Your Guide to the Guide: Part 7 Blurbs Again
My Blurb Workshop takes apart the whole concept of what a ‘blurb’ is and enables you to see what exactly it is doing and why. To give you some reality on that, here are some examples.
High-school student Bella Swan, always a bit of a misfit, doesn't expect life to change much when she moves from sunny Arizona to rainy Washington state. Then she meets Edward Cullen, a handsome but mysterious teen whose eyes seem to peer directly into her soul. Edward is a vampire whose family does not drink blood, and Bella, far from being frightened, enters into a dangerous romance with her immortal soulmate.
The first couple of sentences establish this story as part of a romance genre: outcast girl meets strangely attractive boy. That’s the template for most romantic fiction.
Then comes the hook, the thing that makes this book different, the gap or sense of danger or incompleteness which sucks in reader attention: ‘Edward is a vampire whose family does not drink blood, and Bella, far from being frightened, enters into a dangerous romance with her immortal soulmate.’
‘A vampire who doesn’t drink blood? What?!’ thinks the reader who has casually picked up the book to read this blurb.
‘Bella is "far from frightened"? Why not?’ might also be a question which flashes across their unconscious mind.
‘A dangerous romance?’ This oxymoron creates more ‘vacuum power’.
Of course, the Twilight series and its imitators have done this sub-genre to death over the last decade or so, but I’m using it as an example because it shows all the elements of effective blurb construction.
Reading this, a warm prospect quite possibly becomes a hot prospect (if they were already remotely interested in a) romance stories and/or b) vampire tales). The Twilight series went on to sell over 120 million copies.
Here’s the blurb for the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:
Harry Potter is an ordinary boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs at his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon's house, which he thinks is normal for someone like him who's parents have been killed in a 'car crash'. He is bullied by them and his fat, spoilt cousin Dudley, and lives a very unremarkable life with only the odd hiccup (like his hair growing back overnight!) to cause him much to think about. That is until an owl turns up with a letter addressed to Harry and all hell breaks loose! He is literally rescued by a world where nothing is as it seems and magic lessons are the order of the day.
‘Ordinariness’: the mention of Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and the loss of Harry’s parents set this up to be a children’s story featuring a poor orphan, like many other children’s stories. Harry is bullied, but lives an ‘unremarkable’ life. There are two mini-hooks there: why exactly is Harry living in a cupboard? And why does his hair grow back overnight? But the major hook is the appearance of an owl with a letter addressed to Harry, after which all that carefully established ordinariness breaks down.
Remember, breaking down ordinariness is the key to blurbs (and a few other things besides): whatever genre you are writing in, you want to signal ‘ordinariness’ in terms of the genre, then ‘ordinariness breaking down in new and exciting way’ to pull in attention.
This first of the Harry Potter series also sold over 120 million copies, as you probably know. That’s a lot of warm prospects becoming hot.
A Tale of Two Cities
One of the best-selling books of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Published in 1859, it is estimated to have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide.
Here is a blurb for it:
After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.
The first sentence seems to suggest a completeness: the ageing Doctor looks as though he is to be reunited with his daughter after a long ordeal. The introduction of Darnay and Carton as ‘very different men’, vying for the love of Lucie, opens up a vacuum. But the hook really comes when the men are drawn from the ‘tranquil roads of London’ against their will to the ‘vengeful. bloodstained streets of Paris’. Note the intended contrast — contrast creates vacuums; vacuums suck in attention. Then the shadow of the guillotine threatens the greatest incompleteness of all: death.
It’s almost impossible to find a published book which has a bad blurb, because publishers know the importance of a powerful pitch in those few words on the back cover of a book. The blurb has to have an almost instant, grabbing, easily communicated 'incompleteness' or it will fail.
Common mistakes made by writers composing a blurb include trying to summarise the story within.
That is not the function of a blurb.
It’s easy to think that it is, but it isn’t.
Dismiss and abandon the idea that the words on the back of the book are a guide to what happens in the story: they are not. They are an attention-grabbing device to compel the warm prospect into reading further.
A blurb needs to say what is most exciting about the novel in the shortest possible space. You are looking to deliver a reason to read. A good blurb will imply what the ending of the story will be by stating almost its exact opposite. Just look at the examples again:
Twilight: ‘Edward is a vampire whose family does not drink blood, and Bella, far from being frightened, enters into a dangerous romance with her immortal soulmate.’
Harry Potter: ‘That is until an owl turns up with a letter addressed to Harry and all hell breaks loose!’
A Tale of Two Cities: ‘From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.’
The romance in Twilight suggests a perilous relationship, even while readers of such books know that the couple will probably end up together; ‘all hell breaks loose’ in Harry Potter as a prelude, readers suspect, to everything being put right at the end; the shadow of the guillotine is a serious threat, but readers will be sure to feel that, in the end, good will triumph.
Incompleteness will lead to completeness; vacuums will be filled; fulfilment will occur.
But the product in the meantime has been to suggest maximum incompleteness in order to grab attention. This creates maximum vacuum power.
These rules about blurbs apply no matter what your genre. Even literary fiction has the same principles at work behind the scenes.
Look at this blurb for Jane Austen’s Emma, the book which students sometimes complain about because ‘nothing happens’:
Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr. Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protégé Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected.
The first two sentences - apart from the ‘and single’ interjection - suggest wholesome completeness; the third suggests that everything will ‘unravel’ and lead to unexpected consequences.
Look again at the blurbs given above. Do any of them describe the plot? Do any of them attempt to summarise ‘what happens’?
There is a suggestion of a descent into danger and emptiness in all of them. The greater that slope leading down, the more powerful the blurb. And that means more power compelling your warm prospect to become a hot prospect and then a reader.
Your blurbs have to contain vacuums - missing things, losses, damage, needs - which then attract reader attention.
One sentence pitches and blurbs are statements of the core of your story.
A blurb is the heart of your book, whittled down to a few words. My Blurb Workshop helps you to apply all of this to your own work. Contact me if you’re interested.