Authors love to debate their craft, and few topics are more hotly argued than the humble blurb. I say humble, for it’s tiny compared to a book, and yet it’s the keystone that supports the relationship between reader and writer. Few people buy a book solely because of its cover. Most will read the first paragraph of the story, or some random pages. Some will look at reviews. But everyone reads the blurb. So, what makes a good one?
The people who know the most about blurbs – the big publishers, don’t share. Knowledge is power, and in this case it’s sales too.
Self-published authors share generously, but here lies a morass of personal preference, brilliance, naivety, truths and half-truths.
Anyway, the best place to start learning how to write a good blurb is with readers. Why do they choose one book over another? So, here are my tips – gleaned, both as a reader and an Amazon bestselling author, on what works. Some, I promise, you won’t have seen before.
The blurb has only a few seconds to spark interest. People are busy – even when they’re lazing around. Instead of reading your blurb they could be checking out cat videos. Or watching TV. Or texting a friend. Or, worst of the worst, reading someone else’s blurb . . .
So, make the first line count. It should widen the eyes of the reader and pull them in.
Here’s some research from the old brick and mortar days. Readers spend an average of 15 seconds on a blurb. Yes, you read that right – 15 seconds. If your blurb doesn’t draw them in from the get go, you’re leaking sales like a glass without a bottom.
And that’s in a physical book store. There aren’t many titles vying for attention there. Also, the book has to be placed back on the shelf and another one selected, and that encourages a potential buyer to hold off on their decision a little longer. On Amazon, it’s click click and you’re gone. Those cat videos are always calling. So are millions of other books.
So, how do you get a reader’s attention?
The literary world has a fancy name for one method: in medias res. But when we writers aren’t trying to impress each other, we use the term hook. In medias res is usually spoken about in relation to the first chapter of a book, but if you think it’s limited to that, think again.
I list a sampling of hooks below, starting with our fancy schmancy Latin term:
In medias res
This means “in the middle of things.” It works because something happening is more interesting than nothing happening. It doesn’t matter if it’s a first chapter or a blurb. You can set the scene if you want to, but a potential reader might be long gone by the time you get to the action. Action, of course, is a subjective term. The action must be appropriate to the genre. A thriller might start the blurb with physical action, and a romance some other way entirely. The important thing to do is to immediately confirm to the reader that they’ve got their hot little hands (or more likely their twitchy click finger) on the type of material that they like to read. Have a look at these made up examples:
Action: James Bond looked down the barrel of the Walther PPK leveled at his head. Death, one-eyed, unblinking, inevitable, met his gaze.
Romance: Lady Chatterley could not see the gamekeeper’s face. But she could hear his voice, and she knew that she would listen for it all the days of her life.
Make sure something is happening – something consistent with genre. And whatever that something is, it should suggest a whole string of other somethings to follow.
The Eyebrow Lifter
Curiosity is one of the great drivers of human nature. It’s one of the propelling forces behind science. It is, in fact, the basis of our civilization. Without curiosity, humankind would never have invented blogs, the internet, computers, writing, stone tools . . . or gazed at the stars and wondered what they were. Leverage this primal instinct to your advantage. It’s powerful.
Here are the first lines of some real blurbs:
Could you survive on your own, in the wild, with everyone out to make sure you don’t live to see the morning? The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.
The Capitol Building, Washington DC: Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon believes he is here to give a lecture. He is wrong. Within minutes of his arrival, a shocking object is discovered. It is a gruesome invitation into an ancient world of hidden wisdom. The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown.
“I am Johannes Verne, and I am not afraid.” The Lonesome Gods, by Louis L’Amour.
These blurbs pose questions. Some, like the first one, are direct. Others are indirect. Either way, they act to stir up a person’s curiosity. They withhold information and make people want to know something.
A hook is anything that gets attention. Questions are a great way to do it, but sometimes the complete opposite works just as well. By the complete opposite, I mean a statement of fact that doesn’t withhold information, but provides it. Newspaper headlines and magazine articles work like this. Consider these real headlines:
Sir Winston Churchill Dead
Obama Sweeps to Historic Victory
Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins
These actually provide all the information a reader needs. Yet you can imagine the vast numbers of people, when these matters were fresh news, who saw the headline and went on to read the article. Why? Because the headline alerted them that this was a subject they were interested in, and they wanted the details.
Taglines for fiction often do the same thing. They use keywords that alert the reader to what the story is about. Here’s an example from New York Times bestselling author H. M. Ward. It’s from volume 5 of The Ferro Family series:
Money. Power. Sex.
Poetry catches attention. By its nature, it stands out, otherwise it wouldn’t be poetry. But for our purposes, I’m not necessarily talking about something as distinctive as rhyme – I mean something more subtle such as alliteration or iambic meter. These are all natural modes of expression in the English language. They have the effect of standing out from ordinary language; they have a rhythm like a heartbeat that draws the reader forward. Dean Koontz says he sometimes uses iambic meter in his prose for that reason. Advertises use these techniques, sometimes including actual rhyme, as well. Here are examples drawn from famous movie taglines:
Whoever wins…we lose. Alien vs Predator.
Man has made his match… now it’s his problem. Blade Runner.
Chucky gets lucky. Bride of Chucky.
One ring to rule them all. The Fellowship of the Ring.
The mission is a man. Saving private Ryan.
Trust a few. Fear the rest. X-Men.
The say whaaaat?
There are no specifics for this one. It could be anything – so long as it startles for some reason. Here’s an example from John Marsden. It’s a book title:
Tomorrow, When the War Began.
This is a ripper. It messes with our sense of the normal order of things. Generally, we would expect something like, Tomorrow, When the War Begins. Or, The War Begins Tomorrow.
Contrast is powerful. It works by bringing opposing ideas or imagery together, and the resulting tension throws each into a stronger light. The whole becomes greater than its parts. Want some proof? There’s a reason the following quotes are among the best known in the English language:
To be, or not to be? Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Macbeth, by William Shakespeare.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair… A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.
All for one and one for all. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas.
Like I say, contrast is powerful.
You may have noticed something about my examples. All of them use at least two of the techniques that I’ve listed. Each technique is powerful in its own right, but used in combination their effect snowballs. For instance, every single example under the “contrast” heading not only uses contrast but also alliteration and iambic meter – even the prose of Charles Dickens.
Another thing that you might have noticed is that many of these examples aren’t taken from book blurbs. Don’t limit your source of inspiration to books alone – ideas are all around you. Train yourself to spot them. Study them. Understand them. Incorporate them into your own skill set and make the techniques your own. Otherwise your blurb will read the same as ten thousand others.
There’s a lot of overlay between seizing a reader’s attention and stimulating interest. I think of the later as building on the first. Getting attention is all about the first sentence. If done successfully, the reader is compelled to read onward. This is where the blurb can really work its magic, but it doesn’t have to work quite so hard because momentum has started to build.
What most interests a potential book buyer is a book that the buyer wants to read. That’s pretty simple, huh? But people often forget something as basic as that.
So, what do people want to read? What interests them?
Well, the majority of people have a favorite genre or two. In my case, I read epic fantasy, but I also read sword and sorcery, crime and thrillers. That means there’s a lot of genres that I don’t read. For instance, urban fantasy. Now, a blurb should be signaling up front in its very first words what genre it is. Readers use that to decide if they want to read the book, and no fancy pants technique like the ones that I’ve listed above is going to make them read something they’re not interested in. You can’t appeal to all readers, so make sure the ones that you might appeal to know this is something for them. And do it from the word go.
But signaling genre isn’t enough. For instance, although I love epic fantasy it encompasses different nuances, moods and styles. Some that I like are: the hero (established or coming of age), a quest, a touch of magic, unsympathetic bad guys, high stakes, high styled prose. What I don’t like are anti-heroes, sympathetic bad guys or ultra-modern prose. And I have certain absolute turnoffs. If I’m reading an epic fantasy blurb and the main character is called Richard, or Derek, or some such name from the “real” world I click to the next possible purchase straight away. The important thing here is that what interests me may not interest others and vice versa. A good blurb gets this sorted quickly so that the disinterested can escape without time-wastage, and the interested are drawn ever deeper. Blurbs uses keywords like “quest” or “dragons” or “ancient evil” to give a sense of the specific nature of a story.
I said earlier that attention leads to interest. That’s true, but the reverse is also useful. Having gained attention, and then having stimulated interest by providing the true “flavor” of the book, you can compound interest by threading through more hooks in the prose. The middle sections of a blurb should pose a range of story questions. This heightens tension, increases interest and gives the potential buyer a reason to purchase the book – they want to find out what only reading the whole thing can tell them.
There’s a snowball effect in blurbs. Attention leads to interest. Interest to desire. This is where the earlier parts of your blurb work so well that the reader wants to know what happens. They can’t just put the book down and walk away. They need to know how things turn out for the character. Maybe they’re also fascinated by the setting. Perhaps they’ve fallen for the writing style. Whatever it is, or whatever combination of things are working on them, this is the time for a final twist or raising of the stakes – make the reader’s heart pound.
So, perhaps the most vital aspect of any blurb is the finishing sentence. This is where attention, interest and desire come to a crescendo. Or at least it should. Don’t let your blurb trail off on the final hurdle. Here is the place for the last hook, the last shot of adrenalin to electrify a reader’s curiosity. Make them desperate to know what happens next. I say this because…
What happens next is the reader’s decision to move onto the next book or to buy yours. Or at least to check out the look inside feature or maybe the reviews.
If you’ve followed the preceding steps and got their attention, interested them, roused their desire, and then finished off with one last masterstroke, then the blurb reader will click the buy button/look inside feature, and they’re well on the way to enjoying your book and you’re on your way to earning another loyal reader.
What I’ve described so far is a set of principles for writing a blurb. It’s not a formula, because these principles can be used in any way, shape or form, only limited by the creativity and art of the writer. What follows are some techniques that help make the principles shine even more brightly.
The most common fault with blurbs is a lack of clarity. An author, trying to condense hundreds of pages of story into a few paragraphs ends up with a complex and confusing mess. They understand it, because they know the story. Others don’t have a clue what’s going on. This is blurb poison. Who buys a book if they don’t understand, in a nice easy read, what’s happening and why?
Here’s a tip. People read in an “F” shape pattern. Don’t believe me? Google “F shaped reading pattern” and then click on the images bar. A picture tells a thousands words. This means that blurbs should have lots of whitespace, especially at the beginning. If the blurb is strong, and you make the format clear and easy to read, you’ll find more readers. Simple as that.
I also advise simple words, simple sentences, and a perfect flow of logic. Everyone is time poor. It’s your job as a writer to make the language clear, not to throw dust in the reader’s eye.
6. A hero to cheer for
Put your main character at, or near the beginning of the blurb. Give the reader a chance to identify with them, understand them, like them, and have empathy for their goals. If a blurb can’t start that much of a spark, why would the reader try the book just on the off chance they might feel those things after a hundred pages or so?
An engaging hero is one thing, but there’s no story without obstacles. What problems does he or she face? Show the reader what’s at stake – not everything, just two or three of the most important things. Importantly, you should identify a villain. Put some kind of a name on them to bring the forces of opposition into focus.
This is that special something that lifts a good blurb to great heights. It’s rare. Only one blurb in a thousand has it. Voice will separate you from the masses. It will take things out of the bland “I’ve read that kind of blurb a million times before,” reaction into “wow!” territory. A few of the ways this can be done are:
An intimate conversational style
A specific sense of humor.
These styles all comes from getting in the character’s (or narrator’s) head and bringing their voice from the book into the blurb. It’s one of the hardest things to do, but it works. Before I leave you to check out some cat videos, here are two examples:
A Thirst for Vengeance, by Edward M Knight.
My name is Dagan. There are few alive with more blood on their hands than me.
I have lived a life of degeneracy. I have studied the teachings of the dark mage Helosis and walked the path of the dead. I have been to the shadowrealm and emerged with my soul intact. I have challenged the Black Brotherhood and ridden with the Knights of Valamor as a brother-in-arms. I have spoken to Xune.
I’ve killed indiscriminately—for money, for fame. For vengeance.
When I was young, I fell in love with a princess and was punished by her death. I have scampered, begged, and thieved. I have been homeless. I have ruled the greatest city ever built.
I began a succession war. I alone know who lifted the Seals of Regor—and how. I was there when magic was restored to this world. If I’d been born in a different age, I would have been the greatest sorcerer known to man.
My name is Dagan. This is my tale.
Chase the Dark, by Annette Marie
Piper Griffiths wants one thing in life: To become a Consul, a keeper of the peace between humans and daemons. There are precisely three obstacles in her way.
The first is Lyre. Incubus. Hotter than hell and with a wicked streak to match. His greatest mission in life is to get Piper into bed and otherwise annoy the crap out of her. The second is Ash. Draconian. Powerful. Dangerous. He knows too much and reveals nothing. Also, disturbingly attractive — and scary. Did she mention scary?
The third is the Sahar Stone. Top secret magical weapon of mass destruction. Previously hidden in her Consulate until thieves broke in, went on a murder spree, and disappeared with the weapon.
And they left Piper to take the fall for their crimes.
Now she’s on the run, her dreams of becoming a Consul shattered and every daemon in the city gunning to kill her. She’s dead on her own, but there’s no one she can trust — no one except two entirely untrustworthy daemons . . . See problems one and two.