Crafting Blurbs Overview
Back Cover Blurbs
A back cover blurb can be anywhere from one to four paragraphs. If the whole package is short and punchy, as we’ve said, it’s practically guaranteed to be intriguingly memorable. But, while shorter is generally better these days, that’s not always the case. A too-short blurb may be less than dazzling. Instead of being memorable, it can lack details to capture true interest in readers.
Another thing to note is that genre can sometimes play a part in the size of your back cover blurb. Science fiction, fantasy, and historical books (especially if part of a series) may have longer back cover blurbs: up to four paragraphs instead of one or two. That’s because the back cover blurb has to make sense of whole worlds, cultures and philosophies, which, in many cases may seem vastly different from what a modern reader is used to. Less weighty genres set in time periods and worlds modern people are accustomed to–such as romance, suspense, general fiction, maybe even speculative stories–rarely have more than two paragraphs that make up the back cover blurb.
Sometimes making the last sentence a question or an exclamation can add intrigue. Adding ellipses can also make the reader eager for more. Play with yours to find the right balance. Remember the bottom line: If the blurb doesn’t make you want to read the story, it’s ineffective. The goal is to get readers to pick up the book and open it, not simply read the back of it.
What Elements Should and Shouldn’t Be Included in a Back Cover Blurb?
If a character is a main character, that’s a strong reason to include him or her in the back cover blurb paragraph(s); however, I don’t think it’s necessary in every case, especially if the blurb reads better with the inclusion of only one character. Most secondary characters won’t be included because there usually isn’t room or necessity. A main character’s name (first, not always surname) is considered important almost always, especially if more than one main character is brought up in the back cover blurb (to avoid confusion). Brief references to age and job can add short, efficient descriptions that give solid information without taking up a lot of space, but they may not fit or be important enough to include.
The main time period(s) and setting(s) may also be worth including if they’re a focus of the story. Most modern stories don’t require references to either in the back cover blurb, but a specific location or year or a simple, descriptive inference can work (i.e., “Manhattan socialite”). However, the time-period can usually be drawn from the blurb without the need for overt declarations, as you can see they were in most of the high-concept blurbs we looked at for movies and books yesterday.
The genre(s) specific to your story should be apparent in your back cover blurb. If you have a romantic paranormal, both the romance and paranormal aspects should be alluded to in the blurb, even if it’s just in the tone. Connect the genre(s) of your story in your mind and evaluate whether each genre is effectively portrayed. In the same vein, the blurb must match the tone of the story genre(s). In other words, if it’s a romantic comedy, your blurb should portray that aptly–it should be funny or at least amusing enough to pull a smile from the reader. If it’s a paranormal, your blurb should feel eerie, maybe even a little scary. Suspense in any form should induce tightness in your chest as you read the blurb. Looking at the high-concept blurbs we discussed yesterday, I bet you could see the genre in the short sentences as well as the general tone of the stories.
Ideally, you want to weave all major conflicts and the goals and motivations associated with them into the back cover blurb paragraphs–as concisely as possible. Before we start crafting, let’s define our terms:
Internal conflicts are emotional problems brought about by external conflicts that make a character reluctant to achieve a goal because of her own roadblocks. They keep her from learning a life lesson and making the choice to act. In fiction, external character conflicts are why plot conflicts can’t be resolved. Simply put, the character can’t reach her goal until she faces the conflict. (Sounds a bit like not getting dessert until the vegetables are eaten, and this is pretty accurate.) The audience must be able to identify with the internal and external conflicts the character faces in order to be involved and to care about the outcome. Character growth throughout the story is key to a satisfactory resolution.
Your first spark of the story in your mind will usually suggest what the character’s conflicts are, and many times they’re based on someone or something threatening what the character cares about passionately. A loved one is in jeopardy, or something the character wants, needs, or desires above all is at risk of being lost. Questions you might ask yourself to get to the heart of your character’s internal conflict: What are your core principles and values? What will you risk your life for? Why would you put yourself in danger for this? From these stem internal and external conflicts. It’s your job as the writer to give the character incentives (specifically, goals and motivations, which we’ll cover soon) not to give up until everyone is safe and the main character has what she was fighting for.
Generally characters have levels of internal conflict starting with the immediate one that’s almost always revealed or at least hinted at in the opening scenes. MJ Bush, writing coach, editor and fantasy novelist on the WritingGeekery blog calls the next level the “root desire” and she suggests that you ask your character five times to tell you what her root desire is, digging deeper each time to get to the core. Once you get to it, she advises you to bury it again because, if the reader can see it right away, it’ll sound more like you’re preaching rather than telling a story. The root goal is something that gets revealed slowly throughout the course of the book. The conflicting desire is, of course, the external one–the obstacle that prevents your character from reaching her root desire or goal in the story.
Internal conflicts need to be sketched for each major character because what’s happening in the present will show its origins in the past. Obviously, including the means for the reader to look forward (with hope and/or dread) to what will happen in the future of these internal conflicts is absolutely vital to engaging his interest from start to finish, and we need to see those reflected (concisely and intriguingly) in the back cover blurb.
In S.E. Hinton’s classic story Tex, the fifteen-year-old loves his horse more than anything in the world. But when his seventeen-year-old brother Mason (who’s been standing in as father and caretaker for Tex since their father is almost never around and does nothing to provide for them) sells the horses to pay bills and put food on the table, Tex’s world is turned upside down. His horse gave him a sense of purpose, validity, sanity; bottom line: made him happy. Though Tex intellectually understands that his brother had no other choice, he can’t accept this. His internal conflict in losing what meant most to him is overwhelmed by the external conflict of his sold horse, and he reacts violently, wanting to get back what he lost. But losing his horse is only his surface internal conflict. The root desire is all about the father who’s essentially abandoned them.
External conflict (plot) is the central tangible or outer problem standing squarely in the character’s way that must be faced and solved by that character. The character wants to either restore the stability that was taken from her by or grasp her root desire by thwarting the external conflict, and this produces her desire to act. However, a character’s internal conflicts will create an agonizing tug of war with the external plot conflicts. She has to make tough choices that come down to whether or not she should face, act on, and solve the problem. Stephenie Meyer’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Host, is about a woman, Melanie Stryder, who resists when an alien life force invades our world and forces human beings to become hosts for them by taking over their bodies and eventually the consciousness of each person. Melanie’s invader soon realizes that Melanie hasn’t relinquished possession of her mind, despite succumbing with her physical body. Though the invader’s task is to discover the whereabouts of the remaining human resistance, this soul called Wanderer instead finds itself sharing in Melanie’s undiminished longings for the love she lost, that may still be alive and waiting for her. Both Melanie and Wanderer struggle inside one body with their internal and external conflicts of being who and what they are.
Your audience should be able to identify with both the internal and external conflicts a character faces in order to be involved enough to care about the outcome of the story. As we mentioned in the last section, plot conflicts work hand-in-glove with character conflicts. You can’t have one without the other, and they become more intense and focused the longer the characters struggle. The stakes are raised, choices are limited, failure and loss are inevitable (these are the future dimensions that create the hope/dread responses in readers). In Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot, J. Madison Davis defines plot “like a cone that characters are moving through from the wide end to the narrow. It closes in the farther along they go.”
Internal conflicts are different from external, but they’re related causally–the best definition of concept I’ve heard is: “Can’t have one without the other.” Internal and external conflicts depend on each other, and therefore they need to be cohesive and multi-faceted. Internal conflicts are all about characters, and external conflicts are all about plot. But keep this in mind: Both internal and external plots belong to the main character. After all, if both didn’t affect her in some profound way, they wouldn’t be conflicts for her and therefore wouldn’t even be part of her story. David Corbett says in The Art of Character: The Five Cornerstones of Dramatic Characterization, “Characterization requires a constant back-and-forth between the exterior events of the story and the inner life of the character.” If your character’s internal and external conflicts are at odds, your story will be going in two different directions, which will disengage even the hardiest of readers. In stories that work on a cohesive level, internal and external conflicts travel on parallel tracks, merge and collide in a fiery explosion throughout the course of a book.
Think of the two conflicts this way: Everyone has a passionate hot button. Cruelty to animals, cancer, child abuse. You fill in the blank with yours. But not everyone has the strength of passion for your particular hot button. We’re all individuals that way because we usually put our passion into something that has touched us deeply in our lives. If your mother died of cancer, you’ll want to see that particular disease cured. It’s your hot button. This doesn’t mean you don’t sympathize and care deeply about other causes, even if you’re not quite as passionate about them as you are about the ones that affect you most. What it does mean is that if something critical happens in the area of your passion, you’re probably going to step up to the plate and fight for what you believe in.
You’re telling a story about your particular characters, and they have hot buttons, too. Since it’s their story, their hot buttons will naturally be their conflicts. All of these conflicts must parallel, intersect, and collide for a story to be truly cohesive. So, though the external plot conflicts may stem from an outside force or situation, they nevertheless belong to the main character as much as her internal problems do. Like I said, if she didn’t care deeply about the external plot, it wouldn’t be her story.
Let’s use an example of this from the action/adventure Die Hard 2: Die Harder. The rough and gruff main character, John McClane (played by Bruce Willis), is a cop at the airport on Christmas. He’s off-duty, but begins to sense trouble is afoot in what seems like the busiest place on earth–and things are looking to get worse before the day is through. The airport cops don’t share his uneasiness. They’ve got their own worries to handle. Though McClane is very reluctant to get involved, his inner integrity won’t allow him to stand by. He checks it out, figuring he’ll let the airport police handle anything that’s amiss.
His gut instinct is dead-on. Terrorists take over the airport. This shouldn’t be his problem, but it becomes so because: (1) the airport cops refuse to do their jobs because they’re too busy with other tasks; and (2) these terrorists have pushed McClane’s hot button. A year before on Christmas, McClane single-handedly took down a band of terrorists at the Nakatomi building, where his wife worked. Terrorists, particularly those who threaten his wife, are undoubtedly McClane’s hot button, his external plot conflict.
Enter his cohesive internal character conflict–his wife is currently on one of the planes circling overhead, a plane that is unable to land and rapidly running out of fuel because of the terrorist attack paralyzing the airport. Not only have these terrorists hit John’s hot button, they’ve made it very personal, and there’s no way he can sit back and consider this not his problem. If McClane’s wife’s plane runs out of fuel, they’ll plummet to their deaths. The problem with landing is that the terrorists still have control of the airport, and they’ve closed down all the runways except the one they need for their own getaway. There are no lighted landing strips, so any landing is dangerous because it’ll be done blindly. Without a choice, the pilot in his wife’s plane announces to the tower he’s making an emergency landing, and, of course, McClane hears it. If he doesn’t act this instant, his wife will die and the terrorists will escape. The cone has closed to the point that he has almost no room to maneuver. The suspense is nearly more than the viewer can bear (and he loves it!). All of McClane’s goals and motivations (which are so cohesive, we can’t talk about internal and external conflicts for this character without including them) come down to stopping the terrorists, and this action, in turn, provides his wife’s plane with the lighted strip needed to land. In this example, you can really see the differences between internal and external conflicts, but you see how they relate, connect, and collide.
The reader can’t understand why a character reacts to an external conflict until the path of her current internal conflicts is traced all the way back to the roots. External conflicts should provide a tense tug of war between dread for the worst happening and hope for the best to engage readers throughout the evolving story. These need to be highlighted in the back cover blurb paragraphs to produce excitement about reading the story.
Goals and Motivations
In Creating Characters, Dwight V. Swain talks about giving the main character drive, which basically entails devising something for her to care about; fitting her with suitable goals, always keeping in mind the direction you want her to go in; threatening that goal; and finally establishing reasons for her to continue fighting against the threat on the road to reaching her goal. Goals are what the character wants, needs, or desires above all else. Motivation is what gives her drive and purpose to achieve those goals. Goals must be urgent and/or monumental enough to motivate the character to go through hardship and self-sacrifice. But the surface inducement that most people will claim–wanting to do the right thing–isn’t strong enough in a fictional story. Go deeper. Your character can’t simply react to conflict–she must act in the face of it. What exactly does she stand to gain if she does something? What will she lose if she doesn’t do it? Keep in mind that whatever the external conflict is in your story, it’s not simply a container that holds your character, like a potted plant, until she can escape it somehow. The external conflict is the foundation of your story goal/theme, and it’s through this “ground” that the roots of her internal conflicts and goals and motivations will branch out and bloom.
Focused on the goal, the character is pushed toward the external conflict by believable, emotional, and compelling motivations that won’t let her quit before she reaches the goal. Because she cares deeply about the outcome, her anxiety is doubled. The intensity of her anxiety pressures her to make choices and changes, thereby creating worry and anticipation in the reader. Those are the very things you want to highlight in a powerful, succinct way in a back cover blurb.
In Susan Hill’s classic ghost story, The Woman in Black, solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent by his firm, leaving his fiancée, to the small town of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of the late Alice Drablow. While at the funeral, he sees a woman dressed in black that the children silently watch. Over the next few days, while completely cut off from the mainland at high tide, Kipps goes over the deceased woman’s papers at Eel Marsh House. During this time, Kipps discovers the truth about Drablow’s sister, the child she bore out of wedlock and was forced to give up to her sister. An attempt to abscond with her son led to him drowning in marshes while his mother looked on helplessly. After her death, she returned to haunt Eel Marsh House and the town of Crythin Gifford. According to local legend, a sighting of the Woman in Black presages the death of a child. Kipps repeatedly sees the malevolent ghost and begins to fear for his fiancée and their future. His goals and motivations evolve constantly around this menacing situation he’s found himself in.
Now that we know what a back cover blurb needs to include, we can use a short form to provide the jumping-off point in crafting one of our own.
Title of Book:
Genre: Include the main one(s) followed by any subcategories the story could fit into.
Time Period(s), if important: If current day, just put “modern”.
Main Setting(s), if important: Provide a short description of the setting as well as the basic location information.
Fill out as completely as possible for the major characters in your story (usually no more than two main and one villain).
Main Character Role (specify hero, heroine, villain, etc.):
First and Last Name:
Description of the character’s personality/hobbies/physical appearance/
traumas or hang-ups that factor into his or her story conflicts:
Internal Conflict (i.e., character crisis or what’s in jeopardy or at stake):
External Conflict (i.e., plot crisis):
Goals and motivations (i.e., what and why character is compelled to act):
Once you’ve filled out the form above completely, you can inject your information into the back cover blurb formula–for each major character:
Who __________________________________________________________________________ (name of character)
wants to _____________________________________________________________________ (goal to be achieved)
because __________________________________________________________________ (motivation for acting)
but who faces ____________________________________________________ (conflict standing in the way).
Let’s do this a little backwards and fill out the forms for the last book we talked about, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.
Title of Book: The Woman in Black
Genre: Ghost story
Time Period: The story isn’t specific, though it’s presumed to be set during the 1860s (based on details in the story that convey the impression).
Main Setting: Crythin Gifford, a faraway English town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway.
Main Character Role: Hero
First and Last Name: Arthur Kipps
Age: Presumably young, “up-and-coming”.
Job: London solicitor
Short description of the character’s personality/hobbies/physical appearance/
traumas or hang-ups that factor into his or her story conflicts:
Internal Conflict (i.e., character crisis, or what’s in jeopardy or at stake): The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images–a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black.
External Conflict (i.e., plot crisis that sets the story in motion): A menacing spectre haunting a small English town connected to Eel Marsh House, which stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, hiding tragic secrets behind its sheltered windows.
Who (Arthur Kipps) name of character
wants (to conclude what he anticipated would be a routine business trip in his goal of becoming an up-and-coming London solicitor but the job quick takes a horrifying turn) goal to be achieved
because (he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images–a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black) motivation for acting
but who faces (the menacing spectre haunting a small English town connected to Eel Marsh House, which stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, hiding tragic secrets behind its sheltered windows) conflict standing in the way
Here’s the final back cover blurb for this book:
A chilling tale about a menacing spectre haunting a small English town.
Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford–a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway–to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow’s house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images–a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black.
You should have noticed that the formula elements aren’t in the same order in the actual blurbs as they’re listed on the fill-in-the-blanks form (i.e., as they’re listed: character, goal to be achieved, motivation for acting, and conflict standing in the way). While the arrangement could end up being in that order, it’s rare that the elements will, neatly fall into the formula nor should it necessarily do so. If all blurbs were written exactly the same way, in a formulaic way, they would become boring and lack punch. Your story is original so your blurb needs to be original. The point of the formula is to give you a jumping-off point to honing something intriguing that has powerful impact.
Remember the axiom we fixed in our minds on Day 1? If the blurb isn’t effectively good, making you want to read the story inside the pages, it won’t work. The goal is to get readers to read the book. So keep working on yours until you have that. Also, a back cover blurb must never, ever, ever give away the end of the story. Enough said about that, I think. J
Everything we’ve talked about thus far applies here:
At its crux, a series blurb strives to be a concise, breathtaking summary of your entire series that includes the major internal and external conflicts and the goals and motivations of the main character(s), perhaps as a group. A series blurb will be a generalized sentence or paragraph that accurately covers, reflects and describes every single book in the series.
Publishers and authors simply don’t utilize series blurbs the way they should. Ninety-percent of the series you find on Amazon have no series blurb connecting all the books in the series–the very information that would tell readers not only why they should read one but all of them. A series blurb can make or break the sale of an entire set of books to a publisher as well as to potential readers trying to decide whether to fork over oodles of money to purchase a collection of interconnected stories. Many publishers and certainly readers buy the first book in the series and every single one after it based on a sizzling series blurb that convinces them they absolutely have to read not only the first book but all of them in that set!
Let’s first establish that the point of a series is that readers who follows it from one book to the next will get a richer, more complex, and emotional experience than those who only read a single book in the series. Those readers will understand the subtle nuances that one-time browsers won’t pick up on. For that reason, the author has to make enough vital connections from one book to the next in their series or readers will lose the purpose in reading that series at all. Therefore, the first step to writing a series blurb is to figure out what ties the books together. This will help us figure out what the “who” aspect is for our series blurb form.
Types of Series Ties
If each book in a series doesn’t somehow tie together or have a touchstone that helps the reader figure out how they’re connected, you could hardly call these books a series. I like how Mary Jean Kelso, author of the romantic historical Homesteader Series, puts it: “There needs to always be a firm stake to tie the story to. You can wander off into other places and introduce new characters but, in some way, the main element will always be in the back of the reader’s mind. For instance, even though my characters go to other places and get involved in different scenarios, they always come back to the homestead. It is that drive to return ‘home’ that seems to hold the series together.” When you’re considering what the touchstone of your series is, ask yourself what “home” you’ll be returning to in each story.
For the purpose of this lesson, we’re going go over the four distinct types of series ties, but always keep in mind that authors frequently combine one or more of these in a single series. There are so many different combinations you can use to make your series stand out as unique in a sea of competition.
In a recurring character series, a single character (sometimes called a continuity, or continuing, character) is the touchstone of the series and comes back in each story. Sometimes a recurring character story actually has two characters who make appearances in each book and are both the main characters of the series. For instance, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are a sleuthing duo created by Agatha Christie. For the most part, both make appearances in every book, and the stories shift between their individual points of view.
The reader follows the recurring character from one journey–something that must be personal and emotional and provide growth for the character–to the next. Almost always in a series of this type, there’s a large cast of secondary characters and these are brought forward or dropped back, depending on the particular book. Ongoing casts of this type keep the recurring character fresh for the reader. This type of series is very popular in mystery/suspense stories, as well in the fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal genres.
For example, Agatha Christie had her popular Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple series. Bella Swan was the primary character in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. James Bond chases espionage and action and adventure everywhere he goes, from one book to another. Ben Holiday was the main character in Terry Brooks’ unforgettable Magic Kingdom For Sale – Sold! Series, set in the magical kingdom of Landover. Brooks did a spin-off of the five-book series in 2009 with the High Lord of Landover’s daughter, Mistaya, which takes place five years after the events in Witch’s Brew. Dan Brown has sent his recurring character, Robert Langdon, through fast-paced treasure hunts in several Robert Langdon novels. Diana Gabaldon’s mega popular Outlander Series defies categorization but currently includes many huge novels that center around a time-traveling nurse in the 20th-century and her 18th-century Scottish husband. The Lord John Series was a branch off of the original series, including a secondary character that was part of the main series.
Central Group of Characters
The central group of characters type of series has a core set of characters with either a loose or specific connection that ties them together, and one or two of these are featured in each subsequent book. Generally, the first book in the series sets up the central characters and their ties to one another. These stories are usually standalone books that have roots in the first story. Rowena Cherry illuminates, “Instead of everyone having one adventure all at the same time, they take turns.” Popular groups for this type are family/relatives, friends, co-workers, or members of an organization. Generally, romance novels, women’s fiction, paranormal, science fiction, and fantasy are popular candidates for this type of series.
Justine Davis’ Redstone, Incorporated was romantic suspense that featured a group of people employed by Redstone, Incorporated. Kate Jacobs’ The Friday Night Knitting Club Series, as you would expect, focused on a group of knitters. Debbie Macomber had something similar in her Blossom Street Series. Terry Brooks’ long-running fantasy series, Shannara, includes members of the Ohmsford clan throughout numerous generations (and series off-shoots). Terry also has another series, Word and the Void, in which he portrays an urban, post-apocalyptic world where an invisible war is waged in contemporary America and all over the world while Knights of the Word battle the Void’s demons. In a seriously cool move, Terry combined his Shannara and Word and the Void series’ in his Genesis of Shannara Series.
In nearly all series with a core group, all the characters are introduced in the first book in smaller and larger degrees and will continue to make cameos throughout the rest of the books in the series. You, the author, will need to connect these characters in a way that you can bring them back together naturally in later books (more about how to do this later in this chapter). Additionally, in real life we tend to hang around with people who like us, but in fiction, stories must have a variety of contrasting characters–some who are likable, and others who aren’t. It’s your job as a series author to create a believable connection between these very different characters.
While characters are nearly always the most important part of any story, many series use a premise or plot as the basic theme that connects each of the books. This could cover just about anything: a shared theme, object, or even timeline. We’re going to talk more about arcs–which are in large part about premise and plot–later in this lesson. A premise-/plot-based series is one you almost always see in action/adventures, suspense and thriller, inspirational, and paranormal, horror, science fiction, and fantasy genres.
Inspirational romantic suspense author Hannah Alexander’s Hideaway Series focuses on medical mysteries. The long-running Rogue Angel Series, written by many authors, features archaeologist and heir to Joan of Arc’s mystic sword, Annja Creed. In each novel, an adventure based on history, mythology, or heavy fantasy has Annja looking for lost cities, mysterious codes, and puzzles. The premise of each of Tom Clancy’s Net Force Series is a special division of the FBI that is set up to combat internet crime.
The setting series is almost as popular as the character series, although, of course, if you don’t have wonderful characters to fill these settings, your stories won’t be as magical. With setting serving as the tie-in for each book in the series, you’re free to create a colorful world that your readers will enjoy visiting time and time again. Setting series can have characters that change, but the place is always the same or a recurring character will return to the series setting. For instance, Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts in each book in the series.
Nearly every genre of series uses this kind of touchstone. Mystery author Marilyn Meredith’s Deputy Tempe Crabtree Series is set in a small mountain community near an Indian reservation. In most of these books, an Indian legend or mystical aspect is a major component. There is also quite a bit of conflict going on with Tempe and her preacher husband when she dabbles in the supernatural. In Vijaya Schartz’s sci-fi/fantasy romance series Chronicles of Kassouk, a human science spaceship named Noah’s Ark crash-lands on an unknown frozen planet renamed New Earth. The survivors, while fighting the elements, eventually lose their technology, but the animals are released and many species survive. Civilization starts from scratch on a small scale. When the series picks up again several centuries later, they have achieved a thriving medieval civilization, until space-faring races intervene. Sometimes the series stories are many years apart. The society struggles, grows, and matures from crisis to crisis and learns from various outside influences, not all beneficial. Janet Elaine Smith’s cozy mystery series, Patrick and Grace Mysteries, has odd number books set in New York City, where Patrick and Grace live. The even number books travel all over the country. The author hears from readers all the time, asking her, “When are Patrick and Grace coming to my town?”
What ties your series together is extremely important, since it’s what will bring readers back for more. While there will probably always be some overlap in your ties, being able to define your series ties will help you establish the pattern from one book to the next, making your tie(s) strong throughout each story in the series. The series ties will also, as we said, help us figure out what the “who” aspect is of our series when filling out our series form–coming soon.
Finding the Focus of a Series: Series Arcs Versus Story Arcs
Though I believe planning is crucial to the success of a series, I’ve discovered in my experience that there are few set-in-stone rules. Should each story in a series have an overall series arc that runs through each book and ties up only in the final one? Or is it adequate if each story has a loose connection to the others and each individual book has its own story arc that ties up fairly neatly at the end? For every dozen books you can find that do one or more of these things, you can find just as many that don’t. Although we’re going to try to answer the questions I posed above here, be aware that there are few rules for this process except the ones you make for yourself–or the ones your publisher requires you to abide by.
In its simplest form, the story arc is an extended or continued storyline. That’s fairly easy to grasp, right? But when it comes to what this definition actually entails and how it serves its purpose in the course of a novel … well, that’s where things get murkier. In a story, an arc is supposed to move the character or situation from one place to another. Essentially, we’re talking about change here–the quest, the causality of narrative, domino-effect transformations. In a story, this follows a pattern that can be described as ordinary life in balance: The character is brought to a low point and the structures he or she has depended on are removed. Therefore the character is motivated and/or forced to find new strength or situations without these structures, and he faces his demons and triumphs. Resolution ensues, restoring balance. All this happens in every story, between the front and back cover. Without out, there can be no reader satisfaction. The story arc is packed into one book. A series arc, which we’ll discuss next, is the overarching plot that is divided between several interconnected stories.
Every story has to have a story arc and we’ve gotten a basic understanding of what this entails. Most series will have an overall series arc along with the individual story arcs specific to a single book. An overall series arc is a plot thread that’s introduced in the first book in the series, is alluded to in some way in every single subsequent book, but is only fully resolved in the final book in the series. The series arc is usually separate from the individual story arcs, but both are crucial and must fit together seamlessly. The individual story arcs are, as we’ve shown in the last section, short-term. They’re introduced, developed, and concluded in each individual book. The series arcs are long-term and are introduced in the first book, developed over the course of the middle series books, and resolved in the final book in the series. As an example, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the story arc is the chamber of secrets plotline. The overall series arc, in the most simplified terms, is good (Harry) overcomes evil (Voldemort)–and that’s true for every book in that series. The series arc runs beneath the individual story arcs in each book.
There is an exception to every rule, and that’s the case here: Certain types of series don’t really need series arcs because they’re open-ended. No clear end is in sight, and therefore there is less need for a tightly delineated series arc that must resolve in the final book. In an open-ended series (such as some sleuth mysteries with a single recurring character–i.e., Hercule Poirot and the like), each book in the series is a standalone. There’s little need to come up with a series arc since the author isn’t planning to have a plot thread running through the entire series that will conclude in the final story. Though the “Hercule Poirot Series” eventually did end, a series arc didn’t run through each of the stories. Even Poirot’s final case was a standalone (though this case connected to details of the very first mystery he solved). In an open-ended series with an infinite number of books, the resolution the author has promised and the reader expects won’t come in a final series book but at the end of each book in the series. Those resolutions are the ones that fans are looking for and must be given in order to feel satisfied. In any case, keep this disclaimer in mind if you’re writing an open-ended series: While you’re not required to have a series arc in this one instance, it wouldn’t hurt to have one. You can include one even in an open-ended series. If you choose not to, you’ll work with story arcs for each standalone book in your series. In a series book with a clearly-defined series arc, each book in the series will contain scenes and subplots that advance the series arc. These are interspersed with individual story arcs, and, most of the time, the writer switches back and forth between series and story arcs throughout the course of each. In the final book in the series, series and story arcs will merge in the way you’ve lead your readers to expect. All of this is essential to gaining reader favor and satisfaction.
The easiest way to discover your overall series arc is to know the type of series tie that will connect all the books. Your series tie almost always indicates what your series arc should be. While in suspenseful books, this might be earth-shattering in the final book in the series, that’s not necessary for all series. Sometimes the resolution of the series arc is subtle and joyfully tearful. An emotionally satisfying final scene will be exactly what readers are looking for.
Establishing the basics for each book in the series can give you the author insight for further-reaching possibilities as you write each new book in untold ways, but can also give you an edge when trying to sell the series. The first step in figuring out where you’re going with a series is to blurb the series. The series blurb should tell readers how all the books in that series are connected. If the series blurb is done well enough, those sentences will accurately reflect what every book in the series is about in a concise, intriguing summary. Remember, you’re not focusing on individual stories at this point–you’re looking at the series as a whole, attempting to give readers the gist of what the series is about. Having a series blurb that includes the series arc and is paired with every single book in the series (everywhere without exception!) frees the author to concentrate on the *story arc* each individual book in the series covers with her back cover blurbs.
Be aware that, if you have a central group of characters, you generally won’t name each main character specifically in the series blurb. Instead, you’ll sum up the overall premise of the series and how it affects the group as a whole. At this stage, it’s fine to have something as simple as “Cast of Characters will find soul mates,” or “College professor follows the trail to an ancient artifact that could save the world or destroy it”. You’ll build on this jumping-off point as we go along, fleshing it out as much as possible.
Let’s start with an easy form to get started:
Recurring or Cast of Characters Series
[Who] Protagonist (usually the main character but could also be a group of people, a culture, a planet, whatever–essentially who has the most at risk that the reader is rooting for):
Antagonist (usually the villain but could also be a group of people, a culture, a planet, whatever–essentially the enemy causing problems for the protagonist):
What basic scenario, set-up or situation does this series revolve around (i.e., the one that’s the norm until the conflict or crisis disrupts it)?
Conflict or crisis that sets the series in motion:
[Why] What’s the worst case scenario to the crisis situation?
We’re going to use a modified variation of our “formula” for the series blurb:
Who _____________________________________________________________________________________ (Series Tie Protagonist and Antagonist)
What _____________________________________________________________________________ (Two-fold Setup and Conflict or Crisis)
Why _____________________________________________________________ (Worst case resolution scenario)
Note that resolutions are not usually needed in the series blurb, since you don’t want to defuse the intrigue or tension, but sometimes a resolution will work well in the overall series blurb. Play with it to see all the alternatives.
Let’s fill out the form and formula, this time with The Expanse Series (the books don’t technically have a series blurb–not a definitive one anyway–the way the TV series does, but I’ve put together a slightly hybridized version below):
Series Title: The Expanse
Genre(s): Science Fiction
[Who] Series Tie(s): Premise/Plot Series (though it could fit in other categories as well), in this case a futuristic galaxy that humans have developed and colonized. I.e.: Hundreds of years in the future, humans have colonized the solar system.
[Two-fold What] Conflict or Crisis that Sets the Series in Motion: The U.N. controls Earth. Mars is an independent military power. The planets rely on the resources of the Asteroid Belt, where air and water are more precious than gold. For decades, tensions have been rising between these three places.
[Why] What’s the worst case resolution scenario to the crisis situation? A police detective in the asteroid belt, the first officer of an interplanetary ice freighter and an earth-bound United Nations executive slowly discover a vast conspiracy that threatens the Earth’s rebellious colony on the asteroid belt. Earth, Mars and the Belt are now on the brink of war. And all it will take is a single spark.
We’re going to use a slightly modified variation of our blurb “formula”:
Who (Hundreds of years in the future, humans have colonized the solar system. The U.N. controls Earth. Mars is an independent military power. The planets rely on the resources of the Asteroid Belt, where air and water are more precious than gold. For decades, tensions have been rising between these three places.) Series Tie
What (A police detective in the asteroid belt, the first officer of an interplanetary ice freighter and an earth-bound United Nations executive slowly discover a vast conspiracy that threatens the Earth’s rebellious colony on the asteroid belt.) Setup and Conflict or Crisis
Why (Earth, Mars and the Belt are now on the brink of war. And all it will take is a single spark.) Worst case resolution scenario
Here’s the blurb for The Expanse Series:
Hundreds of years in the future, humans have colonized the solar system. The U.N. controls Earth. Mars is an independent military power. The planets rely on the resources of the Asteroid Belt, where air and water are more precious than gold. For decades, tensions have been rising between these three places. A police detective in the asteroid belt, the first officer of an interplanetary ice freighter and an earth-bound United Nations executive slowly discover a vast conspiracy that threatens the Earth’s rebellious colony on the asteroid belt. Earth, Mars and the Belt are now on the brink of war. And all it will take is a single spark.
Some tips that you should keep in mind while you try to hone your series blurb (many of these are similar to ones we’ve talked about for the other two types of blurbs):
1) The genre(s) specific to your series should be apparent. If you have a romantic paranormal, both the romance and paranormal aspects should be alluded to in the blurb. Connect the genre(s) of your series and your blurb in your mind and evaluate whether each genre is effectively portrayed. In the same way, the series blurb must match the tone of the story genre. In other words, if it’s a romantic comedy series, your blurb should portray that aptly–it should be funny or at least amusing enough to pull a smile from the reader. If it’s a paranormal, your blurb should feel eerie, maybe even a little scary. Suspense in any form should induce tightness in your chest as you read the blurb.
2) Like high-concept blurbs, most series blurbs range from one to four sentences, but keep in mind that certain genres (or series) do need longer ones–possibly even longer than four sentences. As we said yesterday, genre can play a part in the size of your series blurb. Science fiction, fantasy, and historical books in a series may well require longer series blurbs, possibly in excess of four paragraphs. That’s because the series blurb has to make sense of whole worlds, cultures and philosophies, which, in many cases may seem vastly different from those a modern reader is used to. If they don’t understand the premise of your series in the blurb, they may not bother try reading the first book.
3) Same story as our Day 1 Axiom: If your series blurb doesn’t illicit intrigue or the desire to read the books in the series, it’s not effective. When I begin writing a new series blurb, I can’t imagine a more exciting time for me. Blurbing the actual stories only adds to my exhilaration. Your blurbs should bring forth excitement about writing the series and the individual stories that you’ll barely be able to resist jumping into each one immediately.
4) Sometimes making the blurb a question or an exclamation can add intrigue. Adding ellipses can also make the reader eager for more.
5) A series blurb can and should be used in your submissions to publishers and well as for marketing each and every book published in a series.
Also read my article, “Judge a Book By Its Cover” for an amusing look at the importance of blurbs and mostly about how not to write them: http://www.writers-exchange.com/judge-book-back-cover-blurb-karen-wiesner/
About the Author
Creating realistic, unforgettable characters one story at a time.
Karen Wiesner is an accomplished author with 130 titles published in the past 20 years, which have been nominated/won 134 awards, and has 39 more releases contracted for spanning many genres and formats. Karen’s books cover such genres as women’s fiction, romance, mystery/police procedural/cozy, suspense, paranormal, futuristic, fantasy, science fiction, gothic, inspirational, thriller, horror, chick-lit, and action/adventure. She also writes children’s books, poetry, and writing reference titles such as her bestseller, First Draft in 30 Days, Cohesive Story Building, Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas, and Bring Your Fiction to Life: Crafting Three-Dimensional Stories with Depth and Complexity. Her newest, Writing Blurbs That Sizzle–And Sell!, is available now.
Karen used to run a blurb service for authors. She’s crafted back cover and high concept blurbs for all of her own books and series as well as those for the stories in several award-winning anthologies, and evaluated, revised and crafted series, back cover and high concept blurbs for the entire backlist of nearly five hundred books in one publisher’s catalog.
You can check out more of Karen’s many books with Writers Exchange on her author page (which will include the 130 mentioned above, plus more new books as they come out).
Join Karen November 13-19, 2017 for her “Writing Back Cover and Series Blurbs That Sizzle–and Sell!” Workshop where she’ll cover the need for high-concept blurbs, back cover blurbs, and series blurbs and simple, effective ways to craft them, branding with blurbs along with creating them in a variety of sizes for different applications. Karen will also critique the blurbs of registrants during this busy week.
Author Testimony: “It’s hard to encapsulate in a few lines all of what Karen Wiesner has to offer writers. She created Jewels of the Quill, a writers’ marketing cooperative, spearheading several anthology collections from the group, organizing our ads and marketing, and maintaining the website that featured our individual accomplishments from new releases to awards. Being a member of this group for years, I was and still am eternally grateful to have had her guidance and help. Whether critiquing or editing one of my stories/books or helping me refine a blurb or create back cover material, I could always count on a quick, inspiring response. For example, I initially wrote [my paranormal romance] The Scarecrow & Ms. Moon as kind of a “Murphy’s Law” romantic romp. But, with Karen’s suggestions, I delved deeper into the characters, discovering emotions which took a humorous romance to another level. Because of the “heart” she inspired me to add, Scarecrow remains a favorite of mine. She did all this while writing multiple novels per year, poetry, giving workshops, AND writing self-help books for Writer’s Digest. Karen Wiesner is an asset I’d recommend to any writer.” ~Barbara Raffin, award-winning author The St. John Sibling Series
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