‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
We’re just over the halfway point in my guide to writing blurbs and you’re probably wondering when we’re going to get around to actually looking at writing a blurb. Finally, that moment has arrived. By now, we should know what story it is we want to sell. We have an idea in our heads of our audience. We also have our one-line pitch to emotionally hook in our reader. Now we need to grab their attention with a powerful opening. But what kind of opening do we want?
Beginnings, as anyone who has stared at a blank page or screen appreciates, can be paralysing, They tend to be leaps into the unknown – for writer and reader, alike. However, in this instance we have two distinct advantages. Firstly, you are likely to have already written the novel already – so we know what we’re writing about. And secondly, by having done some groundwork on who we are talking to and what they might like we have some sense of what we want our copy to do.
The single most important thing your opening line needs to do is grab your reader. I’ve watched people picking up books in bookshops. Intrigued by something on the cover (title, author, image, shout line or some combination) they pick up the book. They turn it over and within a handful of seconds they’ve put it down again and moved on to the next thing. What was the deal breaker? What did they read that turned them off? It certainly wasn’t the entire blurb. There wasn’t time to read that far. And that’s the awful truth. Most people never read the whole blurb.
Which is why we need to start with something strong and unignorable. You want the reader to want to keep on reading even if they’ve already decided this book isn’t for them. They have to keep going just because you’ve intrigued them, dammit. That way you’ve still got a chance to win them over. So how do we do this?
It is at this point that I suggest turning to the classics. But not the blurbs of classic novels (just yet). I mean classic opening lines to novels. What are those arresting lines that have stayed with us since the moment we first read them and which took us into another world from which we may not quite have ever left? What can we learn from these lines in beginning our blurbs.
Take the opening quote to this post. The first line of perhaps the most famous and widely read science fiction novel of the twentieth century. It is a brilliantly constructed sentence designed with but one purpose in mind and that is to draw in the innocent reader and then utterly wrongfoot them at the last moment. Everything is perfectly reasonable, recognisable and normal until the last word, ‘thirteen’, which loudly declares that something is clearly wrong with the world.
To my mind this line exemplifies one of the key aspects of a good opening gambit: it stirs your curiosity. By the end of the line you are asking yourself how can all the clocks be striking thirteen*? What is this place? What (and here is its real power) has gone awry? Emotions are triggered: confusion, uncertainty, bafflement, intrigue. Some people will not like them but for others they will be stimulating. What’s going on? Can clocks strike thirteen – how? What would a world look like in which this was true? If you’re stimulated by this counterintuitive line then you will likely read on. Job done, Mr Orwell.
Here’s another famous science-fiction opening line (from a book coincidentally published in 1984):
‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.’
William Gibson’s Neuromancer created a whole subgenre of science fiction. It came to define how many of us thought about the twenty-first century many years before the new millennium had even arrived. Gibson does not write dense thickets of prose but what he can do is sketch in with a line or two an entire mood or atmosphere. Suddenly a world is brought to life. Some people (including a well-known author I once had an argument with over this line) think it is meaningless: it does nothing for them. But for people like me it conjures the sights, sounds and smells of another place and I want to be there, to experience it, to live it (at least briefly, as a tourist, only a fool would want to live in this technodystopia).
Similarly, lines that make you laugh (‘Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.’) or fill you with dread (‘The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.’) or joy (‘I exist!’) or melancholy (‘Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.’) or wonder (‘The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light years and eight centuries.’), or any feeling that you are looking for, will pull you in as a reader. An emotional response has been triggered – you like it and hopefully want more of it.
Finally, I believe, there is a third kind of opening line. This is the immersive line, the one that drops you straight into the story. Take the start of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:
‘It was a pleasure to burn.’
You are immediately in the middle of something – though you do not yet know what. But you’ll have questions. Burn what? Why is it pleasurable? Who is making this disturbing statement? You have questions and questions need answers. And so you read on. It’s the oldest trick in the unburned book. Tell them something but leave them hanging. Answer their questions but leave them with further questions. Keep them turning the pages. Writing a blurb is in many ways the same as writing a novel – only you’ve got a thousandth of the word count to play with.
Curiosity, atmospheric/emotional and immersive: three different approaches for your blurb’s opening line that seek to hook the reader’s attention. So what do these approaches look like on actual books? Below are some of my favourite opening lines to science fiction blurbs. I’ve put them in the category I personally think they most belong in. You may well disagree!
Curiosity – you’re intrigued:
- After the Internet, what came next? 
- The mystery of Ryhope wood had obsessed George Huxley to the point of madness. 
- The last story in the annals of the human race 
- When aliens made all Earth a farm . . . 
- At stake – the Earth . . . 
- No one knows why the ice has come, and no one can stop it. 
- Jackie and a group of fellow rebel women have escape the Authority’s repressive regime, forming a militia in the far north of Cumbria. 
- When a deadly plague devastates humanity on every planet in known space, only Grass seems untouched. 
Emotional/atmospheric – creates a specific emotional response:
- What happens when old spies come out to play one last game? 
- Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort he offered him a job. 
- Prepare to believe. 
- In a war of lies she seeks the truth 
- Change or die. 
Immersive – you’re there, but you want to know more:
- When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. 
- Mary Gentle’s magnificent tale of the gutsy and beautiful mercenary leader Ash will take you on an unforgettable ride through medieval Europe as it never quite was. 
- Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. 
- This be the tale of how I bring the cure to all the nighted states, save every poory children, short for life. 
In conclusion, I believe it is worth interrogating what your opening line is doing and whether it is the right approach. Whatever line you choose to begin with should depend on the story you’re selling and on what emotions you want to trigger in your audience. It is worth trying out these different approaches to see where they get you. Because this is our leaping off point for the rest of the blurb. It will send us down a certain route. One we’ll explore in our next post, on the power of opposites to structure your blurb.
* I wonder how much this wonderful line now resonates in a world that to some degree has replaced the twelve-hour analogue clock with the twenty-four digital one. Not to mention who now is aware that thirteen strikes of a clock was once an indicator of doubt . . .
-  Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson
-  Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
-  An Alien Heat by Michael Moorcock
-  The Genocides by Thomas M Disch
-  The Game Players of Titan by Philip K Dick
-  Ice by Anna Kavan
-  The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
-  Grass by Sheri S Tepper
-  Spook Country by William Gibson
-  Mort by Terry Pratchett
-  American Gods by Neil Gaiman
-  A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
-  Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
-  The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
-  Ash by Mary Gentle
-  Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
-  The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman
Colin Brush writes blurbs for a living. They are much shorter than novels, novellas and nearly all short stories. Sometimes he’s been known to haiku a book blurb.