It’s a lot easier to help someone adjust a blurb for their book than to write your own. Somehow the matter of inside vs. outside perspective matters a lot more here than you’d think it should. In the interest of paying forward the help I’ve received from others, I like to try to play blurb doctor whenever I can. I’m absolutely not an expert, but I know what looks bad. I’ve noticed a few things that crop up repeatedly in blurbs, that weaken them. It’s time to put an end to a couple of these practices.
The dreaded “When”
How many times have you seen this in a blurb?
When Bob discovers his wife is actually an alien…
Jenny thought she had her life under control, but when her sister moves in…
I’m not the first to point out that “when” has become a cliché in blurbs, yet it still happens all the time. This is still being overused even in traditionally published books.
The problems stemming from this are myriad. First, the fact that it’s so easy to use makes it a crutch; this is how it became cliché in the first place. At the beginning of a blurb in particular, it stands out like a hot pink golden retriever driving a go-kart through a shopping mall. As with all clichés, like the one I just stepped around, this is easy to avoid if you just give it a little effort. Later in the blurb, especially buried in a sentence other than the first one, “when” doesn’t seem inherently quite as bad. Yet it still carries a lot of weakness and tiredness. You can still work around it with only a little effort, and the blurb will be stronger for it.
Aside from being worn thin, there’s another insidious problem with “when”: It encourages you to insert too many story beats into the blurb. I’ve been guilty of this before. If your setup says “X happens, then Y happens, then Z happens,” it’s way too complicated. Anything more than “This is how it was, this is what changed, this is the conflict that arose from that” is, 99% of the time, more detail than a blurb needs. When is a story beat; it’s telling you the change part. If you use two whens, you’ve definitely gone too far. And this is a problem even if you’re doing different setups for different characters in two different paragraphs.
So that’s the “do not”. Here’s the “do”: Be matter-of-fact about the blurb. Introduce the main character and their top traits. Introduce the source of conflict, and the conflict itself. For instance:
Bob’s marriage is perfect—except for the unwelcome discovery that his wife is an alien.
Jenny thinks her life is under control. Her sister Lisa, however, has blown yet another doomed relationship, lost another apartment, and has only one option left: moving in with Jenny.
When isn’t required. You can do without it. Cast off your crutch, and walk!
Like all rules, this one is not set in stone. Sometimes a cliché works best. But try everything you can to get around it. If you think it isn’t working, think on it, rewrite, think on it some more. This is a hard habit to break, so don’t give up. This is the same advice I’d give to a beginning programmer trying to use goto everywhere: First master the techniques to do without it, and you’ll know when you truly need it.
Ask me no questions
I’ve become a staunch advocate against this particular practice: asking the reader a question. How many blurbs have you seen that end this way?
Can Bob save Earth and his marriage?
Will Jenny find the guts to kick her sister out?
Good gads this is terrible. If “when” is a crutch, a question to the reader is a motorized scooter, except that no one will ever, ever need one. Questions are ridiculously easy to fall into using, and some of us have become conditioned as readers to think they’re a good way to end a blurb. Some traditional books still do this too; they shouldn’t. This is the kind of thing I’d expect to see if I tasked a fourth-grader with writing a blurb for a story. Amateur hour is over; write something better.
There are a couple of reasons this is so bad. One is its overuse. Another is that it changes the flow from telling a story to addressing the reader, which ruins the tone of the blurb. Most of the time, though, it’s much worse: You’ve asked a rhetorical question. Of course we know Bob’s going to save the planet and work things out with his alien wife; that’s the happy ending. Terrific; you’ve just saved them the trouble of reading the book. Though if he doesn’t, you’ve just given the reader an expectation you don’t intend to meet, and that’s even worse! Framing a question as a choice between two equally possible outcomes, e.g. Team Edward and Team Jacob, doesn’t serve you a whole lot better, because you’re still addressing the reader.
What kills me is that I see authors who give otherwise great advice falling into this same trap. Writers who advise repeatedly not to turn aside and talk to the reader, still often think that a question is a good way to go. It isn’t. Keep your potential audience focused on the story that’s setting up, not on how it resolves.
Now the “do”: Do rephrase this as a must, as some kind of need.
Bob has to find a way to save not only his marriage, but the whole planet.
If Jenny can’t find a compromise that works, she’ll have to get Lisa to finally grow up—the hard way.
Now at no point does the blurb turn to the reader, poke them in the shoulder, and say, “What do you think will happen?” or worse, “Do you think this will have a good ending?” In a lot of genres, some kind of satisfactory ending is assumed. What makes the book interesting is how the characters resolve the situation. By refocusing away from the rhetorical question of whether the issue will get resolved or which of two choices will be picked, you put the ball back in the character’s court: They have a problem, they need a way to solve it, and what they go through to do so is the ride you’re promising to take the reader on. Instead of pointing them to the end of the ride and saying this outcome or that is going (or likely) to happen, you can leave them poised before the first big drop, anticipating what’s to come.
Posing questions to the reader is so bad, I’d say this rule should have no exceptions. But there is a time that question marks are okay: when a question is framed as something a character is wondering about.
The culprit got in and out without leaving a trace. How could he have gained access? Why steal a file on a six-year-old project that was never completed?
Mystery makes good use of such questions. But use them carefully, and don’t fall into the trap where it seems like you’re asking the reader.