ll switch it for Star Wars. Becoming the hero, whether you are the prince or the pauper, or Luke Skywalker, is an all-time favorite.

Switched at birth – you are really a princess! That one never fails, like in Sleeping Beauty. It is also the biggest possible surprise for Luke Skywalker (OK, Leia is the princess), but his origins are darker.

The just-a-misunderstanding pill is also wildly effective. Resolutions like, “Your parents will get together as soon as you re-introduce them” is a classic version of this pill and makes The Parent Trap.

“Yes, I’m super rich and I don’t mind that you aren’t.” That’s part of the Fifty Shades of Grey package, along with a crazy, perfect guy (after you solve his problems). You do, of course, which is the meteoric success pill.

“There’s treasure under the floorboards!” This one can be any kind of treasure. Like an alien landing in your backyard. That’s E.T. How many times in the real world do cute, intelligent aliens land on your lawn and make friends?

In pretty much any story, there is a pill that makes something exciting happen. Whatever that is can be decided by the author. This would be stories like Wendy meeting Peter Pan or Alice finding herself in Wonderland.

The something exciting can also be something horrid, and it very often is. War is a perennial favorite, but it can be anything. For Hansel and Gretel, it was a very bad witch.

Sometimes horrid is mixed with crazy. As when Snow White gets kicked out of the palace and meets the seven dwarfs.

Any combination can work, and more seems to be a good recipe. Make sure you give your characters enough too-amazing-to-be-true pills.

There is one exception to this rule of the one thing every book needs. That’s when there is a true absence of any and all pills. It’s the sheer lack of them that makes the story. It’s the impossibility of this life, the plodding, constantly thwarted existence that is at its very heart. This would be a Kafkaesque story, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or the 1987 comedy movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles in which it proves nigh impossible for Steve Martin to get home for Thanksgiving.

 

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Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 26 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

5 thoughts on “One Thing You Absolutely Need In Your Book

  1. I love this article! I am picturing a writer as a pharmacist, ready to dispense the perfect pill for whatever ails a lagging manuscript. Just one quibble: Wendy meets Peter Pan. Cheers!

    1. Mica Rossi says:

      In the book, Peter meets Mary, who is Wendy’s mother (Mrs. Darling) first. 🙂

      1. BookBaby Andre says:

        Yes, thanks. Change has been made.

  2. Barbara says:

    This is part and parcel of why you read, to escape that boring, humdrum life to something exciting. Even though I ATTEMPT to keep things realistic, that magic pill seems to pop out of nowhere and makes things tense/exciting/unusual, etc. I like the Jake Ryans (I’m still trying to figure out how they cast a little guy for him in the movie), Harry Potters, Luke Skywalker, Nancy Drew, Judy Bartons and Evalles in books and movies. It is that magic pill which keeps you reading.

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