Book Description Basics

book descriptionThe number one problem we run into during the vetting process here at Indies Unlimited is a book’s description, also sometimes known as the book sales pitch or the book blurb. Too long, too short, too detailed, too vague, too too too, blah blah blah. What it comes down to is: many authors cannot write a book description on their own.

There’s nothing wrong with this. In most instances, it takes an outsider to point out what’s missing from (or not needed in) a book description. After all, an author has been married to the book for years. An author is most likely going to overlook points that a potential reader needs to know. It’s like explaining how to use a computer program that you know like the back of your hand. You’ll always skip over the basics or the foundation and get right to the good stuff. Meanwhile, your pupil is sitting there with a stupid look on his/her face, completely confused.

The basics for writing a good book description don’t change. Who, what, when, where, why, and how, and why do I want to read/buy this book? We’ve had plenty of articles about this already. We have an article that specifically explains how to write a book description. We’ve had a post on the most common book description issues. The Evil Mastermind even felt the need to break down book description epic failures into categories.

I’ve put together a list of the questions I most commonly ask after reading a book description that has confused me to the point of needing Dramamine. Reading these questions won’t replace the lessons in the articles linked to above. But hopefully, they will help prevent you from achieving the Epic Fail categories.

1. Who the heck is your character?
Most book description first sentences mention the main character. That’s good. You want the potential reader to know immediately who the story is about. Use your character’s first and last name. That gives the reader something a little more definitive than just “John.” If possible, use your character’s title as in Dr., Sergeant, Professor, etc. This helps set the stage early on so the reader doesn’t spend more time trying to figure out who your character is than reading your blurb.

2. Why should we like your character? – or why should we care about your character enough to want to read the book’s preview?
Make me care about your character. Make me want to know more. Just a few strategically-placed words can help make your character jump off the page and draw the reader to identify, or sympathize, with him/her.

3. What is the main conflict?
Many times people paint a picture of the Wild West or a far-away planet with ideals and imagery. They set the mood – but they don’t give me any idea of what is going on in the story. What is the main conflict? Is your character solving a crime? Trying to break away from an abusive spouse? Looking for a cure for a rare disease?

4. What are the risks? What are the possible gains?
So many authors use “So-and-so has secrets…” Everybody has secrets. That doesn’t make me care – it makes me roll my eyes. What does the character have to lose if that secret gets out? What’s at stake if he/she fails to achieve the primary goal? What will happen if they succeed?

5. What is the subplot/conflict?
There is normally a main conflict, and then a subplot which runs concurrently. This can be a character’s inner conflict or any number of other things. If you mention it, make it brief, and make certain to tie in how it possibly affects the main conflict. Does this subplot have the potential to ruin everything?

6. Where is your character?
This isn’t so important unless you’re writing Science Fiction or Paranormal stuff, especially if you’re putting a spin on something with preconceived notions, like heaven, hell, paradise, etc. If your book takes place on another planet or in an alternate reality, that’s kind of important for the reader to know immediately. In other cases, sometimes it’s nice for the reader to know where the character is. If it’s the big city or a prairie town – a brief mention will set the scene for the reader.

7. Why is your character so tormented?
Your character has banished himself from his home and is aimlessly wandering the city streets. Um…why? Don’t give me the “that’s a spoiler” line. You can find a way to hint at whether your character was a victim, witnessed something horrible, or whatever. You don’t have to go into detail and give it away. Otherwise, sorry, but your character just sounds like a drama queen looking to star in his own pity party.

8. Who are all these people?
Many times, an author will have four paragraphs and dedicate each one to a different character. Only first names will be used, and we have no idea how these characters are related to each other or how (or even if!) their stories intertwine.  In many cases, it makes the book sound like it’s four separate short stories about four different characters! That’s destined to be a new epic fail category, for certain.

9. Did you really need to say that more than once?
Okay, we get that your main character is fighting his attraction to your heroine. You said it three different ways in three separate sentences. Pick the one you like the best and say it once. That’s all you need.

10. Are readers supposed to know who these people are?
One of the most common problems I run into with books in a series is the fact that the author assumes the reader is familiar with the other books and fails to give someone unfamiliar with the series enough information. What if the reader just happens to come across Book 2 in your series, and they read: the continued adventures of John and Jill, picking up where they left off! Who the heck are John and Jill? And what adventures? Is this porn? Or are they treasure hunters? Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Make sure the book description for each book in the series can stand on its own.

Those questions should help get your book description on the right track. Remember, just like you would have someone edit/beta/ARC read your book, a second set of eyes is crucial for your book’s description as well.

Author: K.S. Brooks

K.S. Brooks is an award-winning novelist, photographer, and photo-journalist, author of over 30 titles, and executive director and administrator of Indies Unlimited. Brooks is currently a photo-journalist and chief copy editor for two NE Washington newspapers.  She teaches self-publishing and writing topics for the Community Colleges of Spokane, and served on the Indie Author Day advisory board. For more about K.S. Brooks, visit her website and her Amazon author page.

6 thoughts on “Book Description Basics”

  1. The Book Descriptions is one of the most challenging aspects of writing, and the shorter it has to be the more difficult it becomes. It just occurred to me (yes, just now) that our weekly Flash Fiction is good practice and covers many of those bases. In the description we do need to watch for spoilers, though.

  2. I can’t help but notice the segue between questions 1 – 7, which are points that need answering, and questions 8-10, which shouldn’t have to be answered (but often need to be) 🙂
    I particularly like #4. Secrets are an overused device.

  3. Recently, I was looking through the books in my home library for a book to re-read and spotted my copy of the Harry Potter series. It struck me, if you want to read some excellent book descriptions check out the back covers of these books. They are clear concise and spark your interest to read each book again.

  4. I was checking off your points while looking the back of my book and I think I managed at least 7/10, but this post helps fill out the rest of what I’m missing. Thank you so much!

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