Writer's Craft Article by Karen S. Wiesner
Based on Writing Blurbs that Sizzle--And Sell! by Karen S. Wiesner
Blurbs Series, Part 1:
High-Concept and Back Cover Blurbs
Cait Reynolds makes me laugh whenever I read her Blurb Hokey Pokey quote: "You put your protagonist in. You leave the best friend out. You put the problem in. You leave the twist out. You do the Hokey Pokey and leave 'em on a cliffhanger. That's what it's all about."
How to write a blurb 101: You put your main character in, you don't need that secondary character. Detail the conflict with just enough to get the questions rising inside the reader's head but not too much that you begin answering those questions or deflating any of the big moments in the book. Hook with a last sentence that drives them panting to open the book and start reading. That's the general idea. But there's a lot more to it because we have to contend with more than just the back cover blurb.
Before we talk about the three types of blurbs, there two things we need to preface with:
1) Ultimately, it doesn't matter a whit if a blurb is long or short or somewhere in-between. We have a misconception these days that being short by definition makes a blurb good and effective while a long blurb is by default in opposition of that, but both flavor-of the-day trends are illusions that you can't afford to rest on. An effectively good blurb means it's both well-written and makes a person want to read the story inside the pages, not just the back--want to enough to actually pay money to do it. Promotional considerations are the major and the main reason for having short blurbs.
2) The only part of that we're going to deal with here is the summary of the book.
How to Write Blurbs
An effectively good blurb has two parts for a single title and three for a series. The discussion on series blurbs is included after the other two that are needed for absolutely every blurb.
Part 1: High-Concept Blurbs The only difference between a back cover blurb and a high-concept blurb is usually length and frequently the high-concept blurb is much more generalized than the back cover blurb. Almost always, it's a single sentence that captures the essence of the story with a solid punch of intrigue straight to the gut. An example of an intriguing high-concept blurb from a book:
The tale of the contestants of a grueling walking competition where there can only be one winner—the one that survives. (The Long Walk by Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman)
If you look at this closely, you'll notice this sentence has two components: A who and a what. The who could refer to a protagonist or an antagonist or any general concept. In the book world, this is usually the main character but it could also be a group of people, a culture, a planet, whatever--essentially who has the most at risk that the reader is rooting for--the main driving force in the story, whether good or evil.
This is a basic formula we can use in the crafting of our high-concept blurbs. For a high-concept blurb, the goal is to come up with one to two sentences, something utterly intriguing. Here's the first section of our Blurb Worksheet:
Now let's tag the high-concept blurb we mentioned earlier so you can see how it fits into the formula. I've chosen a hard one because literally there isn't a high-concept blurb that can't fit into this two-part-component formula, but it might be difficult to initially figure out who's who and what's what:
The Long Walk by Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman:
Who: The contestants of a grueling walking competition.
What: Are forced into a walking competition where there can only be one winner—the one that survives.
At its crux, a back cover blurb strives to be a concise, breathtaking summary of your entire story that includes the major internal and external conflicts and the goals and motivations of the main character(s). Let's define the terms that will be on the next section of our Blurb Worksheet:
External and Internal Conflict, and Goals and Motivations
External conflict (plot) is the central tangible or outer problem standing squarely in the character’s way that must be faced and solved by that character. Internal conflicts are emotional problems brought about by external conflicts that make a character reluctant to achieve a goal because of her own roadblocks. In fiction, character conflicts are why plot conflicts can’t be resolved. Your first spark of the story in your mind will usually suggest what the character’s conflicts are, and many times they’re based on someone or something threatening what the character cares about passionately.
Internal conflicts are all about character, and external conflicts are all about plot, but both belong to the main character. After all, if both didn’t affect her in some profound way, they wouldn’t be conflicts for her and therefore wouldn’t even be part of her story. Additionally, it’s your job as the writer to give the character incentives (specifically, goals and motivations) not to give up until everyone is safe and the main character has what she was fighting for. Your character can't simply react to conflict--she must act in the face of it. What exactly does she stand to gain if she does something? What will she lose if she doesn't do it?
Focused on the goal, the character is pushed toward the external conflict by believable, emotional, and compelling conflicts and motivations that won’t let her quit before she reaches the goal. The intensity of her anxiety creates worry and anticipation in the reader. Those are the very things you want to highlight in a powerful, succinct way in a back cover blurb.
Now that we know what a back cover blurb needs to include, we can use a short form to provide the jumping-off point in crafting one of our own on the Blurb Worksheet:
Basic Information: Fill out as completely as possible, keeping in mind that you may not use all, much or any of this in your final blurb.
Title of Book:
Basic Character and Plot Information: Fill out as completely as possible for the major characters in your story (usually no more than two or three main and one villain).
Main Character Role (specify hero, heroine, villain, etc.):
First and Last Name:
Age and Job:
Description of the character's personality/hobbies/physical appearance/
traumas or hang-ups that factor into his or her story conflicts:
Internal Conflict (i.e., character crisis or what's in jeopardy or at stake):
External Conflict (i.e., plot crisis):
Goals and motivations (i.e., what and why character is compelled to act):
Once you've filled out the form above completely, you can inject your story specifics into this formula (note: you would fill this out for each major character):
(name of character)
(goal to be achieved)
(motivation for acting)
but who faces
(conflict standing in the way).
Let's do this a little backwards and fill out the forms for The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (some sections aren't included if the book didn't have it).
Genre: Ghost story
Time Period: Presumably during the 1860s.
Main Setting: Crythin Gifford, a faraway English town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway.
Main Character Role: Hero
First and Last Name: Arthur Kipps
Age: Presumably young, "up-and-coming".
Job: London solicitor
Internal Conflict: The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images—a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black.
Who (Arthur Kipps) name of character
wants (to conclude what he anticipated would be a routine business trip in his goal of becoming an up-and-coming London solicitor but the job quickly takes a horrifying turn) goal to be achieved
because (he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images—a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black) motivation for acting
but who faces (the menacing spectre haunting a small English town connected to Eel Marsh House, which stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, hiding tragic secrets behind its sheltered windows) conflict standing in the way
Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford—a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway—to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow’s house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images—a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black.
In Part 2, we'll talk about writing series blurbs.
Karen S. Wiesner is the author of Writing Blurbs That Sizzle--And Sell!
Volume 7 of the 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection
Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series. Visit her here: