The tagline taketh away

Time for another blurb post! First off, I’d like to say thanks to everyone who’s reached out with kind words in the last month or so, especially from the good folks over at the Writers’ Café. The encouragement has been most appreciated.

Let’s talk about taglines.

I’m already on record that I think taglines tend not to work in blurbs. I don’t mean the back cover of a print book—they’re great there. Or on the front cover, even. Some kind of header above the blurb on the back of a print book is extremely common. If that header can be your tagline, all the better. But I don’t like them in blurbs. This, however, is one place I think there’s more room for disagreement.

The tagline is a special animal. Its goal is to offer a hook, with as few words as possible, that might not necessarily tell the whole story but makes people want to find out more. We’ve seen them all over at the movies. They’re short and sweet, with the goal of delivering a conceptual or emotional impact. The main reason I think taglines don’t work in blurbs is that they strike a different tone than the blurb itself. They take the economy of words to an extreme, and they’re meant to say something different from what the blurb proper says.

Some blurb writers insist taglines can work, and they’ve done so effectively enough that I don’t feel this is a point I can argue very strenuously. The ones who manage this do it without making it look cliché or lame; those are the primary things that can kill a blurb. So while I prefer my blurbs tagline-free, I have to bow to those who can pull it off. But on the flip side of that coin, taglines will eat your blurb alive if they’re not handled with extreme care. That alone is enough reason, for me, to steer clear.

Here’s a quick hit list of cases I’ve seen taglines used where they absolutely do not work.

  • The lead-off line. This isn’t a tagline, but it wants to pretend it is. It dresses up in bold or italics. It may or may not try to be pithy. But then the blurb treats it as if it’s part of the blurb proper, following what the line said and sometimes not repeating important details from it. A lead sentence is not a tagline and will never be. Doing this only makes the blurb itself look incomplete.
  • Too cute by half. A good tagline has to be clever. Sometimes they try too hard and don’t get there. The telltales that you’re trying too hard on a tagline are when it has to be shoehorned to fit a certain phrase or style, when it’s drawing from a cliché, or it seems to want to score a pun more than make an emotional impact. To offer a really bad fictional example: “Whoever said ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight’ never saw an alien invasion.” It leaves you scratching your head. If there’s a joke in there, it might have worked in the full text of the story, maybe with a character deadpanning the old chestnut—but it’s not working here with no setup. Or try this much less bad example: “Bob just found out his wife is an alien. Guess the honeymoon’s over.” That’s still a real eye-roller, which is a reaction you never want.
  • Too long. If a tagline is going on for words and words and words, there’s a pretty good chance it doesn’t want to be a tagline. Maybe those words want to be part of the blurb, or maybe they’re just dead weight. For example: “Cindy thought high school was rough. With a werewolf and a vampire as her roommates, she’s about to learn how rough college can be.” All that text is begging to be in the blurb instead of a tagline. (But don’t let it! Remember, future tense is blurb poison, and “about to” isn’t disguised well enough to slide by.) That’s not a tagline at all, but a short pitch. A real tagline might read: “Werewolves. Vampires. Midterms.” Which one would grab you more?
  • Too many. One tagline is, in my opinion, so difficult to pull off it’s not worth the effort. Two is impossible. Absolutely impossible. I’ve seen blurbs open up with one line in bold and end with another line in bold. This is awful, awful, and you should run away from this as fast and as far as you can. Even most of the big no-nos sometimes have very rare exceptions. Not this one.
  • Too weak. This is the absolute most common issue I see in taglines, and it deserves its own section. So let’s knock off this bulleted list and get to the meat.

Weak taglines are a menace. They reach for that impact they really wanted, but at the end of the day they just fizzle. Often they’re weak because of wording that could be just a bit tighter. This same skill set comes into play in the blurb itself, but brevity is at an absolute premium in the tagline.

When it comes to impact, it’s hard to easily describe what kinds of things work and what don’t; you just have to get a feel for it. Look at some really effective movie taglines and think about their power-to-words ratio. Take for instance the classic tagline “In space no one can hear you scream.” You have a great black void, cold, emptiness, silence, vulnerability, isolation, and terror. Those are all powerful concepts. That’s a phrase that gets people into theaters.

If a tagline is weak, it shouldn’t be used at all—let alone in a blurb. A weak tagline will predispose a reader to move on. A strong one can be very powerful, but it doesn’t really boost the blurb; it distracts. A tagline that works in harmony with the blurb proper, enough to actually open the blurb anywhere but on the back cover, is a rare beast indeed. More often than not, sticking it in with the blurb will only make both look worse.

Again though, don’t get the wrong idea: it can be done. Some writers are awesome at it. I am not. Chances are you are not. How much slogging is it worth to tie the two together in perfect balance? You stand to make a much better return on your investment of time and effort if you just work on perfecting each one separately, and don’t let them near each other except on the back cover. When you tweak a blurb to go with a tagline and vice-versa, one impacts the other and it’s a much slower process. A blurb without a tagline is so much easier to tweak, mainly because it frees you to try out completely different formats.

That’s another problem with taglines in blurbs: they become anchors. Blurbs have inertia. Sometimes they don’t like to venture far from their current form. Mathematicians call this a local minimum: when by taking small steps, you settle on a non-optimal solution because any change you make makes the problem worse. I’ve seen many a blurb struggle to escape its original form because it started as a synopsis, or an agent query, or even because the author was fixated on a certain turn of phrase they loved—even if it didn’t work. Sometimes it takes a radical rewrite, a very different perspective, to see what the blurb truly could be. When the blurb leads off with a tagline and you’re unwilling to let go, that process is hamstrung. Anchoring is really a bigger topic, worth exploring another time, but for now just let it stand as another argument against pairing taglines with blurbs.

In summary, if you use a tagline in a blurb it has to be awesome, and it has to mesh. If you have any reservations about it, remove it from the blurb; maybe it will work just fine on the front cover alone. Taglines must be short and punchy, much more so than the blurb. They must be resonant above all, but cleverness is optional; trying to be too clever can leave you with a toneless dud. They must not be merely a blurb’s first sentence; if the blurb is written as if the tagline literally just another sentence instead of a partner, it doesn’t work—either as a tagline or as part of the blurb. And you must never, ever have two lines dressed up as taglines.

My advice stands: Let the tagline and the blurb stand apart, and they’ll both be happier. Getting them to play nicely is a special talent that few people have.

Addendum: I did say there were exceptions. Not long after I posted this, I found one of the rare cases where I actually told someone they should keep their tagline. The rest of the blurb had work to be done, but the tagline was so strong it had to stay. Four words, huge impact, it was everything a tagline ever dreams of being, and it will play nicely with whatever replaces the main blurb. Funny how life works.

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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One Response to The tagline taketh away

  1. “Werewolves. Vampires. Mid-terms.” Yeah, I’d read that. Great example too. I understand your point much better now.

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