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Friday, April 8, 2011


For some markets, you might be allowed only 120 words to engage the potential reader, while the most generous spaces rarely allow more than 200 words. How do you choose, allocate, and arrange these precious few words?

Start with either the SETTING or the PRIMARY PROTAGONIST.


The protagonist is the person who makes the story go; he isn’t necessarily the narrator or point-of-view (POV) character. Watson is not the protagonist of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Normally, you should lay out the protagonist’s full name along with two or three words of description. Each word of the description should have the resonance and relevance of a blog’s keyword, of a library’s subject catalog, of an Amazon tag. Physical descriptions might come to mind, but should be used only to the extent the physical description hints at the story’s conflict or stakes. If you had only six words to describe Spock, would you waste one on his hair? Medusa, on the other hand, cannot be clearly imagined without mention of her hair. If you have a reason not to categorize the protagonist so completely, allocate part of his space to identifying (and characterizing) a second character in terms of his or her relationship to the protagonist. If you have a romance in which two protagonists play equal roles, the primary protagonist for the purpose of the blurb is the character who has the most to lose in the first half of the book.


These lines orient the reader to the reality of the story--to be specific, the reality of the first half of the book. If the reality shifts halfway through that first half, such would happen if the primary protagonist were shipped off to school or enlisted in the military, focus on the second of those realities. Ten to twenty words is necessary and sufficient; at least two of them should be keywords. You can then spend another ten to fifteen words to show how the primary protagonist fits into that reality. Think in terms of sentence fragments instead of sentences, so that you can rearrange them more easily. Choose details carefully to create a mood--which must echo the mood of the story itself--and remember to include keywords. You might combine these bits of sentences with those used for the primary protagonist, but for your first draft, keep the setting in a separate paragraph until you’re satisfied with it.


After having introduced the primary protagonist and the setting, you can describe a second major character. If the second character has POV scenes, and if you have room, introduce him much like the first. If not, give him much less attention. Either way, focus exclusively on details that reflect on his relationship to the primary protagonist or to the primary conflict of the story. A second character is not an essential part of every blurb.


What is the primary protagonist up against? What happens if he fails? If your story has an actual villain as the antagonist, she deserves almost (but not quite) the same level of introduction as the protagonist. If the protagonist got four key words, the villain gets three. An antagonistic force, though, should only be described to the extent you can do so in vivid, concrete terms. One trick here is to focus on the counterforce that the characters actively face in the first half of the book. Do no more than allude to what they must contend with after reaching what they thought would be their goal, after their reality and goals shift in the middle of the book. Whether to focus on the primary protagonist or on the characters as a pair (or group) in this section is a delicate choice; whichever you choose, make the same choice for the counterforce and for the stakes. Sometimes you can leave the stakes implicit, but more often the consequences of failure make your strongest hook. Ending your blurb with a yes-or-no question risks insulting and alienating the potential reader. If the answer is obvious, strike the question.


Highlight your keywords. No more than twelve words should separate any keyword from the next. If you count more, you need to reword, rearrange, or trim out the excess wordage. Echoing a keyword more than once is good, but if you repeat a keyword, make sure the second appearance of the word adds or clarifies a connotation not apparent in the first usage. Do the mood, tone, and vocabulary reflect the essence of the story? If not, reword. Now, count your words. If you’re over your limit but love the blurb as it is, save a copy for use elsewhere (like a loop chat) and cut ruthlessly until you reach your limit. If you’re under your word limit but within 20% of it, such as when you have 164 words and a 200-word limit, you're fine--don’t puff the blurb just to come closer to the size limit.

Sleep on it. Come back to your blurb on a different day, if at all possible. Shorten the sentences where you can. A sentence with multiple commas probably needs trimming or breaking up. Read the blurb out loud. Is the focus where you want it? Does the tone strongly echo your story’s tone? Does the last line entice the potential reader to head for the checkout? Trim and reword and rearrange until the answers are all yes. Then call it good.


  1. Excellent points! Thank you KevaD and Amber :)

  2. Hi, Evanne!
    I believe I can never get too much good advice.