The last instalment in Colin Brush’s series on how to write the perfect blurb for your book.
‘But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.’ – The House At Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne
And now we reach the end. Although the end of the blurb is (cross fingers) a beginning – the point of embarkation for the reader who has been convinced by the proposition they’ve just perused as they head for the till and many happy hours voyaging on a sea of words.
So without giving away the ending how do we finish our blurb in such a tantalising manner that the reader is sold? In other words how do we make the end of our little story irresistible?
We can start by making life easier for ourselves by having written a blurb with carefully weighed oppositions and our understanding of Hegelian dialectic (thesis/antithesis/synthesis). If our synthesis is powerful and resonant with our clashing thesis and antithesis then the end may already have written itself. The end, as they say, was written in the beginning.
However, we might want to add something to that or perhaps we’ve taken a different approach and we’re searching around for some new or more novel angle.
Broadly speaking, I think there are six main ways of sealing the deal on the back or flap of a book.
Make a Promise
‘Kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars, lords and honest men.
All will play the Game of thrones . . .’
I found the above words on the back of a copy of A Game of Thrones. It wasn’t at the end of the copy but I’ve always felt that it reads like the last words you want to read before you dive in. Here, they insist, lies a world of adventure just waiting for you . . . Irresistible (says the person who has yet to read a word of the novels or indeed seen an episode of the TV series).
Or how about the below from David Gemmell’s Legend:
His name is Druss.
The stories of his life are told everywhere. But the grizzled Drenai veteran has spurned a life of fame and fortune and retreated to the solitude of his mountain lair.
His home is Dros Delnoch.
And it is the only route through the mountains for the invading Nadir army. Once the stronghold of the Drenai, the fortress of Dros Delnoch will now be their final battleground. And Druss will be its last hope.
His story is LEGEND.
Now there’s a promise to live up to.
Make them feel
Art wouldn’t be art if we didn’t feel it inside us. We want to be touched by it in some way. I’ve already spoken about the powers of emotion to engage readers and the final sentences of our blurb are our last chance to excite them. What’s appropriate? A joke? Something heartbreaking? The end of the world? What serves your blurb and your book best?
Here’s the blurb from a Penguin Modern Classics edition of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker:
‘Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same.’
Composed in an English which has never been spoken and laced with a storytelling tradition that predates the written word, Riddley Walker is the world waiting for us at the bitter end of the nuclear road.
If you grew up in the seventies and eighties those final words ‘bitter end of the nuclear road’ echo a bleakness that years of daily news reports carved into your soul.
Deepen the intrigue
‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water . . .’
Perhaps your conflict says it all. The tensions of your story when laid bare have their own dramatic force and you don’t wish to temper them with some suggestion of peace or resolution. Or perhaps you are the kind of maniac who thinks nothing of turning the dial past eleven. Whatever groove you’ve been furrowing in your blurb why not deepen it? Go bolder. Cut deeper. Take your audience to the very brink – and push them over.
Here’s The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.
The future is small. The future is nano . . .
And who could be smaller or more insignificant than poor Little Nell – an orphan girl alone and adrift in a world of Confucian Law, Neo-Victorian values and warring nano-technology?
Well, not quite alone. Because Nell has a friend, of sorts. A guide, a teacher, an armed and unarmed combat instructor, a book and a computer: the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is all these and much much more. It is illicit, magical, dangerous.
And it isn’t Nell’s. It was stolen. And now some very powerful people want to get their hands on this highly desirable object. Nell is about to discover that the world can feel very small indeed . . .
I wrote this. I could have ended it at the bottom of the second paragraph but I wanted to add a further layer of intrigue, which then, pleasingly, allowed me to play off the opening.
Questions need answers
Pose a question. Or, better yet, pose three. The three question beginning to a blurb is a classic opening for non-fiction but its converse, the three question ending, is more typically used in the crime genre: who murdered Selma? How did they do it? And, goddammit, why? This can be tricky to pull off in both science fiction and fantasy where the questions often relate to multiple story threads and can seem to barely relate to one another. I try to make the questions I use build on one another, as if one leads naturally to the next with the final one being so tantalising you just have to read the book to get the answer.
Here’s Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, posing two powerful questions at its end:
What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.
One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.
Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.
If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?
Raise the stakes
Entropy rules. Things fall apart. Everything goes to pieces in the end. And in a really good blurb trouble for our heroes should just get worse and worse and worse. The end of your blurb is a good point to raise the stakes. It’s not just our heroes’ lives that are at risk, it is the fate of all humanity . . . If the queen dies then the empire will fall . . . If the android ever falls in love, the kill switch will be triggered . . .
Here’s a book from my youth. Michael Moorcock’s The Blood Red Game:
Renark was born to wander under the diamond glare of a myriad suns. He was never alone because he sensed the power of the unseen hands which guided the ebb and flow of the universe. Then, after two years of watching and waiting, he was ready for the great journey to the rim of the galaxy – and beyond. There he found himself in the arena of the Blood Red Game. The stakes were high: for the human race it meant extinction – or rebirth.
You think this story is about a single man. Turns out it is about the future of humankind.
Add a twist
We’ve already discussed how wrong-footing the reader can be a good way to start a blurb. Equally good is to wrong foot them or put an unexpected twist in at the end of the blurb – just when they think they know what they’re dealing with. This suggests increased intrigue, narrative unreliability, that this story is not going to be straightforward. You may have to set it up so it feels earned.
Michael Moorcock and my youth again. This time it’s The Black Corridor:
The world is sick. The forces of Chaos have energized the planet. Leaders, fuhrers, duces, prophets, visionaries, gurus and politicians are all at each others’ throats. And Chaos leers over the broken body of Order.
So Ryan freezes his family into suspended animation and sets off for the planet Munich 15040, five years distant. There he will re-establish Order in a New World – and create a happier, healthier, saner and more decent society with the ones he loves.
But they are suspended, they cannot talk, and he is alone in space, unable to see his destination . . .
They don’t write them like that anymore (book or blurb). The twist here is that for all the grand conflict and high ideals of the first two paragraphs, this story turns out to be about a single man going slowly mad in space. (A formulation exactly the opposite of The Blood Red Game, almost as if I’d chosen them as a pair.)
Concluding the conclusion
What I’ve tried to outline here are a series of processes to help you write a blurb that connects your book to its readers. But don’t let these processes be a substitute for creativity. If you’ve a cool idea, go for it. Afterwards, you can go through the analysis stages and see whether you think the blurb does justice to your story and will connect with your audience. You can then modify it as necessary.
That’s what I’ve been getting at all along. A good blurb, like a great cover, forges a connection with the reader. In combination, they’re the brochure hinting at the journey author and reader are about to undertake together.
It is a journey reader and author alike embark on with some little trepidation but always a great dose of hope.
Colin Brush writes blurbs to sell other people’s books in order to buy food. He fears the day authors figure out there’s no great secret to this and decide to cut out the middle man.