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!

 

 

 

 

10 thoughts on “How To Write Better Stories, OR: Harry Potter And The Blurb.

  1. Hi Dan,
    This is got to be the most simplistic yet best explanation of the ingredients required for a good blurb. The use of color and then applying it to a great blurb is helpful. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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