Blurbing by Example

Forgive me. This is the place my brain goes when I need to accomplish a task I’ve never done before. In this case, I need to write in that style of advertisingese reserved for the backs of books: a blurb. So I sought out a bunch of the books in my collection that roughly fit into the age-range my novel is targeting (10-12) and genre (fantasy.) I decided to try get a feel for the techniques they were using. Then, knowing myself too well, I coded and recorded my observations so that I could sort for patterns.

(Yes, this is a very biased sample and nothing about this is in any way representative. I make no claims regarding this information, except that the process of putting this together was useful to me. Make of it what you will.)

Total of books examined: 29

Headlines:
List of short stories contained in book: 1
A quote from the book: 8
A tale of X and Y: 1
Pithy statement of stakes: 1
In-universe term: 1
Character’s full name or title: 3
Reference to other books by author: 3
Cliche line: 1
No headline or review quote instead: 10

(Observations: Books of the same series tend to keep similar styles of headline. Good reviews of books are also commonly included on the back, but I’ve omitted these because a beginner has none to work with.)

Number of Sentences per Blurb:
1 sentence: 0
2 sentences: 1
3 sentences: 9
4 sentences: 7
5 sentences: 5
6 sentences: 3
7 sentences: 3
8 sentences: 0
9 sentences: 1

Number of Paragraphs per Blurb:
1 paragraph: 15
2 paragraphs: 9
3 paragraphs: 5

(Observation: Three paragraph blurbs tend to introduce two main opposing characters, often protagonist and antagonist. In other cases, these ‘paragraphs’ are made of single sentences so long that they’re spaced apart as paragraphs.)

Themes:*
Blurb ends with a question: 7
Introduction of strange world mechanics: 14
Introduction of a setting: 10
Suggestion of a plan of action: 2
Unhappy surroundings/unliked/unlucky main character: 2
Reluctant hero: 1
A chance or unlikely meeting: 3
Unreliable/unlikely allies: 1
Colourful cast of characters: 4
Romance: 1
Summary of inciting event(s): 8
Summary of previous book in series: 2
Emphasis on passage of time: 5
Mention of character deaths: 1
Allusion to vague menace: 3
Secrets/discovery of truth: 7
Destiny/fate: 3
Desire to prove self: 2

(*Note: Number of themes exceeds number of blurbs due to presence of multiple themes per blurb.)

Themes so common that I stopped keeping track:
-Introduction of protagonist (typically unusual traits, desires, aversions)
-Introduction of antagonist (connection with or influence on main character typical)
-Suggestion of a problem
-Emphasis of danger and conflict.
-List of things encountered along the way.

There seem to be blurb types for children’s fantasy novels. These are distinct from story types. I suspect different blurb styles could be chosen to represent the same story, if a writer wanted to emphasize different elements.

Blurb Types:
The early summary:
(Describes the turning point that changes this character’s life.)

The secret:
(There is something the character really wants to know or keep others from knowing.)

The fish out of water story:
(Character X hates Y, but is put in a situation where s/he must deal with it.)

Raised stakes and the question of outcome:
(Emphasis of menace + can character overcome it?)

The strange setting:
(Character has gone into a bizarre place and must adapt or try to return.)

A sketch of journey:
(Along the way, character will encounter x, y, and z!)

Why go to all this trouble? I’ve been given the advice that, when writing a blurb, I should create several different versions and choose the best among them. By isolating these idealized types, I can try framing my book in ways that fit these categories. Would The Hummingbird Familiar be blurbed best as a fish out of water story or a sketch of a journey? I’ll try all these ideal types (and mix and match, of course), until I find something that works. Expect a post on the subject.

Additionally, I now know which elements I should not vary overmuch between these versions. Nearly all the blurbs I looked at introduced a protagonist, an antagonist (or at the very mentioned the possibility of danger), and a problem. Number of sentences and number of paragraphs clearly cluster, so I can safely assume that using a length somewhere in those ranges will work well. I also don’t necessarily have to include a headline describing the story.

This all might seem self-evident, but I think I have a good starting point.

What’s your approach to to writing a blurb?

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3 Responses to Blurbing by Example

  1. conjurors says:

    This is a really helpful synthesis. Thanks for taking the time to put it all together. I’m starting to tackle the blurb for my second book. I’m also going to rewrite the blurb for my first. One thing I’ve seen done well is to make sure there is some action in the description. Of course the protag gets introduced, and maybe the world, but I think young readers are often especially interested in plot.

    • I’m glad you found it useful!

      What I’ve noticed is that good blurbs seem to pack so much into just a few sentences. I think I was somewhat unfairly dismissive of the writing style before I started. (When you read a lot of blurbs without looking closely, the language seems very samey.) But blurbs have to carefully balance originality with wording that triggers the right genre associations.

      I think you make a good point about plot. I just worry about revealing too much. I know, as a reader, that I’ve always hated when the back of the book spoils the story. But I’ll try an action-heavy blurb too. I want to write at least six or seven different blurbs, so I can pick the best one.

  2. Pingback: Six Different Blurbs about the Same Story | Words with Sharp Edges

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