Image: Matthew Loffhagen
How is it that a writer can write a story spanning tens of thousands of words but stumble at a 250-300 word book blurb describing it? Put simply, being concise is hard, and being concise about something you know inside-and-out can seem downright impossible.
But fear not, because there’s a secret science to writing the perfect book blurb. Yes, it’s still difficult and yes, it’s much harder to do for your own work, but it is possible. If you’d rather have someone else write you an amazing blurb then let us know, but if you want to write your own – or just want to know how it’s done – then read on.
Book blurb = Sales psychology
Though they vary in content depending on a story’s genre or writing style, there is a simple structure that underpins 99% of successful book blurbs. This is because a blurb is far more about sales psychology than it is about the story it describes. Whether your book is biography, fiction or a collection of articles, it still has a ‘story’ – the journey on which it takes the reader. These stories vary wildly, but the key things that persuade people to invest in reading them remain the same.
Your blurb needs to do two main things. The first is to make the reader see that there is a benefit to buying your book. The second is to make buying your book feel like the natural next step. Achieve these goals and you’ll get your potential reader hooked.
The ‘simple structure’ I mentioned above works so well because it specifically addresses these two goals. Although I’m going to take this structure apart for you, let’s first look at the ideal blurb structure in its entirety. Assuming a 250-300 word blurb for maximum readability, the text should be broken into three equal(ish) paragraphs:
First line: The hook. Something interesting enough to snare the reader’s attention.
The first paragraph: Introduce the original status quo of your story, then reveal what has disrupted it.
The second paragraph: Introduce the possibility of resolution while stressing the extent of the existing upheaval.
The last line: End with a cliff-hanger that makes your reader want to learn more.
The third paragraph: A direct recommendation to the reader. This can take the form of a description of the emotional journey offered by the book, or quotes validating its quality. This paragraph may or may not be split into two, depending on whether the author has multiple quotes or wants to use one paragraph to directly address the reader.
By the end of this kind of blurb, the reader has already entered into the world of the story. They should know a character, understand their problem and have been introduced to the idea that the problem could get better or worse.
In short, they’ve already started reading.
This is a huge part of making buying your book feel like a natural next step. A good blurb doesn’t ask the reader to start reading a book, but to continue reading it. Once the reader has become invested in the story then you reassure them that they’re right – this book is great, it will make them feel a certain way, and they’re right to want to buy it. The third paragraph isn’t there to persuade, but to reassure the reader in an action they already want to take. This can be seen in the following blurb for Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version.
Even Barney Panofsky’s friends tend to agree that he is ‘a wife-abuser, an intellectual fraud, a purveyor of pap, a drunk with a penchant for violence and probably a murderer’. But when Barney’s sworn enemy threatens to publish this damning verdict, Barney is driven to write his own memoirs, rewinding the spool of his life, editing, selecting and plagiarising, as his memory plays tricks on him – and on the reader. Barney slides from crisis to success, from lowlife to highlife in Montreal, Paris and London, his exploits culminating in a final outrageous scandal.
‘A delightfully curmudgeonly mock memoir… an enticing, intelligent and bloody funny non-PC read’
‘A wildly funny, satiric, virtuosos performance’
While the writer runs their paragraphs together, it’s easy to spot each section doing its job. The first line introduces an intriguing protagonist, dropping ‘probably a murderer’ as a tantalizing inducement to read on. The book’s central conflict follows, describing a little of what the reader can expect and guaranteeing that events will come to a head in a particularly noteworthy way. Quotes end the blurb, chosen for their sheer volume of adjectives, pouring reassuring praise over the reader’s awakened interest.
As much as this may vouch for the structure, it’s not everything you’ll need to write your own blurb. For that, we have to take a closer look at the component parts.
1. The hook
The hook has one job – to give the reader a stake in what comes next. This could come in the form of a question they want answered, a character or situation they want to know more about or a statement that they want to understand – basically anything that makes them want to know more.
David Wong’s Futuristic Violence & Fancy Suits blurb begins:
Get ready for a world in which anyone can have the powers of a god or the fame of a pop star, in which human achievement soars to new heights while its depravity plunges to the blackest depths.
While Chuck Palahniuk’s Tell-all blurb starts with:
For decades, Hazie Coogan has tended to the outsized needs of Katherine ‘Miss Kathie’ Kenton, a star of the wattage of Elizabeth Taylor and the emotional torments of Judy Garland.
In both cases the reader is left with questions – ‘what does this world look like?’, ‘who is this character?’ – while also being dropped into the world of the story. But the subjects of these sentences don’t just excite interest; they offer a viewpoint or stake in the story. They’re the first concrete fact the reader encounters, offering what for the moment is their sole context for understanding the blurb.
What follows must, in some way, flow naturally from that context. Usually this means following that character, place or idea as change occurs, but that isn’t a must. The blurb for William Nicholson’s The Wind Singer uses the hook to set the stage, establishing a context which leads into an introduction of the protagonist and the story’s conflict:
In the walled city of Aramanth, exams are everything. When Kestrel Hath dares to rebel, the Chief Examiner humiliates her father and sentences the whole family to the harshest punishment.
However you use this introductory sentence, understand that it’s the entry point into your story. It needs to establish enough context that the next sentence can introduce a conflict that the reader understands – ‘tests are everything, but Kestrel won’t accept that’ or ‘Barney is a bad person, and that’s about to be exposed’.
When constructing your hook, don’t focus on the thing that’s most interesting. Instead, find the key context to your story and then work at expressing it in the most interesting way possible.
2. Introducing the conflict
The first paragraph has a lot to do. Ideally your hook will grab attention and deliver a key piece of context. The next few sentences should introduce the book’s main (or first) conflict. This is usually introduced with some combination of ‘But’ and ‘when’. At this point you introduce information that plays off the reader’s single piece of contextual information. In Tell-All this is:
But danger lurks when a gentleman called Webster Carlton Westward III arrives and worms his way into Miss Kathie’s heart and boudoir.
This is also the case with William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, where the hook and confliction introduction read:
Beautiful, flaxen-haired Buttercup has fallen for Westley, the farm boy, and when he departs to make his fortune she vows never to love another. When she hears that his ship has been captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts – who never leaves survivors – her heart is broken. But her charms draw the attention of the relentless Prince Humperdinck who wants a wife and will go to any lengths to have Buttercup.
Here Goldman cleverly pulls off the context/conflict juxtaposition twice. The hook introduces us to the love of Westley and Buttercup, while the next sentence introduces the conflict of Westley leaving and the new context of Buttercup never loving again. The third sentence introduces a conflict for this new context in the form of Humperdinck.
This is a skillfully written blurb, but it begins with the simple context/conflict structure. It’s important to remember, however, that in terms of writing a book blurb, ‘conflict’ just means something that alters or challenges the reader’s understanding of context. The blurb for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has the following hook and conflict introduction:
Hunter S. Thompson is driving to Las Vegas with his attorney, the Samoan, to find the dark side of the American dream. Roaring down the desert highway from Los Angeles, they realise there is only one way to go about such a perilous task: getting very, very twisted.
Here the conflict is not something that acts counter to the characters’ intent, but rather a new fact that introduces a change to the available context. The reader accepts ‘Two characters are in search of a goal’, and is then asked to adjust to ‘but they’ll be in a heightened state while doing it’.
The idea isn’t just to shock the reader, but to take them on a short journey. If they begin in one state of understanding and then move to another then they’re already reading the story – they’ve already travelled – and they’ll be far more willing to continue.
3. Teasing future events
The second paragraph is there to tease a possible future. The reader has already engaged with the story, and the second paragraph reveals that there’s plenty of road ahead. Barney’s Version even lists the destinations – ‘Montreal, Paris and London’ – but this can be done more subtly.
Having introduced the idea of testing as everything, and Kestrel’s impending punishment for disagreeing, the blurb for The Wind Singer continues:
Desperate to save them, Kestrel learns the secret of the wind singer, and she and her twin brother, Bowman, set out on a terrifying journey to the true source of the evil that grips Aramanth.
Here the writer references the protagonist’s goals, and then lists some intriguing outcomes for the story. Again, it’s about showing the reader that if they’ve enjoyed the journey so far, there’s a lot of interesting stuff left to come. The Princess Bride takes a particularly direct route to this:
So starts a fairy tale like no other, full of fencing, fighting, torture, poison, true love, hate, revenge, giants, hunters, bad men, good men, beautifulest ladies, snakes, spiders, beasts, chases, escapes, lies, truths, passion and miracles.
The main message of which is ‘so much is going to happen’. When writing your own blurb it’s important to understand that you’re trying to create a sense of possibility. The reader should have some appreciation of how things could go right and how they could go wrong. It’s fine to promise excitement and intrigue, but if you can be a little more specific about what’s to come then your reader will be far more engaged.
To this end it’s best not to hold back information. If there’s a car chase or a shootout then put it front and center, even if it’s late in the book. You don’t have to give details that spoil the scene, but not mentioning an exciting plot point in the blurb just makes it more likely the reader will never reach that plot point.
4. Describing experience
The final paragraph, or paragraphs, of the blurb takes the reader outside of the story. They’re no longer being told what to expect in the narrative, but what to expect from the product.
Quotes are good at this, since they tend to describe a reader’s experience, but not every author has access to quotes. If you have to write this section of the blurb yourself – or if you want to know which quotes to use – then it’s vital to recognize that we read in order to feel.
It’s a reductive description, but we buy books for feelings like we buy food for taste. We’re looking to feel certain things, and your final paragraph should advertise the exact ‘taste’ of your narrative. Again, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is direct in what it offers the reader:
Riotously funny, daringly original and dead serious at its core, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a classic statement on the collapsed dream of the American sixties.
Futuristic Violence & Fancy Suits fulfills the same ends through its quotes:
“As fun as it gets.”
“Technicolor Tomorrowland, mischievous humor, and frenetic action sequences.”
In its most basic form, the final paragraph tells readers ‘here’s how this product will make you feel’. While still selling your product with compelling copy, you should also try to be honest and specific. It’s no good promising the reader something your story doesn’t contain – selling to people who don’t really want your product just leads to bad book reviews.
There’s one final tip for this paragraph, and it’s one that’s incredibly important…
5. Using ‘you’
It’s a cardinal rule of sales that ‘you’ is the magic word. Not only does it address the customer directly, but it encourages them to imagine their life with a product. The blurb for Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning includes the lines:
We are all wearing masks… Make sure you secure your own mask before reading… There’s always something waiting for you. Just keep turning the pages… It will open your eyes to the inexhaustible supply of darkness around you, the magic and the monsters, the myths and the miracles…
Here the writer doesn’t just describe the emotional experience on offer, but describes an experience as it applies to the reader themselves. It’s the difference between ‘these apples taste nice’ and ‘you will enjoy these apples’. As basic as this may seem, it’s a key part of making the reader think about buying your book as the natural next step – they’ve already started reading it and, here, they’re being told what their experience will be like if they continue. It’s an imaginary world where they already bought your work, and it looks fantastic.
A great blurb directly addresses the reader, even if it’s only once. The blurb for Futuristic Violence & Fancy Suits ends:
Will Zoey figure it out in time? Or maybe the better question is, will you? After all, the future is coming faster than you think.
Here the final sentence directly involves the reader, challenges them to do something that necessitates reading the book, and even hints that the story might give them a real-world advantage. Likewise, a quote in the blurb for The Princess Bride promises:
‘One of the most laconic, tightly plotted tales of mythical morality you’ll ever read…’
A quote which subtly but persuasively asks the reader to imagine a world where they’ve already finished the book.
6. Bias and spoilers
One of the biggest roadblocks in an author’s attempts to write their blurb is their love for the story. Authors don’t want to spoil anything – they want the reader to discover every plot point and winning detail as part of the narrative. This is a great ambition, but it makes it almost impossible to give the reader a stake in the story.
The events referenced in The Princess Bride, the love of the protagonists and Westley going off to sea, don’t occur until page 58. Despite this, they’re the key context for the rest of the story, and so the book’s blurb needs them to really get the reader interested.
It’s down to you whether you feel something will be ruined by being included in the book blurb, but remember that the reader has to invest and move from one state to another. Introducing a character and hinting that their future contains big things just won’t cut it – the reader needs to feel the sense of peril, not just understand that it’s going to exist.
Likewise, try to be aware of your bias when writing a blurb. Certain elements of your story might be amazing to experience within the narrative, but have no value in selling the book. In The Wind Singer, Kestral’s brother Bowman is more or less on a par with his sister in terms of importance to the narrative. The blurb focuses on Kestral, though, because her actions flow from a description of the world around her, and allow the blurb to progress smoothly. Trying to talk about two characters would make the blurb more unwieldy, so the writer focuses on just one.
Adjusting the structure to suit your work
The structure I’ve described is the simplest form of a blurb. In its pure state it will work perfectly for most writers, but it can be adjusted to suit your own style. I mentioned earlier how Goldman overlaps multiple contexts and conflicts in his opening paragraph, and Palahniuk’s Tell-all actually uses two sentences to establish the status quo, rather than relying solely on the hook.
You can also play with the length of each paragraph. The structure above describes a fairly equal split between the three paragraphs, with the second (conflict) paragraph being very slightly larger. But if you think you can handle one of these paragraphs in one sentence then it leaves room elsewhere. If, for example, you have a killer quote that leaves no further recommendation necessary, then you’re free to dedicate more words to the first and second paragraphs.
At the end of the day, a blurb is like any other piece of writing – it’s right when you are happy with it. But if you’re looking to write a blurb for sale then the best place to start is by nailing the structure I’ve described. It’s the same one used by major publishers, and the best way to show that your work deserves a place on the shelf next to anything they can produce.Trade Secrets: Your Confidential Guide To The Perfect Book BlurbClick To Tweet