How To Write Better Stories, OR: Harry Potter And The Blurb.

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your humble host

Writing the hundred words or so that adorn the back of your book – and the Ammy listing – is hard. Looking at examples of other people’s work, when applicable, is… well, it might be easy to look at their blurbs, but what can we learn from their blurbs?

Aha. Glad you asked.

Let’s start yet another analysis of blurbs by studying a book we already know and seeing what information the blurb includes or doesn’t include.

For this, we need a popular book where many of us know the story. That way we will know if it’s accurate or gives away too much, etc. Harry Potter is called upon once again.

Blurbs are advertising copy.

The dreaded M word – Marketing.

And it’s easier for most writers to write 100,000 words of a story than it is to sell a potential reader in 100 words. We all struggle with that. It’s a different skill set than storytelling, but as wordsmiths I believe we can eventually master it.

Although there there are numerous formulas that will give you a blurb you can live with, you want a blurb that sells books. Maybe studying Rowling’s blurbs will help us do that; maybe not – but we will almost certainly learn something, so let’s have a look. (Her books seem to have sold well, after all. Maybe the blurb played a roll.)

If you could look at an example of the original cover and the original blurb, and then maybe tweak it for today’s standards, you might learn a lot about blurb writing.

After reading the story, I finally turned the book over to read the blurb. Because I was reading it not for the story per se but to find out about the description of the castle and to see what all the fuss was about, I never read the first blurb until I was done with the book.

And what I see is kind of a formula. Yes they do ask some questions (which is considered bad form by some) but really, who cares – if it works?

You could ask yourself now that you know the story – as most of you do – read the blurb and see: does it tell you enough to make you want to read the book? Does it say too much? Does it skip things that you might have put in?

First, some givens:

  • You must write a good story.
  • It must be as error free as possible.
  • It needs a professional-looking cover.

After that, let’s look at a blurb – because the best blurb likely won’t get read if the cover sucks, and if the story is awful, you’ll die a slow painful writerly death of by way of many bad reviews.

Here’s the back cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Yes I know it was originally the “philosopher’s” stone, and maybe the blurb changed with that wording, but we have to work with what we have. Maybe those changes helped it become more successful.

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yes, that’s my thumb. we’re working on a budget here

I’ll transcribe the text so we can play with it:

Harry Potter has never played a sport while flying on a broomstick. He’s never worn a cloak of invisibility, befriended a giant, or help hatch a dragon. All Harry knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to a wonderful place he never dreamed existed. There he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic around every corner, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him… If Harry can survive the encounter. (125 words)

Okay.

A friend recently did an outline of the steps necessary in a traditional blurb, so let’s put HP into it.

  1. The situation. This is where you briefly describe life as it was for your character before the crap started hitting the fan. (Depicted in GREEN TEXT as follows.)
  2. The Problem. This is where you describe a few of the rocks you’ve thrown at your character, and use only the rocks that are in line with your main plot. (BLUE TEXT)
  3. New hopes/stakes. This is where you describe how your character starts to address the problem and the stakes, which also functions as THE HOOK. (If the character must do something but can’t, what happens?) (RED TEXT)

I’ve color coded these steps (GREEN, BLUE, RED) so we can easily identify the following text parts in the same manner (on some phones, you won’t see the colors so I’ll make them Green/bold and underlined/blue and plain/red):

Harry Potter has never played a sport while flying on a broomstick. He’s never worn a cloak of invisibility, befriended a giant, or help hatch a dragon. All Harry knows is a miserable life with the Dursley’s, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to a wonderful place he never dreamed existed. There he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic around every corner, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him… IF HARRY CAN SURVIVE THE ENCOUNTER.

Okay, now: having identified the parts, let’s see what was told here and what was left out. You’ll need to know the story, and for this one, the book and movie are pretty much the same story line.

We can see what was left in, but think about how much of the story you read in the book before you get to the part where Harry is living in a closet under the stairs – which is basically where the blurb starts. There’s no mention of the wizards that take him to the Dursleys’ as a baby. No nastiness explained in detail of his treatment by Dursleys (aside from “miserable” and “awful”), nor about how fat Dudley is, or how spoiled, or how there appears to only be one child living in the house when there are two. (That got me; I’d have included it – wrongly). There’s not visit to the zoo mentioned nor the ability to cause errant stuff to happen – like the snake glass disappearing, or Harry flying onto the school roof when the bullies – Dudley’s gang – are after him.

It’s gloriously narrow in its information.

Next, the blurb for HP2:

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yes, that’s my thumb again

I’ll transcribe the text so we can play with it, too (already color coded):

Ever since Harry Potter had come home for the summer, the Dursley’s had been so mean and hideous that all Harry wanted was to get back to the Hogwarts school for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he’s packing his bags, Harry receives a warning from a strange, impish creature who says that if Harry returns to Hogwarts, disaster will strike.

And strike it does. For in Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, fresh torments and horrors arise, including an outrageously stuck up new professor and a spirit who haunts the girls’ bathroom. But then the real trouble begins – someone is turning Hogwarts students to stone. Could it be Draco Malfoy, a more poisonous rival than ever? Could it possibly be Hagrid, who’s mysterious past is finally told? Or could it be the one everyone at Hogwarts most suspects… Harry Potter himself!

Again, look how much of the story is not included.

And that’s the key.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the situation? What was life for your character before the crap started hitting the fan.?
  2. What is the Problem? What are a few of the main rocks you’ve thrown at your character?
  3. What are the stakes? (Or what is the new hopes?) How does your character start to address problem and if the character can’t, what happens?

and do not add anything but the basics, then shape it so it attracts readers’ attention.

  • Does the blurb tell you enough to make a decision about reading the book?
  • Is it confusing? Or enticing?
  • Are there too many names?
  • Is there enough detail or too much?

Done correctly, this helpful outline gets a reader’s attention!

 

 

 

 

The Most Important Lesson In Storytelling

img_2351-19My job as an author is to get readers “lost” in my story – as in, they lose track of time, can’t put the book down, and are fully engaged to the point of not realizing they stayed up until 2am reading and the house is on fire.

They. Are. Immersed.

Never un-immerse your reader from your story.

In order to have a great story, readers have to become fully immersed, never pulling their head up to see the world happening around them but only flowing along with where your story goes and what your story does. They get lost in the world you created.

You need many things. An interesting plot. Relatable characters. Good pacing. On and on.

You must avoid mistakes. No typos. You can’t be dull.

When it’s right, readers know it.

You see it in movies all the time. When people leave a movie, they’re pumped up after watching Rocky or they’re feeling adventurous after watching Indiana Jones. Or they are sad, crying their eyes out at the end of Love Story or Dr. Zhivago or Titanic.

When it’s wrong, readers know it.

The Angry Birds movie, if you are over the age of ten. Finding Dory. Zoolander 2. Heck, just about anything 2. Independence Day 2, whatever it was called. The Johnny Depp/Through The Looking Glass thing where he wore all the clown makeup. Come on. Clown face? That’s awful on the cover. Nobody’s seeing that.

All the things we advise you to do – spell checking, trimming, grabber openings, cliffhanger endings – are the things that help immerse your reader in your story.

Your goal is to never un-immerse them.

Typos and run-on sentences and things like that all serve to pull your reader out of the story, even if only for a nanosecond.

Un-immersing your reader from the story is the ultimate sin.

The goal is to keep them in, so anything that takes them out has to be addressed.

Look, at some point you’re going to have to end a chapter. That’s a great place for the reader to say oh it’s time to make dinner – and then they get busy with a phone call and email and then the next day they have to work late and then the air conditioner breaks and then soccer practice starts and it’s their day to make brownies for the team – and your book never gets picked back up. I’ll get to it tomorrow…

A DAY becomes a WEEK becomes NEVER.

The third Harry Potter book still waiting for me. I got halfway through it because I took two airplane flights to go snow tubing. Killing Jesus took me four months to read because I read half of it in one sitting, got busy, and didn’t get back to the second part until four months later! And those are both good books. Anything slightly less and I would not have picked it up, such as Bird By Bird or The Hero With A Thousand Faces or any of a number of other books. Or movies I recorded that I started watching and never got back to. Or TV series with multiple episodes DVR’ed and every time I get a chance to start back up at episode three, I’m kinda sleepy and Law And Order reruns looks better. A month later, the folder gets deleted from the DVR in a fit of digital spring cleaning and no one notices.

Is that what you want for your story after all your hard work writing it? No.

So you have two goals.

1: Tell a great story, and

2: Keep your reader completely immersed.

That’s what makes writing difficult.

We can all learn to tell good stories.

We can’t all tell smooth ones that readers stay completely immersed in. It’s hard work and it requires concentration and hours of furrowed brows, rewriting the same line four times and still hating it. It’s hard work to ACCEPT when somebody tells you to cut a whole chapter. It’s hard work getting up the courage to show your story to a critique group. It’s hard work to call local book store sand ask them to let you do a signing. It’s hard work = whatever you don’t like doing.

That’s why Hemingway said we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

If you were ever wondering HOW writers do that amazing stuff with multiple subplots and layers, most write out an outline and ADD that stuff, reworking it so it meshes and makes sense. Add layers at every level, and watch movies and read books that are like that to see them doing it – and take notes. That’s what I do, and unless you think I’m just an amazing genius, you can do it, too.

There are lots of great example. Get Shorty. Pulp Fiction. Others.

Get Shorty: A shylock needs to track down a runaway customer who owes him money. That’s a simple enough plot. Most of you would leave it there.

But.

The shylock, a movie fan, has a few hurdles in his path:

  • He just got a new boss
  • The new boss is a guy he was having a fight with
  • The shylock doesn’t want to be a shylock any more
  • while tracking down the runaway customer, who has run to Vegas, the shylock is asked to go to LA to track down a runaway customer of a casino
  • while in LA, he meets a movie producer
  • the movie producer gambled away the money for his latest project
  • the money he lost was lent to him by mobsters
  • the mobsters borrowed the money from drug dealers in Latin America and they need it back BIG TIME
  • the mob guys kill the drug dealer’s “mule” – who also happens to be the drug king pin’s nephew

Is that enough layers or do you need more? Add some witty dialogue and memorable characters and you are off to the races.

Keep throwing “what if” scenarios into your story, and make them objects the MC has to overcome – and that secondary characters have to overcome.

Emulate the best examples you can, so your stories are the best they can be.

That’s how you tell a great story.

How you keep your reader immersed is: fast pace, cliffhanger chapter endings, great dialogue, memorable characters, etc. Use the search button to track those topics down. They’re here.

img_2351-18Dan Alatorre has had a string of bestsellers and is read in over 112 countries around the world.

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