The Very Good Reason

by Barb, still recovering from her knee replacement, but getting stronger everyday

Hi. Barb here and today I want to talk about that point where plot and character meet–where it becomes apparent to your sleuth that he or she is the only one who can solve the mystery, bring the guilty to justice, or even, save the world (if you’re writing a thriller.)

I’m talking about the Very Good Reason (or VGR).

I first heard about the Very Good Reason in a course taught by writer, editor and teacher extraordinaire, Ramona DeFelice Long. For the amateur sleuth, the Very Good Reason is why she gets proactively involved in (and not just caught up in) the investigation. For a thriller with an everyman or everywoman protagonist, the Very Good Reason is the reason they don’t just call the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, etc and be done with it. After all, that’s what almost any normal human would do. Why does your protagonist dig in instead of running in the other direction as quickly as possible?


It took me awhile to understand how vitally important the VGR is. The VGR is what flips your protagonist from passive to active. If your character is driving the investigation, they are also driving the narrative. They have goals in every scene. The reader straps himself in to go on the ride.

Can you write an amateur sleuth without a VGR? I have seen it done, where the sleuth is wandering around, overhearing stuff, learning things because she’s a part of the community and the professionals aren’t, and then she puts it all together at the end. But it’s hard to do well. Very, very hard. Because an aimless protagonist is usually going to result in an aimless narrative.


What are the VGRs? There are some that are so well used that they’re clichés. Your protagonist is the main suspect. Someone near and dear to her is a suspect. Someone near and dear to her may be the next victim. But even these require the writer to dig in, do more work and build a believable rationale that is unique to the sleuth and the story.

The above VGRs are often coupled an incompetent professional force. The bumbling country police. The arrogant FBI man with his own agenda. I don’t love these kinds of solutions unless they’re deeper and more interesting than that. I try to have my professionals work their own perfectly reasonable theory of the case, which may or may not happen to be the right one. And they may be hamstrung by laws and procedures that don’t fetter our amateur.

Finding the VGR is a huge challenge for people who write a long-running series. By the time the protagonist is done, everyone she knows may have been a victim or a suspect. I do think, as time and books go on, the author does get a bit of a gimme. If your sleuth has been involved in many investigations, she develops a reputation and people begin to proactively seek her help. Of course, there has to be a VGR she says yes to these requests.

DeathOfAmbitiousWomanFrontDoes a professional need a VGR–a cop, an FBI agent, a spy? I think yes, but it’s different. My first mystery, The Death of an Ambitious Woman, featured a female police chief. She pursued the mysterious death of female executive relentlessly, over the objections of her mayor, her district attorney and some of the men on her force. While I was writing the book, early readers kept asking me, “Why does she do this?” I kept saying, “Because it’s her job.” And they kept saying, “That’s not enough.” Which always caused me to wonder, how do you do your job?

But of course, they were correct. Which I realized eventually. I needed a Very Good Reason. And that’s what made the book.

They only difference is, with a professional, you may not reveal the VGR early on, but rather dribble it out over the course of the book and bring it home during the climax. For professionals, I think of it this way. Of all the bar stories in your repertoire, why are you telling this one? Probably because it made a personal connection.

Understanding the VGR has truly helped me as a mystery writer. Of course, coming up with the right one for each book is still a huge challenge.

Readers, what do you think? Is the VGR important?

33 Thoughts

  1. Thank you for this reminder, Barb. I am exactly at the midpoint there in my WIP so this is perfect timing. And it may be why my protagonist (that is, her author) is feeling a bit aimless!

  2. Thank you for the shout-out, Barb, and wonderful explanation of the VGR. This is the big question for the amateur sleuth mystery writer: why doesn’t this character act like a normal person and follow the crime story in the newspaper or on FB, while safe at home drinking coffee? It’s all about a plausible and valid why. I’ve used CLAMMED UP as an example in my courses because the VGR is so well done.

  3. The VGR brings credibility to a mystery with an amateur sleuth, which makes it an essential element. Barb Ross and Ramona DeFelice Long, you both give brilliant explanations for the VGR. I’m wondering, do you think it works if the amateur sleuth believes the VGR, even if other characters in the book don’t? Does this add a layer of conflict or undermine the VGR? And Barb, can’t end without saying I hope to read another Chef Ruth Murphy mystery someday. The Death of an Ambitious Woman was a great read.

    1. Thanks for the shout out for Death of an Ambitious Woman, Michele!

      I do think a VGR as you’ve posited is plausible. The professionals, in particular are often skeptical of the protagonist’s VGR. Often there’s an over protective spouse/lover who is, too. (“Leave it to the professionals.”) So I don’t see why others couldn’t be. The one caveat is, in addition to the protagonist believing, the reader must believe.

  4. Love this explanation Barb–it’s always a challenge when the MC’s profession has nothing to do with crime-solving. I’m trying something different from a cozy mystery and realizing the same challenge is there: Why would she do that??

    I loved your first book too!

  5. An excellent post, Barb. Thank you so much. And you know how much I LOVE “The Death of an Ambitious Woman.” Wonderful news that you are getting better!

  6. Ooh, I love graphs and pictures! But I agree: the (usually) cozy protagonist needs to become involved not simply because she’s on the scene, or because she thinks she’s smarter than all local law enforcement or even the FBI. That means the death and solving the crime must affect her personally (she’s the suspect) or someone near to her who she cares about, or as an alternative, involve an issue that is important to her–like justice. No one should insert him- or herself into a criminal investigation out of curiosity or because they have nothing better to do. That puts the protagonist and her friends and family at risk, which is just plain dumb. (Good thing you don’t need your knee to use your head. Keep writing!)

  7. Terrific post, Barb — thanks. In How to Write Killer Fiction, Carolyn Wheat calls this moment “taking the case.” Your term — or Ramona’s — brings home the importance. I especially like your point that the VGR is what drives the rest of the story. I’m working on a new series proposal, and #1 is easy, but in #2 and #3, we have to use our noggins!

    1. I think books 2 and 3 are the hardest. In book #1, the VGR is often part of the premise. In books #4 on, your sleuth has a track record. But books 2 and 3 are tough.

  8. I absolutely agree about the VGR. And I can tell the authors who haven’t given it any thought. I will admit I give authors plenty of leeway when it comes to the main characters/close family or friend as suspect VGR. Yes, it’s a cliche, but it works. However, the books I really enjoy are the ones that have an added layer to the VGR. And I especially love the books where the police are competent. I actually find that the main character working on the case because the police are incompetent is my least favorite VGR.

    Of course, even if a character has a VGR, if she isn’t driving the story, the reader can tell. I’ve read books like that and they always annoy me since the plot isn’t really going anywhere.

    1. I agree Mark, on both points. Incompetent professionals are my least favorite VGR. And, I get plenty of manuscripts to critique where the sleuth is wandering aimlessly. It’s always note #1 from me to fix.

  9. A question I’ve asked endlessly for 40 years – Why would she do that?

    1. Yes, sometimes that’s harder to answer than “why would anyone kill the victim?” I always picture the ditsy co-ed going down to the dark basement where she heard an odd noise, armed with only a candle. Why???

  10. Barb and Bill, you cannot possibly have been married 40 years, you crazy kids 🙂 I love the visual, and the new-to-me term “VGR” (which made me immediately think back to all my finished books and identify if my heroines did, in fact, have VGRs–I think so, LOL!). Both the graphic and the term are going directly into my writer’s toolbox. Thanks!

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