On Writing Blurbs

Love writing, but hate writing blurbs? Here are some tips to upgrade your blurb and get your book into the hands of those readers who are going to love your work.

One big reason for so much writer anguish with blurbs is that writers are attempting to summarize their 80,000 word manuscript in 200 words or less. But here’s a big secret: the goal of a blurb is not to summarize your story. The goal is to sell your story (in an honest and helpful way).

A person reading the blurb has either picked up your book and flipped it over, opened it up, or clicked on a link. Something (probably your cover, title or ad copy) has piqued their interest. That potential reader now wants to know if your story is going to be worth the investment of their time and money. What they are looking for are flags to make that decision.

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Start With Research

Identify the top market category(ies) you want to market your book under. Read through the blurbs of as many of the top selling books in that category as you can. Pay particular attention to the books that are the first in their series (many sales for the later in series books are the result of read-through), and for books that have had staying power, those ones that have been in the top 100 for months or even years. Look for the common traits in their blurbs. Things to take note of: how the characters are described, flags that identify the genre, how the main problem is summarized, hook phrases, word length, and what you particularly like about them.

Remember, when writing your blurb, it’s unlikely to be the only one that the reader sees at that time. After reading a dozen or so, which ones do you remember and what stands out about them? Keep this in mind as you craft your own blurb.

Who is the Main Character?

Choose a single character to define the story around. I know this can be a challenge for an ensemble cast, but you can always tweak and add later. Start with one character with whom your target audience is most likely to resonate with.

Once you have your character, identify two traits of this character. The first is something familiar, identifiable, or accessible. What trait or experience does that character have that readers are going to most closely identify with? A longing for love? Getting bullied in school? Training for a competition? It doesn’t even need to be something the readers themselves have actually experienced, but something they’ve likely read about before, or something they seek when reading your genre. If you’re working on an action-thriller, it might just be that the character is associated with a familiar agency: the FBI, CIA, or the US Navy SEALs. If you’re a military science fiction writer, it might be that your character is a space marine, starship captain or cyborg.

The second is something unique. What’s different or uncommon about this character? Identify a trait that’s going to pique a potential reader’s interest, something that stands out, that’s going to be memorable about that character. What makes the character different from “normal” people in your story’s world? What makes the character different from other characters in the genre? This is the flag that you can plant that will help make this character memorable. Note that it doesn’t need to be absolutely exclusive. There are lots of dogs in the world that are large and have auburn-tinged fur, but Clifford the Big Red Dog is pretty memorable.

Harry Potter… unloved orphan (familiar/identifiable]) who discovers he is a wizard (unique [at the time]).
James Bond… an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service (familiar) with a license to kill (unique).
Jon Snow… an unloved orphan (I feel like I’ve mentioned this before) with a dire wolf (unique).
Jason Bourne… a CIA black ops agent (familiar for readers of the genre) has lost his memory (unique).

Clearly Define the Genre

For some genres or stories the setting is critically important. In historical fiction, readers need a frame of reference for the time and place. In post-apocalyptic fiction, readers want to know how the modern world ended. In a fantasy story, readers want to know what that fantasy element is–the presence of magic and some hints at how it’s used. In a blurb, the genre needs to be shown and shown quickly, often boiled down to a single sentence. Here’s a great example:

“In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.”

– Excerpt from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games blurb (Scholastic Press)

Here, in the space of two sentences the author defines this unique world and sets up the core challenge facing the main character. We don’t actually learn much about the setting details, but it’s clear that this is a story about an alternative world where a character is going to have to survive these games. The reader knows exactly what kind of story they’re in for.

Avoid Too Many Fictional Proper Names

In that example the author uses a few proper names: North America, Panem, Capitol. Here there’s only one that’s objectively unfamiliar to anglophone readers. But if you’ve ever read some fantasy or science fiction blurbs you will have seen those that include a pile of unfamiliar terms. Each new word requires mental effort on the part of the reader to keep track of. It’s like a little hill to climb. If you present a reader with too many hills to climb, they’ll put the book down and move on.

What Major Challenge Does The Character Face?

Be specific here. One problem I see frequently when people first start writing blurbs is the use of vague language. I think this comes from a desire not to give too much away. But if the reader can’t identify what problem the character faces, they’re not very likely to be interested because they won’t understand what the story is about.

Isolate a single challenge. If you’re writing something like epic fantasy, there may be many different challenges, but a blurb can only be so big (ideally no more than 200 words). Choose one.

The challenge should be easily defined in a single sentence. It’s okay to approximate something that’s complex. It’s okay to skip over details. Remember, you’re not trying to give the reader a synopsis of everything that happens. You’re trying to give them enough information so they can make an educated decision on whether this is a story they will enjoy.

Now that you have a challenge, how do you present it?

Identify Why This Character Must Face This Challenge

One option to try is to emphasize why the character must face the challenge. People tend to find stories much more appealing when characters are forced out of their comfort zone, where they are forced to make compromising choices, where they take actions that they wouldn’t normally take. That’s where there’s the greatest potential for disaster. But that’s also where learning and growth happen. That’s where reader is most likely to get the greatest bang for their buck.

Emphasize Choices the Character Faces, Decisions They Make, and Actions They Take

Think about character agency. You’ve got an interesting, approachable character and an intriguing problem that the character must confront. Now, what does that character do? Use the active voice here.
Jon Snow chooses to join the Night’s Watch. Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute.

At some point in the story, the character will need to assume direct responsibility for the outcome. Identify and articulate this point.

Avoid Questions

Questions, when they are directly put to the reader, are an opportunity to put the book down.

If the answer to the question is obvious… asking it can come across as pretentious, or lecturing, and that can turn a reader off. Also, the reader may not agree with the intended/obvious response. If they don’t believe that love conquers all, or power corrupts, or whatever the obvious answer is, they’ll put the book down.

On the other hand, if the answer to the question is not obvious, the reader may not know it, or feel as if they have to work to figure it out. It’s another hill to climb. If they feel stupid for not getting it, they’ll likely pass on the story.

I’ve seen some blubs that hit the reader with question after question. Avoid this, unless you want the reader to feel as though they’re taking a quiz.

The Hook

This is a catch phrase, often bolded, at the beginning of the blurb. It’s main purpose is to get the reader to read the rest of the blurb. It also serves as a kind of slogan for the book, something easily identifiable that will make it resonate in the reader’s mind.

Ideally the hook should be unique to the book. Avoid clichés.

Even though the hook should be the first thing a reader sees, it helps to write it last. Generally it’s easier to boil down the bigger blurb into a single idea, than vice versa.

Winning means fame and fortune. Losing means certain death. The Hunger Games have begun… – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Six days ago Astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to dies there. – The Martian, Andy Weir

Winter is coming. – Game of Thrones, George RR Martin

Seek Feedback

Blurbs are short. People can read them quickly and give feedback without too much of an investment of time.

If you haven’t already, join a few social media writers’ groups where posting blurbs and giving/getting feedback is encouraged and post your draft. Keep in mind that no all feedback will be positive, and not all people will agree. But often you can tap the hive mind of the online writer community to help identify any major flags that are keeping you from getting sales.