The blurb is the copy that goes on the back of a paperback book, or the inside flap of a hardback book jacket. Its function is to advertise the book, to hook a potential reader and make her curious about the story. I’m still learning how to best write these, but I’ll share what I know. I chose four books at random from my bookshelf to illustrate.
First, be brief. Very brief. The reader doesn’t want to wade through a blow-by-blow account of your plot. “And then this happened, and then that other thing happened, and then . . . ” is not what you should put in your blurb. A blurb is a lot like a query letter, short and to the point.
In fact, a good blurb doesn’t really tell that much of the story. It merely suggests, in an enticing way. All you really need in a blurb is a couple of phrases describing your protagonist (or hero and heroine in a romance) and a sentence or two hinting at the major conflict. Look at the backs of your paperback novels for ideas on how to write blurbs.
It takes practice to acquire even a modicum of competence at blurb writing. In some ways, it’s like poetry — every word counts. Every word has weight, or should, because you only have a tiny amount of space. You don’t want to fill it with a bunch of fluff.
C.J. Redwine has a guide to writing query letters at Romance University that I used to begin learning blurb writing. Her formula is: “A must do B in order to get C, but D is a big problem.” If you fill in that formula with your character’s name, situation, etc., you’ll have something you can build your blurb on.
“A” should really be a phrase describing your character. Always include the name. For example, from James Patterson’s The Big Bad Wolf: “Alex Cross’s first case since joining the FBI has his new colleagues stymied.” Even if you’ve never heard of Patterson’s Alex Cross character, you know from this sentence that 1. he’s a male (and you know his name), 2. he’s an FBI agent, 3. he’s on his first case for the bureau.
From Lisa Kleypas’ Married by Morning: “For two years, Catherine Marks has been a paid companion to the Hathaway sisters — a pleasant position, with one caveat.” Okay, here we discover the heroine’s name, that she’s a paid companion (which if you read historical romance, you know is a low-status position for a lady), she works for sisters, and that there’s a problem with the job.
Here’s one from a thriller, The Burnt House, by Faye Kellerman. It starts with the inciting incident (I think – haven’t actually read this one). “At 8:15 a.m., a small commuter plane carrying forty-seven passengers crashes into an apartment building in Granada Hills, California. Among the dead inside the plane’s charred and twisted wreckage is a mystery. There’s no sign of an airline employee whose name was on the passengers list.”
So far, we don’t know anything about the protagonists, but we are presented with an intriguing mystery. Who was that employee, and why was he or she not on the plane? Why did the plane crash? Are the two things related?
The next sentence introduces the protagonists: “L.A.P.D. Detective Peter Decker and his wife, Rina, are profoundly shaken by this terrible “accident” that has occurred frighteningly close to their daughter’s school.” So we have a detective and his wife, they live in L.A., and they have a daughter in school. Plus, the school is near the site of the accident. That tells us how these two people are initially connected to the incident and why the crash is so upsetting to them. Furthermore, the copy writer put the word accident inside quote marks, suggesting it wasn’t an accident at all.
There’s more to the blurb than this, but these sentences alone are enough to provoke interesting questions in the reader’s mind. And that’s the purpose of the blurb — to tell the reader just enough to make her want to buy the book and find out the answers to her questions.
Here’s another “A”, from Julia London’s Summer of Two Wishes: “Macy Lockhart’s life shattered in a moment with the news that her husband, Finn — serving in the military overseas — has been killed in the line of duty.” We know the heroine’s name, Macy, that she’s a widow, and that her husband’s death shattered her life.
A must do B.
Let’s see how that’s done in these four blurbs.
Patterson’s describes the general situation first. “Across the country, beautiful women are being kidnapped — to be bought and sold as slaves. Behind this depraved scheme stands a shadowy figure known only as The Wolf, a master criminal who has brought a new reign of terror to organized crime.” So now we know the plot involves sexual slavery and a mysterious master criminal. “With Alex’s personal life in chaos because of his ex-fiancee’s return and with the FBI’s caution testing his patience, Alex has to go out on his own. For to stalk a ruthless predator without a name or a face, Alex Cross must become a lone wolf himself . . . “
Of course, what Alex must do is catch this master criminal, and the way he must do it is to go out on his own. So A (Alex Cross) must go out on his own (B) in order to catch the criminal (C). And “D” (the FBI’s caution) is a big problem. There’s the formula.
Kleypas’ blurb has two full paragraphs, one for the heroine and one for the hero. This is common in romances. The remainder of the first paragraph: “Her charges’ older brother, Leo Hathaway, is thoroughly exasperating. Cat can hardly believe that their constant arguing could mask a mutual attraction. But when one quarrel ends in a sudden kiss, Cat is shocked at her powerful response — and even more so when Leo proposes a dangerous liaison.
“Leo must marry and produce an heir within a year to save his family home. Catherine’s respectable demeanor hides a secret that would utterly destroy her. But to Leo, Cat is intriguing and infernally tempting, even to a man resolved never to love again. The danger Cat tried to outrun is about to separate them forever — unless two wary lovers can find a way to banish the shadows and give in to their desires . . . “
Romances are a little more complicated because there are often two “A must do B” formulas, one for the hero and one for the heroine. Here, the primary and most obvious formula is in Leo’s paragraph: Leo must marry and produce an heir in order to keep his family home (A must do B in order to get C), yet he’s in love with a woman he may not be able to have (D is a big problem).
Cat’s formula is more implied than explicit. She enjoys her position as companion and would like to keep it, but she is strongly attracted to her charges’ annoying brother, which makes her job very difficult. Maybe even dangerous.
Here’s the rest of Kellerman’s blurb: “And an irate call from the unaccounted-for flight attendant’s stepfather further tangles an already twisted mystery. The man insists twenty-eight year old Roseanne Dresden was never on the doomed flight, but was probably murdered by her abusive, unfaithful husband — a revelation that propels Decker down a path of tragic history and deadly lies toward an unimaginable evil that will challenge his and Rina’s cherished beliefs about guilt and innocence and justice.”
Wow. I’m going to have to read that book. Okay, now for the formula. We already know A, Decker, and B is implied by his job, that of L.A.P.D. Detective. Obviously, Decker must solve this mystery (A must do B) in order to get resolution (C). The most interesting stuff in this blurb is the big problem (D) — tragedy, lies and unimaginable evil will come to light, thus challenging Decker and Rina’s beliefs about guilt, innocence and justice, ideas they must (I assume) hold dear as a detective and his wife.
And here’s London’s blurb: “Their (Macy’s and Finn’s) ardent and devoted marriage is over, leaving Macy alone, empty, directionless. But while she tries to sustain herself with memories of Finn, the quiet, strong man who made her and their small Texas ranch the center of his life, it is wealthy Wyatt Clark who slowly brings joy back into her life. Her love for Wyatt may be less romantic than the breathless passion she’d once shared with Finn, but she vows to cherish him, and their marriage is happy and solid as a rock. Until the day that Finn, miraculously spared from death, returns home to claim his wife . . . “
The formula isn’t quite as clear in this one, either. Again, that’s common in romance. But we know Macy wants to maintain her integrity (she vows), that she cares for Wyatt, and that she shared “breathless passion” with Finn. Therefore, A (Macy) must do B (save her marriage — but which one?) in order to get C (happily ever after; it’s a romance), but D (two marriages to men she both loves) is a big problem.
Easy peasy, right? Not so much. It’ll take you some practice, as I said, to smoosh all that information into a paragraph or two. And no fair cheating and writing three-page-long paragraphs, either!
Here’s another tip: use as many tight, action verbs and juicy nouns as possible, because you don’t have room for a raft of adverbs and adjectives. From Patterson’s: “stymied, kidnapped, bought and sold, slaves, depraved (I know it’s an adjective, but it’s a powerful one), scheme, ‘a reign of terror’, chaos, stalk, ‘lone wolf'”.
From Kleypas: “paid companion, mask, quarrel, shocked, save, destroy, outrun, wary, banish, and give in to their desires.”
From Kellerman: “crashes, wreckage, mystery, profoundly shaken( strong adverb), insists, doomed (another strong adjective), murdered, revelation, propels, evil, challenge, cherished beliefs, guilt, innocence, justice.”
From London: “life, shattered, leaving, sustain, joy, love, breathless passion, cherish, rock, spared, returns.”
Another interesting point, something I just noticed. Dean Wesley Smith advises avoiding passive sentence construction and “to be” verbs in blurb writing. London’s first sentence reads “Macy Lockhart’s life shattered in a moment with the news . . . “
How many of us would have written “Macy’s life WAS shattered in a moment”? I probably would have. And it robs the sentence of much of its power. “Her life shattered” is more direct and powerful than “her life was shattered.” I plan to tuck that away for future reference.
So what have we learned? A must do B in order to get C, but D is a big problem. Your blurb should contain that information, yet not necessarily in that order. Cram as much information in your paragraph or two as possible by using action verbs and rich nouns, and by avoiding “to be” verbs and unnecessary modifiers. The first time I tried my hand at this, it took me a couple of hours to get anything close to what I wanted. I had only a single paragraph in which to express the central ideas of my book. It does get easier with practice.