Vee is a mild-mannered high school junior. She works behind the scenes on school plays doing make-up and costumes. Several months earlier, Vee fell asleep in her car while it was running in the closed garage. Her parents are watchful and nervous, still unconvinced it was an accident.
Vee has a crush on the play’s male lead, Matthew. He flirts with her. Vee’s gorgeous friend, Sydney, plays the female lead. Everyone’s talking about a new reality game on the internet called NERVE where players complete by participating in difficult or embarrassing dares. People can also sign up to be Watchers, meaning they follow participants and try to capture their dares on camera. Participants and Watchers receive prizes. Watchers are compensated for taking good footage or getting participants to break the rules. Participants who receive a lot of “likes” or comments from the internet audience advance to harder, live challenges.
On a whim, Vee signs up to do a simple challenge. Another back-stage cast member named Tommy goes with her to be her cameraman and bodyguard. She has to pour water on herself in a coffee shop while shouting that cold water makes her hot. She realizes after the video has gone live that the water soaked through her white T-shirt leaving little to the imagination. At first, Vee is mortified. The internet audience quickly begins commenting, and friends (including Matthew) are impressed by her bravery. Spurred on by the encouragement of her peers and the offer of a pair of expensive boots from the illusive NERVE producers, she agrees to another dare.
Vee’s second dare involves returning to the coffee shop. She will meet a boy named Ian, whom the NERVE creators have selected. She has to get Ian to order her a drink while she stands in the middle of the store singing “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” The attractive Ian whispers that his dare includes getting her to announce loudly that he’s good in bed. The two help each other complete their dares. Audiences like the two kids together, so Vee receives a text from NERVE inviting her to do another dare with Ian. Each time, she’s offered things like clothing, phones or spa treatments. Often, these are things she has pinned or marked on other online sites. Somehow, NERVE has access to all of her preferences like this. They are also able to decide whose messages she can receive on her phone and when.
Ian and Vee’s next dare involves going to a bowling alley and each asking 10 people for condoms. When they arrive, they realize the bowling alley has been rented out by an abstinence group for the evening. Their requests meet with frustration and rage as the teens they approach feel they’re being taunted. Vee feels uncomfortable with the perception that she’s mocking people who haven’t done anything to deserve it. The kids manage to complete their dare just before being kicked out of the bowling alley.
Despite Vee’s discomfort during her challenges, the adrenaline rush propels her forward. She’s starting to like Ian, and it’s exciting to have so many fans. It’s also fun to get expensive prizes. She accepts another dare, in which she and Ian must go to a shady part of town. Vee must get a man to offer her $100 for sexual services while Ian must get someone to offer him sex for free. They don’t actually have to perform the acts.
The kids interact with prostitutes, pimps and creepy men in cars, making sure to get everything on camera. Vee is also approached by a kind man who says he and his wife run a ministry for girls like her. Watchers lurk in the shadows, taping footage of their own. When Ian’s dare is complete, Vee gets a man to accept her offer. He turns out to be an undercover cop, and she and Ian make a run for it.
While many friends are encouraging Vee to continue in the game, people like Tommy are urging her to get out while she can. During one of the performances of their play, Vee sees Matthew and Sydney kissing for an especially long time on stage. She feels Sydney has betrayed her and Matthew has been leading her on.
Vee’s next dare feels more challenging because it involves her friends. She must confront Sydney about stealing Matthew. She also has to insult Sydney’s performance in the play. Ian has to go with her and embarrass one of Vee’s friends. Vee is no longer devastated about Matthew since she and Ian have kissed and are falling for one another. Vee and Ian reluctantly complete their dares, both feeling bad for what they’ve done afterward. Then they receive a text inviting them to participate in the grand prize dares.
Vee is prepared to scrap the game, even if it means forfeiting everything else she’s won. Then the NERVE people send her a text offering a full ride to fashion school. Ian is offered things like a car and emancipation from his parents, since the biggest thing he wants is his freedom. The kids agree to take the dare. All they’re told is that they must spend three hours in a VIP lounge at a swanky dance venue called Club Poppy. Once there, Ian and Vee are interviewed separately and invited to freshen up. Then they enter a room with five other finalists, and the doors are locked.
At first, the talking heads of the NERVE game appear on screens and invite the kids to get to know each other. They provide a cabinet full of alcohol for the teens. Ian and Vee are hesitant to let their guards down by having too much alcohol. They drink a little to be social and watch the other contestants. There is one heterosexual couple, one lesbian couple and another guy. Most of the others are eager to help themselves to the alcohol.
The NERVE moderators continue to offer cash prizes for the kids to do various activities. They even give a certain amount of money for each drink consumed. Two couples go into private bedrooms where they’re taped doing sexual activities. They win prizes and their online popularity ratings rise. Each person has to call an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend live and tell them whatever the NERVE people have scripted. Then each person has to call the parents of another participant and tell them their child has been in a terrible accident.
Later, each teen is sent to a room alone. Vee finds herself sitting in a replica of her car. She smells gas, like she did the night she fell asleep in the garage. She ponders whether she really did try to kill herself, or if it was an accident like she’s always believed. The group is then ordered to choose a victim from among them. Since Vee has a weaker personality and has gotten on the bad side of one of the lesbians, she wins the vote. The kids are all given guns. Throughout the evening, various participants bury their emotions and convince themselves the NERVE creators wouldn’t let anything really serious happen to them. Nevertheless, the guns feel real, and the kids are told to point them at Vee.
To make things worse for Vee, NERVE sends Sydney and Tommy into the suite. She feels the need to protect them as well as herself from the other contestants. Vee cries out to the viewing audience to call 9-1-1 because things have gotten out of hand. But the audience believes it’s all part of the game. Ian and Vee finally figure out that there is an audience on the other side of one of the panels to their room. They break the two-way mirror, temporarily kidnap one of the NERVE backers who was watching, and make their escape with Sydney and Tommy.
A month later, Vee is still grounded. She is released from the house to go on runs, where she meets Ian. They do their best to stay out of the limelight, even though former fans keep watching them. They still try to let audiences know the real dangers involved in NERVE. At the end of the book, Vee begins receiving texts from NERVE, inviting her to play the game again.