Five Rules for Great Blurbs

As an author who loves nothing more than sharing my work with the world, one of my favorite things is writing the blurb for the back cover and online listings. This is how I’m going to tell people what my book is about. Many authors dread writing the blurb for their book, but just consider this: Have you ever had some exciting news you just had to share? Something interesting you wanted to tell somebody about? Remember how great it felt to finally share that news? That’s how authors should feel about their blurbs, because that’s the exact situation they’re in when sharing their book with the world.

But, what happens when you finally get to share that news that’s been bubbling up inside of you all day? You ramble on about it, don’t you? You just talk and talk and gesticulate emphatically about this burning topic that’s been threatening to burst from you all day long.

It’s no surprise then, that many blurbs are long-winded affairs.

As a publisher and acquisitions editor, I see a long train of blurbs, synopsis, and pitches. Often, authors get these mixed up. I’ll ask for a detailed synopsis, and I’ll get a four-line pitch. I’ll ask for a pitch, and I’ll get a very long blurb. I’ll ask for a blurb, and sometimes I don’t know what I’m looking at. I think the first thing we need to do is be sure we know the difference between the three, and what their purposes are.

The Pitch

A pitch should be one or two sentences conveying the main character, plot, theme(s), tone, and genre of the work. It should sound exciting. This is what gets agents and publishers to move on to reading your synopsis and samples. If the pitch falls flat, usually that’s the end for your submission. Here’s the pitch for my current work-in-progress:

A detective wanted for murder goes off the grid to clear his name in this gritty, action-packed cyberpunk crime thriller.

The Synopsis

This is the meat and potatoes of a query to an agent or publisher. This is where you detail the major plot points of the story from beginning to end, name and briefly describe all the major characters, and explain how the major themes of your story are explored.

Don’t list every little plot detail. Just hit the key points that move things forward. I don’t need to know Cathy and Brett met for coffee unless that changes their relationship, or they’re ambushed by a crack strike team of government assassins at the cafe.

The Blurb

The blurb for the back cover of your book—and online listings—should be treated as a sales pitch directed towards potential readers. Often, I’ll see blurbs that read more like a synopsis. You want this to be short, snappy, and exciting. Essentially, this should be a longer version of the pitch. You want to tell us who the protagonist(s) is/are, what the conflict is, what genre we’re dealing with, hint at the setting, and convey the tone and themes of the book.

Here’s an example of one of my blurbs, and we’ll refer back to this as we cover our five rules for writing blurbs.

Jace Cox’s life is changed when an overwhelming alien force invades the Earth with no warning or provocation. In the years that follow, he must not only fight to survive, but also learn what it means to be a man and a leader. As the situation grows more dire, he realizes that his greatest challenge isn’t the alien invaders or even his fellow man; it is holding onto his own humanity despite living in a world gone mad.

Rule One: Keep it Short

Some will say that between 200 and 250 words is a good place to be for a blurb. Others will simply say don’t go over 200 words. I say these individuals are being generous about the attention spans of people in our modern world. Life these days is dominated by short YouTube videos, flashy action films, 250 character-or-less tweets, and instant gratification. Twenty years ago I would have agreed that 200 words was a good length for a blurb, but not today.

In addition to the drive-through culture we find ourselves in, we must also consider that people are constantly striving to better utilize their time. Yes, we’re all wasting a lot of time in new and innovative ways, but this just compounds the issue of not having enough of it. Think of how this translates to online shopping—arguably where your blurb will most often be read. Potential readers have clicked on your listing because of that amazing book cover, then they start reading the blurb to see what it’s all about. They’re met with a 250 word thesis on the motivations of your character, the mechanics of your world, and… You lost them. They’ve hit the back button and are browsing again.

What happened? You didn’t pack enough punch into a small enough space. Had they read the entire blurb, they might have hit that big tension-building last line and been hooked; but you lost them after about seventy-five words of fleshing out the backstory of your beloved protagonist. So, how long should a blurb be? I say it should be no longer than one hundred words. How long is my example above? Seventy eight.

Rule Two: Hook Them on the First Line

This is the other way you are going to combat the short attention span of the general populace. Make sure that first line is snappy, exciting, and tells the reader why they want to read the rest of the blurb. If you’re really good, you can sell the whole book with the first line.

It’s often good to use the protagonist’s name here to make it personal. People care about people, so throwing a name in there tells the potential reader that there’s somebody in this story that they’re going to care about. Why do they care about this person? Are they in love, in danger, or destined for greatness? Tell us in the first line who we are supposed to care about, and most importantly why we are going to care about them.

Jace Cox’s life is changed when an overwhelming alien force invades the Earth …

Here’s the first line of our example, not even the entire first sentence. Who do we care about? Jace Cox. We don’t know who he is, how old he is, where he’s from, what he desires from life, or what his role in society is. So, how do we know we should care about him? His life is changed. We can all relate to something like this. We all have been through major life changes, and know how difficult these times of upheaval can be. This statement could also be something like “falls in love” or “lives in terror.” What thee character is experiencing is key here. But wait, there’s more! Why did his life change? Because an overwhelming alien force invades the Earth. Now not only do we know who we care about, and why, but we have a sense of the gravity of what is at stake. As a bonus, we also know our genre is going to be science fiction, that there are aliens, and that there’s potentially armed conflict; which leads us to our next rule:

Rule Three: Multi-task Every Sentence

Remember what we are trying to tell the reader in the blurb? Who the protagonist(s) is/are, what the conflict is, what genre we’re dealing with, hint at the setting, and convey the tone and themes of the book. And how long do we want it to be? Under 100 words. How do we squeeze all of that information into so few words? We make sure that every sentence accomplishes as many goals as possible.

Let’s consider a hypothetical bad section of a blurb: Barbara doesn’t know what she is going to do. Everybody is out to get her. Her boss, her ex, even the government. She has to find a way out of this jam.

Now, let’s take those four sentences and smash them into one. We’ll try to convey all of the same information and jazz it up a little at the same time: Barbara strives to discover a way to break free from her ex, her boss—even the government.

We just went from thirty-two to eighteen words, saving fourteen words for another part of the blurb. We’ve conveyed all of the same emotional elements, her situation, and her conflicts; but in almost half the number of words. Also, by condensing this information, it flows better and the one sentence has more impact. Each of the four sentences in the first version are a little tap, but the new version is one powerful punch! Every clause, every sentence in your blurb needs to have some punch!

Looking again at the first line from my own blurb quoted above, how many of these goals are accomplished? I’m going to be bold and say all of them except conveying the themes of the book. We’ve already discussed that we know who our protagonist is. We know there’s conflict from an alien invasion. We definitely know from that we are looking at the science fiction genre. We have a general idea of the setting: Earth. What about tone? That’s a hard one to nail down, but the word “overwhelming” in that line gives us a hint at what to expect from that. We have a feeling from that one word that things are going to be bigger than life and our protagonist is going to be up against the wall, as it were. We get all that from one word? Is there a trick to that? That’s also one of our rules.

Rule Four: Use Emotional Keywords and Phrases

We all became writers for various reasons, but there’s one thing we can all agree upon: the power of the written word. Here’s where you get to put your mastery of language to the ultimate test. How much emotion can you instill in a reader with one word? How much can you convey about your 100,000 word magnum opus in a single word or short phrase?

Here’s that example blurb again, so you don’t have to scroll back up to it. This time however, I’m going to accentuate the emotional keywords and phrases.

Jace Cox’s life is changed when an overwhelming alien force invades the Earth with no warning or provocation.  In the years that follow, he must not only fight to survive; but also learn what it means to be a man and a leader.  As the situation grows more dire, he realizes that his greatest challenge isn’t the alien invaders or even his fellow man; it is holding onto his own humanity despite living in a world gone mad.

Now, let’s see what we can infer about the book from just these words and phrases out of the context of the entire blurb. What can we assume about the book from overwhelming, provocation, fight to survive, dire, greatest challenge, humanity, and world gone mad?

As we discussed above, overwhelming gives us a sense that things are going to be over-the-top. Provocation tells us there will be some sort of external conflict. Fight to survive reinforces the sense of conflict, and also tells us life and death are at stake.  Dire gives us a sense of impending doom or a challenging obstacle; and this is supported by greatest challenge, which also sets the bar as high as possible with the word “greatest.” Then we relieve the tension with humanity. Out of context, we could be talking about the human race or the human condition, but either way we can relate to this. Finally, we have a cliche used as a key phrase: a world gone mad. I would avoid using cliches as much as possible, but in moderation they can be a powerful thing. Ending the blurb with something that tells us that everything we have come to expect from the world is turned on its head is a powerful way to end a blurb.

Be careful though. Don’t overuse these keywords. Make sure they fit into the context of the sentence and feel natural. Spamming keywords is the best way to turn off a reader (and Amazon’s algorithms). Thrilling tales of amazing adventure might be a good tag-line for a pulp fiction magazine, but is most likely not fitting for your novel’s blurb.

What are some other keywords you can use to invoke an emotional reaction from your potential readers? Words such as struggle, belligerent, and aggression let the reader know there’s going to be a strong conflict of some sort. Words like terrified, ominous, and bleak set a dark tone and let the reader know there will likely be some frights in the book. Words like amorous, seductive, and sexy make us ask, “Is this a kissing book?” Fred Savage would probably pass on that one.

From The Princess Bride, © 20th Century Fox, 1987

Rule Five: Set Expectations

The final rule applies the keywords from rule four and also looks back at our original goals for the blurb. We’ve made it short, we’ve hooked the reader from the first line, and we’ve multi-tasked with every sentence. We’ve got our emotional keywords ready to go so we can convey a feeling about our book, but how will we achieve the goals of a blurb? How will we set expectations for what can be found inside the book?

Let’s look at our goals one more time to refresh our memories:

Jace Cox’s life is changed when an overwhelming alien force invades the Earth with no warning or provocation.  In the years that follow, he must not only fight to survive; but also learn what it means to be a man and a leader.  As the situation grows more dire, he realizes that his greatest challenge isn’t the alien invaders or even his fellow man; it is holding onto his own humanity despite living in a world gone mad.

Yes, one more time; just so you don’t have to scroll back up.

You want to tell us who the protagonist(s) is/are, what the conflict is, what genre we’re dealing with, hint at the setting, and convey the tone and themes of the book.

Let’s look at our example one last time, and see if I’ve managed to achieve the goals set forth for the blurb.

  • Who is the protagonist? Jace Cox.
  • What is the conflict? Alien invasion, fighting to survive, and holding onto his own humanity.
  • What genre are we dealing with? Science fiction, alien encounter, and from the “years that follow…fight to survive”: post-apocalyptic.
  • Have we hinted at the setting? Yes, it’s set on Earth. Admittedly, this is the weakest point of this blurb because it is not specific.
  • What conveys the tone? Overwhelming, dire, and challenging.
  • What is the theme? Conveyed by the words, “holding onto his own humanity despite living in a world gone mad,” our theme is maintaining our moral compass despite unusually difficult circumstances.

Now, let’s look at a great example of a short, snappy, engaging blurb from a popular book; and see if it hits all six of our goals?

When The Two Rivers is attacked by Trollocs—a savage tribe of half-men, half-beasts—five villagers flee that night into a world they barely imagined, with new dangers waiting in the shadows and in the light.

From The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, Tor/Orbit Books, 1990

Yes, the blurb on the actual book is longer, but the entire first part is actually a blurb for The Wheel of Time and appears on every book in said series. These thirty-six words are all that’s on the back of this book to tell us specifically about this volume. So, how does it measure up?

  • Who is our protagonist? Five villagers.
  • What is the conflict? A savage tribe and new dangers.
  • What genre is it? Fantasy, judging from the half-men, half-beasts.
  • The setting? The Two Rivers, then a world they barely imagined.
  • What conveys the tone? Savage, flee, barely imagined, dangers, shadows, and light.
  • What is the theme? A journey of discover both of a world they barely imagined and new dangers. Also, we see a play on shadow and light, expressing an exploration of the dichotomy of good and evil. However, one of the dangers they face is in the light, revealing that there will be some grey areas explored and expectations subverted along these lines.

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, Tor/Orbit Books, 1990

So, how did the author of this blurb do? There are definitely some weak points here, but the strength of the blurb coincides with the strengths of the novel itself. Anyone familiar with the book will likely agree that the thematic ideas it deals with are more profound than the plot and characters.

Yes, the blurb glosses over the characters, conflict, and setting with some very vague revelations. However, it makes great use of keywords and phrases to convey the tone, and it says a lot about the themes of the novel.

There’s an important lesson we can all take away from this example. We have six goals we want to achieve with our blurbs, but we want to keep them short and engaging. Can we possibly cover all six points? Yes. Can we cover them all in detail? Most likely not.

Even in my best example of my own blurbs, I failed to elaborate on the specifics of the setting. Also, the main character is established and we know we’re dealing with a life-changing event, but other than that we really don’t know anything about Jace from the blurb. However, we know a lot about the conflict and the theme, which are the two focuses of that book.

Really Selling It

Again, the purpose of the blurb is to provide a sales pitch for potential readers. We are excited about and proud of our work, therefore we want to tell everybody everything about it. But, telling all of that is best left to one place and one place alone: the inside of the book itself. The blurb is there to set expectations, convey emotional ideas, and let the reader know a little about the book.

We have six goals to achieve in doing this. We want to tell the potential reader about the characters, conflict, genre, setting, tone, and theme.

We have five rules to follow to help us do this in the most efficient and effective way. Keep it short, hook them on the first line, multi-task every sentence, use emotional keywords and phrases, and set expectations.

In the end, we won’t be able to fully express everything about our books. As with the blurb for The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, we must decide which of these points to focus on if we wish to keep our blurb short and exciting. Every book has a most important message or most important feature. That should be the focus of the blurb. The themes of The Eye of the World are the most important part of that novel, and that one point of six takes up half of a thirty-six word blurb. The important thing to notice is that every point was covered, if even vaguely. The expectations were set for all of them.

In writing our blurbs, we must balance the economy of limited words against the value of powerful words. We must also decide what is most important about our book, and be sure to focus on that. Spread yourself too thin, and the entire blurb will be weak. Stack too many words on one point, and you won’t have painted the entire picture for your audience. Be sure to fill the entire canvas, but pick that one thing that most conveys what your book is about, and make it pop.

About the Author

b k bass author

B.K. Bass is an author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror inspired by the pulp fiction magazines of the early 20th century and classic speculative fiction. He is a student of history with a particular focus on the ancient, classical, and medieval eras. He has a lifetime of experience with a specialization in business management and human relations and served in the U.S. Army. B.K. is also the Acquisitions Director for Kyanite Publishing, the Editor-in-Chief of the Kyanite Press journal of speculative fiction, and the Writing Department Chair for Worldbuilding Magazine.

Find out more about B.K. Bass at his website. You can find all his books in our online shop.

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