Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing a book blurb is a little like online dating, I suppose.
You’ve snagged a prospective “date” by your alluring cover, so now you’ve got to show there’s more than just surface appeal. The blurb of your book is the second thing a potential reader will look at after the cover—so take the time to get it right.
Your book blurb (aka online description), like your dating profile, has to be engaging and alluring to attract passersby. It has to stand out and convince people quickly that spending several hours discovering more about your book will be time well spent. In a short space of time, you need to create intrigue and mystery, but not give your whole story away, and you need to show a little of who you really are without becoming false and misleading.
Tricky, isn’t it?
Tricky, but oh-so important in attracting prospective readers.
Let’s take a look at the 5 core elements of a good book blurb and how you can get the most out of them.
The perfect pick-up line
That picture-perfect initial encounter, gentle music is playing in the background, your date clearly likes what he sees—you open your mouth and … utter drivel or charmingly witty?
Think of the first sentence of your book blurb as your pick-up line. It must be new, clever and engaging—not that line we’ve all heard a million times before. Your aim is to make a potential reader want to know more. Don’t be boringly familiar.
Your opening sentence is entirely up to you, of course. You might decide to introduce your main characters by focusing on the precarious predicament in which they find themselves:
“Adrift in a rapidly changing world, the Bevan family cling to tradition while wrestling with taxes, tree blight and the need to keep the family skeleton firmly in the cupboard.”
(Hunting Unicorns, Bella Pollen)
Or perhaps set the scene and create the mystery right out of the starting gate:
“On the eve of a glittering society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life.”
(The House at Riverton, Kate Morton)
Don’t be flippant about that opening line. Be Mr Collins—spend time on it, “amuse [yourself] with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments”. Tinker until it is absolutely right.
On a stylistic note, I would highly recommend avoiding clichés. Easier said than done, I know, but prove your writing mettle and inject your own style right from the offing. After all, clichés are boring.
Talk about your characters…
Now don’t be coy—talk about your characters. You know your characters are interesting people—you’ve just spent months getting to know them, so have the confidence to bring them to life in your blurb.
When introducing your main character(s), show them in their best or most interesting light and give them dimension. Remember to talk about the dilemma your characters are facing. What personal demon do they need to conquer? Your aim is to give your reader a reason to care or be interested enough to find out more:
“In 1938, a small crooked-legged racehorse received more press coverage than Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt or any other news figure.”
(Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand)
…but don’t be misleading
That being said, ladies and gentleman—don’t be false about your book. There’s only so long someone can be strung along before they realize “Hey, this isn’t what I thought it was” and you (or your book) are tossed aside with careless abandon.
A supposed goal of online dating is to sift out the undesirables and find the perfect date, so you tailor your description for the sort of person you are looking for. Write the blurb for the audience you want and be honest—don’t dress a murder mystery as a romance novel.
Writing from my own experience, my reading choices are often mood based—if I’m looking for something with a little gore, I expect the book that promises this on the back cover is going to deliver. If it doesn’t by a fair way in, I’ll stop reading it.
Don’t give it all away on the first date
I’m sure it goes without saying, but have some class—don’t give everything away at the very first encounter. You want your potential reader to buy your book, don’t you? So try not to give away too much of the plot. It’s finding that rather essential fine line between revealing enough for your reader to want to know more and maintaining that air of mystery.
A useful way to help keep it mysterious is to keep it short. A blurb should not be more than 150 words. That is probably quite intimidating to someone who’s just written a few thousand.
But recall the words of Polonius, notorious blatherer himself—“Brevity is the soul of wit”. When it comes to book blurbs, by Shakespeare, he was right. Keep that figure of 150 in the forefront of your mind. Focus, zoom in on the most important aspects of the characters and plot. Fine-tune your writing by choosing that perfect word to replace several.
And keep them wanting more
You have succeeded in creating intrigue so now is the time to stop. Finish the blurb with a cliff-hanger—rather unsubtly, but very cordially, invite people to find out more.
You could end with a question:
“As mouths water in anticipation, can the solemnity of the Church compare with the pagan passion of a chocolate éclair?”
(Chocolat, Joanne Harris)
However, a question certainly isn’t essential:
(The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson)
The point is to make your ending count and leave the reader feeling desperate to find out what happens.
See what I mean—writing a book blurb can be tricky. But have confidence in yourself and in your writing. You have written something that is important to you, that you feel strongly about—maybe even a piece of your soul. Do it justice by spending the time on writing the most effective blurb possible so you can share your soul with those who are really worthy.
What’s your favorite book blurb, and why? Let me know in the comments.