The seventh in a series of how-to posts by Colin Brush
‘Poetry is precise a thing as geometry’ – Gustave Flaubert
We’ve looked at beginning our blurb and structuring it utilising opposites and tension and now we’re going to see how different blurb shapes can help us write different blurbs.
The physical shape of blurbs is generally not something anyone bar a designer considers. And a designer usually only considers it as a means of contorting the blurb around their design (it is at this point that I like to remind designers that the back of the book is first and foremost the blurb writer’s territory: the designer’s job is to encourage a reader to pick up the book (the front), the blurb writer’s job (the back) is to ensure it isn’t put down again).
But I’m not talking the layout shape of blurbs.
If we consider blurbs in terms of their scope then suddenly we find that they have hidden shapes. What do I mean by scope? By scope I mean its range or focus in any one line. Are we talking particular or general? A small or a big idea? Is the blurb focused on the protagonist (small, narrow POV) or the world/an overall situation (large, widescreen) at that moment? Are we talking plot (narrow) or overarching theme (wide)?
Once we’ve established that blurbs can be at different points wide or narrow in scope we can begin to examine their shape. Like stories themselves, some blurbs start small with a protagonist and get bigger as they begin to refer to the wider world: they are triangular. Think how The Lord of the Rings begins with the Shire and slowly reveals over a thousand pages the entire world of Middle Earth.
Others invert the triangle by beginning with the world (big) and narrow in on a protagonist and their problem (small). The opening crawl of Star Wars takes us from a galactic civil war to the Empire’s search for stolen plans to pursuing that miscreant Princess Leia. More complicated shapes are possible, but we’re going to look at just four which I think are a kind of Platonic ideal of blurb geometry: simple blurbs with clearly defined shapes.
Let’s explore them by looking at four ways to approach Nineteen Eighty-Four. (I have shaped these blurbs physically for illustrative purposes, to make clearer where I think the scope is small or large/narrow or wide. As you’ll see, the broad shape is not slavishly followed by every line.)
Here we start with a diary entry by the protagonist, Winston Smith. We learn what Winston does and his petty rebellion against it. We discover that his life is made miserable by the totalitarian society in which he lives. We learn how deeply those in authority control the populace, how even Winston falling in love is suspect and how the Big Brother Winston denounced in the first line punishes those who resist.
The focus gets bigger and bigger: from one man to the world he inhabits, from apex to base . . .
For this approach we start with the world (and to some extent the themes) and we progressively narrow all the way down until we get to one man, Winston. Since I knew I was taking this approach – wider, bigger to narrower, smaller – I wondered what it would be like to include the reader at the opening by making us all part of Big Brother, to in a sense collude with the regime. This then led, by the time I got to the end, to my turning the novel’s protagonist, our hero, into the blurb’s enemy. An intriguing approach and likely an idea I would not have thought of without taking this inversion.
This is actually the blurb I wrote for the Penguin Shepard Fairey-jacketed Orwells. We start with the world (borrowing the wonderful opening line) and our protagonist with his place in it. Then we focus on Winston and Julia’s needs and hopes in the narrow middle. But their act of rebellion draws the ire of the totalitarian world in which they live, giving this blurb its hourglass shape. It starts wide, narrows and widens at its close.
Here we begin with Winston and slowly expand outwards to take in his world (though the ‘heart rebels’ line is clearly narrow – not every line will follow the plan!) then we narrow again to focus on the lovers and their personal struggle and sacrifice.
Now we have four ways of looking at the same story. Which do you prefer?
The point about these simple blurb shapes is not that every good blurb should follow them (though many bad blurbs, by this analysis, have no obviously definable shape) but that they provide clear ways for you to take a blurb in a new direction. They allow you to take a blurb you’ve already written, analyse its broad shape and then have a go at rewriting it, with a straightforward and clear new intention: go wide, or narrow . . .
If you’re happy with your blurb as it stands, who cares if it does not adhere to any of these shapes? But if you are unhappy, examine its shape and then see what it becomes if you try and make it triangular or hourglass-shaped. Is it improved? What’s it doing now? Rather like the formal rules employed by poets, your line choices are limited by the form you’re adopting but limitations, as the best writers know, can free the imagination.
Colin Brush has written so many book blurbs over the last twenty years that he now imagines he can see geometric shapes in them. We can only hope that enforced retirement or people in white coats are waiting around the next corner.