Dissecting The Blurb: It’s A Formula, Not A Torture Instrument

I was recently asked by a friend* to look over the blurb for her forthcoming book release, and a few thoughts suddenly struck me. Well, maybe not suddenly. If I’m honest, I sat down to look at this, and several thoughts became a sort of natural consequence of the sitting down and looking, so when you think about it, there’s nothing sudden about that at all. But I digress.

The above is a perfect example of what a blurb shouldn’t do. Going off on a tangent, and then over-explaining it. A lot of blurbs-in-progress tend to say too much about things which aren’t sexy. This might sound odd, but think about it. Some points in a synopsis might be essential to the story (or beloved by the author), but they do nothing to incentivise a reader to pick up your book. And above everything, you want people to pick up your book. That’s what a blurb is for.

Dissecting The Blurb: It's A Formula, Not A Torture Implement

Blurbs are short synopses with cliffhanger endings. They’re not reviews, so if your book is brilliant, heart-breaking or mind-blowing, this should be put into a quote, not a blurb (with one exception – but more on that later).

Many blurbs are also preceded by the book’s tagline, or what I call the Killer Line. Sometimes it’s on the front cover, sometimes on the back – it’s the one-liner which catches your eye and piques your interest. It doesn’t even have to be that relevant to the story, to be honest. The best one I can think of offhand is from Girl On The Train:  “You don’t know her. But she knows you.” Bloody superb, that is.

The blurb is often the part of the bookselling process which gives authors the most headaches. How can 100-300 itty bitty words cause so much pain? But they do. If I ever want to torture an author who has wronged me, I will chain them to a desk in a bright room and tell them they only have 6 hours to write a blockbusting blurb for their book.

And yet, blurbs are just formulas – which was the basis of my last post, where I ruined rewrote the blurbs for classic novels as if they’d been categorised as women’s fiction. Each genre has its own formula, and can be broken down accordingly. Many of them have the same ingredients, only in different order.

To tell the truth, I was shocked by just how formulaic genre blurbs were. For instance, most crime novel blurbs end in the dreaded elliptical dot dot dot. Historical fiction blurbs end with self-praise, which doesn’t seem to be allowed in any other genre. And less surprisingly, thriller blurbs are full of questions.

And now, to prove my point, because I’m stubborn like that, I’m going to break down a few bestseller blurbs. This turned into a very long post for one post, so today, I’m dealing with Thrillers and Romance, because they’re currently the most popular genres. Next time we’ll dissect the bejaysus out of Crime, Historical Fiction, and Science Fiction/Fantasy (see here). And to finish up, I’m going to have oodles of fun with Short Stories, Self-Help and Literary Fiction.

Dissecting The Blurb: It's A Formula, Not A Torture Implement

  1.  Thriller/Mystery (Grip-Lit)

Let’s look at Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL. The paperback edition of the blurb online is as follows:

Who are you?

What have we done to each other?

These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy’s friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn’t true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they weren’t made by him. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone.

So what did happen to Nick’s beautiful wife?

BLURB FORMULA:

  1. Set up the intrigue with a ‘what happens when…’ question, or a character quote.
  2. Introduce your Main Character, who is [puzzled/afraid/upset], say what’s happened/happening to them, and what problem(s) this creates.
  3. Throw in some curveballs which use specific scenarios or keywords to create intrigue.
  4. Ask: what will Main Character do? And will the problem/mystery ever be explained?

Dissecting The Blurb: It's A Formula, Not A Torture Implement

  1. Chick-Lit / Romance

ME BEFORE YOU – JOJO MOYES:

Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.

What Lou doesn’t know is she’s about to lose her job or that knowing what’s coming is what keeps her sane.

Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he’s going to put a stop to that.

What Will doesn’t know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they’re going to change the other for all time.

BLURB FORMULA:

  1. Start with a short quote from your novel, and/or a logline question, such as: What happens when [romance-related theme or question being explored in this novel]?
  2. Explain how your Main Character thinks/does things a certain way, until they meet irresistible Main Character 2, and how this makes them change/question/learn.
  3. Ask: will Main Character ever [overcome obstacle to love]?Or will [non-love related obstacle] ruin everything?
  4. Repeat for Main Character 2, if applicable.

***********************

Tune in next time for more amazing generalisations and crude dumbing-down.

* I’m really pushing it here. I say ‘friend’, but actually it’s someone I met once, and got on very well with, while we had a literary drink together. She may actually be plotting my demise as we speak. Still, ‘friend’ sounds better than ‘a lovely person I met once and got on well enough with over a drink for her to ask me to take a look at her blurb’

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  90 comments for “Dissecting The Blurb: It’s A Formula, Not A Torture Instrument

  1. February 12, 2016 at 8:15 am

    I know a lot of people who absolutely hate writing blurbs. I don’t hate it as such, but I get where they’re coming from. It can feel daunting. Thanks for this analysis! It’s really helpful. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 12, 2016 at 10:30 am

      You’re very welcome indeed. It’s easy for me to analyse from the outside looking in! I didn’t mention above that the hardest thing to do is write your own blurb. The simple fact is that if you want it to be a great blurb, it’s best written by someone else.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. February 12, 2016 at 9:44 am

    Reblogged this on Nicholas C. Rossis and commented:
    Tara is better known for her biting remarks on contemporary living and publishing. Today, however, she dissects blurbs in a revealing way that can serve as a helpful blueprint for all of us who agonize over our blurbs.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. February 12, 2016 at 9:46 am

    That was surprisingly helpful! I can’t wait to see the next installment that will cover scifi/fantasy.

    Can you also do one for short stories? They’re my worst headache when it comes to blurb-writing.

    Also, that settles it. I’ve had drinks with you. I’ve shared Italian antipasti with you. Heck, I’ve even let you show me Dublin. You’re soooo reading my blurbs from now on.

    Liked by 2 people

    • February 12, 2016 at 10:34 am

      Be careful what you wish for! I’ll have a think on the short stories. As you brought it up, a few ideas immediately came to mind. You’re right, the short story anthology is actually a genre by itself when it comes to blurb writing. And I’ll only charge you a small fee for reading your blurbs. A new sat-nav will do nicely. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. February 12, 2016 at 9:51 am

    Suddenly (in the truest sense),I’ve a burning desire to know what the blurb is for Alan Shatter’s book. Oh dear. Look what you’ve done, Tara.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 12, 2016 at 10:29 am

      I won’t leave you hanging, Tenderlation. Do please let me oblige.
      “Laura is placed with adopters after her unmarried mother, Colette James, has been abandoned by Laura’s father, Sean Brannigan TD. To her adopters, John and Jenny Masterson, Laura is their daughter and they love her dearly. Their world is turned upside down when they learn that Colette has changed her mind and wants Laura back. This novel, full of compassion, anguish and suspense, relates the drama of the fight for Laura s future. Alan Shatter is well known as a politician, legislator and lawyer. Laura is his first novel.”
      I wouldn’t say it’s bad, so much as badly written. “adopters”? What were they adopting – legislation? Christ Almighty. Anyway, we all know it’s what’s on the inside that counts (and that’s said to be pretty putrid too).

      Liked by 2 people

      • February 12, 2016 at 10:40 am

        Does this mean you have both read Laura? I’m not sure how I feel about this

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 12, 2016 at 10:52 am

          Yes, Donna, it looks pretty bad, I agree. But you can lay your mixed feelings to rest concerning myself. I only copied the blurb from Amazon. I can’t speak, however, for the Dept. of Speculation. She may have notes in the margins for all I know.

          Liked by 1 person

      • February 14, 2016 at 6:27 pm

        Thanks, Tara. He lost me at “unmarried mother”. I mean, really, has the woman no morals?*righteous fling of nose in air – wait, can there be any other, let’s try!…sniffy fling of nose in air…hard to distinguish* And I wouldn’t mind, Morag, but I was promised dirty bits. Huh.

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 14, 2016 at 8:47 pm

          But… but… how do you think she got to be an unmarried mother, Specuness?? I mean, is that not dirty enough for you??

          Oh, I don’t know. This generation: they just don’t see the fun in getting irate any more. Not like it was in my day.

          And I’m not even going to remark on the fact that you didn’t answer the Bono accusation.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. February 12, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Urgh! Not my fave thing, but I try and stick to the drabble principle and dribble my way through 100 words so it’s not driveling on for too long… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. February 12, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    Thought-provoking post in that I’m thinking about us lowly writers of memoir/creative nonfiction. No blurb formula for us? What’s a girl to do? Other than rewriting my Amazon blurb about 300 times. I always think it’s good but then…

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 12, 2016 at 3:14 pm

      Well, the formula depends on genre, so a non-fiction formula would depend very much on the subgenre there, Debby, or the subject matter at the very least… I’m purely looking at patterns here so the world of non-fiction is a bit too wide for that! The best advice I can give anyone is to have someone else write your blurb for you, or at least get someone to co-write it with you. So often, it’s too difficult for an author to get the distance required to do it on their own work, especially for indies.

      Like

  7. February 12, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    This was very helpful, Tara. Like Nick, I’m waiting for your post on Sci-fi/fantasy blurbs. I’m redoing all my covers so the timing couldn’t be better 🙂 Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 12, 2016 at 4:30 pm

      Do you know, after Nick also talking about short stories, it might even turn into a couple more posts. Just to annoy people. I’m like that. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  8. February 12, 2016 at 5:37 pm

    What a great teaching post. I was very impressed. I have included a link in resource section articles for writers. Here is the link. http://www.junetakey.com/posts/category/articles-about-writing/

    Juneta @ Writer’s Gambit

    Liked by 1 person

  9. February 12, 2016 at 5:37 pm

    PS its under blurbs heading

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 12, 2016 at 8:59 pm

      Thanks, Juneta! Delighted to be included in such a well-curated list. You’ve got such great links there. Much obliged.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. February 12, 2016 at 7:44 pm

    Reblogged this on .

    Like

  11. February 12, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    Hmm, you thought nothing could be worse than writing your own blurb, but just imagine standing by helpless, as your publishers come up with their version.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 12, 2016 at 9:31 pm

      I can imagine, Hilary, but the only thing about that scenario is that nothing is proven until 6 months after the book’s come out! I’ve looked at some bestselling blurbs which are as much a true indicator of the plot as my current hair colour is to my roots. And yet the result is incredibly successful – and I’ve bought the book. Sometimes the publisher is horribly right.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 12, 2016 at 9:40 pm

        I live in hope (after airbrushing it from my memory).

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 12, 2016 at 9:42 pm

          I can imagine the bestselling author somewhere – receiving the cover art and blurb for their beloved magnum opus – and screeching ‘you’ve ruined my ART, DAMN YOU!’. And then 6 months later collecting the royalty cheque and thinking, ‘Oh, well. That’s marketing for you’

          Like

  12. February 13, 2016 at 12:30 am

    That’s my mini-main headache now. I’ve put off writing short story blurbs, simply because trying to write a one or two sentence blurb for a short story is maddening to say the least. At least I won’t have to worry about writing a blurb for my next novel until sometime next year, when I can start stressing all over again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 13, 2016 at 7:01 pm

      Sounds like most authors put it off as long as possible. And it seems the more it’s put off, the bigger it gets. Now, I’ve just been really helpful with that comment, haven’t I? You can thank me later.

      Like

  13. February 13, 2016 at 4:42 am

    Reblogged this on Kim's Author Support Blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. February 13, 2016 at 7:30 am

    Ah, well, back to the drawing board… (No, it’s not a crime novel)

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 13, 2016 at 7:03 pm

      Oh, no. You’re not hoping for me to do a formula for the dystopian post-Crimean War auto manual, are you? Because it might be a while.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 13, 2016 at 11:05 pm

        No. I just thought you might be confused by the dot-dot-dot…

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 13, 2016 at 11:08 pm

          Well, obviously I was, else I wouldn’t have used a question mark… or would I?

          Like

  15. February 13, 2016 at 10:11 am

    I spent a day analysing blurbs on books by Dan Brown, Martin Amis, Umberto Eco (didn’t have one), Peter Ackroyd and Peter Hoeg. Every one different and matching the book’s genre; Dan Brown’s was full of questions, the Amis novel broke most of the rules.

    I like the challenge of blurb writing. Rarely satisfied with the result, but when you think you’ve got it right there is a sort of 24hr sugar rush until the re-read it and you wonder whose book it belongs to.

    In the future I might stick to cleverly edited bits of five star reviews.

    ps If you’re wondering what my comment is doing down here amongst the johnny-come-latelies, bad computer, great stress and delay, much gnashing of teeth etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 13, 2016 at 7:25 pm

      I was worried about you, Chris. You’d been cleaning up in the first comment stakes, and then – boom! The bomb of silence. I’ll ring back the cops and tell them to stand down.

      On the blurb round-up, I suppose book marketing has changed a lot along the decades along with covers and quotes. I reckon too that new authors are treated much more formulaically than established ones.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 13, 2016 at 10:48 pm

        To make up for the absence I’ll be commenting before you upload your next post. Sort of time-travellish.

        I suppose with the established best selling authors you could put gibberish on the back cover and it would still sell.

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 13, 2016 at 11:07 pm

          Oh Christ yeah. Sure, look at what they put on James Patterson novels. “By James Patterson”, for starters. Load of guff.

          I can’t wait for your time bending comments. And I mean I can’t wait. You can’t wait for the past.

          Liked by 1 person

  16. Alex Hurst
    February 13, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Fantastic analysis. 🙂 I love blurbs, and writing them, but yes, they can get a bit formulaic! Especially in fantasy or romance. It’s a one-two punch of cliches across a thousand back covers…. but it sells!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 13, 2016 at 7:29 pm

      I suppose there’s a reason a cliché becomes a cliché, isn’t there? Before it got tired and trite, it was true or effective. Sometimes I think 70% of a writer’s job is just fooling people into thinking a cliché is something new 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  17. February 13, 2016 at 11:58 pm

    Very bad blurbs irritate me so much but I’ve now decided that the first few pages in a book are more indicative than the blurb, some blurbs are horrendous, especially where the author thinks the best way to not let you know what’s going on is to talk around in circles and say absolutely nothing that’s remotely related to the story. Find a balance, people!! Harrumph!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 14, 2016 at 1:59 pm

      I think that a lot of indie blurbs fall down by saying how incredibly amazing and superb a book is. It means you can spot it was written by an amateur marketer a mile off and it really puts me off buying a book in the first place. Not every hint is a spoiler and sometimes the best part of a blurb is not what’s driving the plot. It’s a tricky one, but definitely something which needs more than one person’s input.

      Like

  18. February 14, 2016 at 8:29 pm

    I see a lot people’s draft blurbs bog down in trying to tell backstory. Blurbs have little no time for that. They not only work better getting to the main conflict/goal, but can create even more interest in wanting to see how characters got to that point. I also see a lot of wordiness and even redundancy. Blurbs require every word to count significantly. If the PTB charged blurbers $10/word, sentences would tighten considerably.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 14, 2016 at 8:49 pm

      That’s a fabulous idea, Stephen. It’s given me an awfully strong image of a stern schoolmaster, rapping authors over the knuckles with something blunt and painful every time they sin with an adverb, an adjective, or anything which denotes backstory in a blurb. If we roll it out on an international basis, there could be a wad of money in it. Are you game?

      Like

  19. sonjayoerg
    February 15, 2016 at 11:58 am

    I try to write the blurb before the book, like eating the liver before the onions, or before the chocolate cake, or before my own hand. Also, my publisher is happy for me to provide the blurb, mostly so she doesn’t have to listen to me kvetch at how off-the-mark theirs was. My upmarket fiction sounded like a doctor and nurse story. Now if only they would send me the money they aren’t paying the freelancing blurber!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 15, 2016 at 2:03 pm

      Not to mention the fact that they’re probably paying their freelancing blurbers more than their authors, Sonja! Pre-written blurbs would be amazing book-writing tools, too, if you’re the sort of person who’s that organised and focused. I won’t place myself anywhere on that scale lest I fall off.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. February 15, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    Reblogged this on Jan Hawke INKorporated and commented:
    Bit of a hiatus in re-blogging this as I was on a blog tour last week – absolutely de rigeur reading from Ms Sparling on the ‘art of blurb’… (… in-joke 😛 ) 1st of 2 corkers! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  21. February 15, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    We have numerous prized for books, surely there should be major prizes for blurbs – after all that’s what persuades most people to buy the book. Maybe you could initiate one, Tara!

    Liked by 2 people

    • February 15, 2016 at 6:13 pm

      That’s a great idea, Dorothy. The only problem is that often the best blurbs are the ones to which the books themselves don’t quite measure up!

      Like

  22. February 16, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    Tara, as a blurb reader, I would have assumed that authors would get other people to write them for them. It’s so much easier to write about other people’s stuff. How did they ever let the barter system die?

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 17, 2016 at 1:16 pm

      I suppose not everyone has the benefit of writing groups, or even writerly friends. But those who do should definitely take advantage of it. I know that I learned from my writing group that I’m the worst person to write my own blurb.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. February 18, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    I brought my first attempt at a blurb to my writer’s group and my mentor said, “Here. I’ll fix it,” and came back two days later with a beautifully captivating blurb, due to his decades of experience in the business. It was great having someone a step away from the book help out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 18, 2016 at 8:00 pm

      Exactly! What we need in order to market our own books is distance from them – so many people don’t realise that. I’m glad your writers’ group was on the ball. That’s what they’re there for.

      Liked by 1 person

  24. February 18, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    I love writing blurbs, this does not necessarily mean that I am good at writing them but rather that I just enjoy putting them together. The ultimate dissection of a novel, story or piece I suppose. There is also at that point, the knowledge that you have completed something (hopefully) of worth and what better way to encapsulate it.
    I do have fun with them and they seem to work for me now. (echoing L Palmer above) Many of my early ones, back in the nineties, I grimace at reading now, but with many years of practice I think that I have my finger on it, though only the readers truly know.

    Like

    • February 18, 2016 at 8:08 pm

      I suppose the success of a blurb can only be measured in sales, which isn’t the same for the book itself. Or in reviews which say ‘I picked this up because the idea of blah intrigued me’. But it’s nice to know that someone enjoys them! Maybe I could enjoy them, if I was doing them for something I didn’t remember writing at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 18, 2016 at 9:57 pm

        I think, perhaps, it is gathering the idea of the novel and making it intriguing, almost a hook, without truly being one. I do not mean to say that in their wake I sell millions of copies ( I sometimes do not sell hundreds) but I like the idea of the novel. I added one just for fun.

        Ah and there were then a couple of recommendations from other ghost story writers.
        Lol- I always think it a shame that the novel was not as good as the blurb.

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 19, 2016 at 12:09 am

          Thanks, Raymond. I had to edit that a bit as I’ve done the same for everyone who posted their blurbs here – I was afraid of this turning into a blurb exchange and other forums take care of that. Looks good though, glad you enjoyed it.

          Like

          • February 19, 2016 at 9:12 pm

            Oh no problem at all, never mind me, I am just a little voice from the wilderness. Oh and it was not all that anyway. Though I did like it.

            Liked by 1 person

  25. February 20, 2016 at 2:12 am

    Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. February 20, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Bryan Cohen of the Sell More Books podcast has some great blurb-writing tips. If you haven’t come across him before, you might like to check out this helpful video on YouTube.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 20, 2016 at 2:52 pm

      Hi Alannah, thanks for that. Wow, that is one seriously long video! I hope to get to it at some point but I’m a fan of the brief in blurbs, as in all things 😀 I know there’s a huge amount of great vlogs and podcasts out there on this, I must explore.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 22, 2016 at 7:51 am

        Bryan does offer a cheat sheet for blurbs – I think when you sign up to one of his offers, if I remember rightly. (Don’t know the link off hand, though, folks.)

        Like

        • February 22, 2016 at 8:36 am

          And here’s me doing it for free and asking for nothing. Missing a trick there obviously…

          Liked by 1 person

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