What it’s about: Blurbs and the character-driven novel

Hi! We're the characters.

“My book is about … um … these guys!”

Last week I offered tips on how to write compelling back cover copy for your novel. The trick is distilling your story down to its essence, telling potential readers about your characters and the challenges they face.

But what do you do if you’ve written one of those slice-of-life books—the kind where the characters and setting are the main focus, and there is no overarching plot? Conflicts exist, but they aren’t the story, and most of them get resolved long before the final page. If you try basing your description on the plot, you’re left with, “There are a bunch of people. Stuff happens to them.”

Don’t worry. You can do better than that. The thing to remember is that your book is about something, even if you can’t easily sum it up. Here are a couple of strategies.

Describe the characters

You’ve let your characters drive your novel, so they’re probably pretty interesting. Tell us about them. What are their personality quirks? How do they deal with the world around them?

This book description for Fannie Flagg’s bestseller Standing in the Rainbow is a nice example of a character blurb:

Along with Neighbor Dorothy, the lady with the smile in her voice, whose daily radio broadcasts keep us delightfully informed on all the local news, we also meet Bobby, her ten-year-old son, destined to live a thousand lives, most of them in his imagination; Norma and Macky Warren and their ninety-eight-year-old Aunt Elner; the oddly sexy and charismatic Hamm Sparks, who starts off in life as a tractor salesman and ends up selling himself to the whole state and almost the entire country; and the two women who love him as differently as night and day. Then there is Tot Whooten, the beautician whose luck is as bad as her hairdressing skills; Beatrice Woods, the Little Blind Songbird; Cecil Figgs, the Funeral King; and the fabulous Minnie Oatman, lead vocalist of the Oatman Family Gospel Singers.

Readers who like character-driven novels will want to get to know these people.

Describe the action

But wait, you cry. Didn’t we agree that it’s pointless to summarize the plot? Yep. That’s why you don’t describe “the plot.” You pick a few subplots and run with them.

Not long ago I wrote a blurb for The Longest Year by Stan Crader. If I had focused on the book’s central conflict, it would have gone something like, “There’s this kid who really, really wants to drive, but he can’t yet because he’s fifteen, so he has to wait.”

That makes the story sound boring. It isn’t.

Here’s the actual blurb:

Like all of his friends, Tommy Thompson dreams of obtaining the ultimate ticket to freedom: a driver’s license.

Unlike all of his friends, Tommy has just turned fifteen. He’ll have to watch everybody else pass their tests before he’s old enough to take his.

But life goes on for the band of boys despite Tommy’s consuming obsession. His best friend, Booger, takes up the guitar. His buddy Everett dates a girl from a rival school and discovers that her classmates aren’t altogether happy about it. Longtime romantic interest Melody tests her newly minted driving skills on the railroad tracks. And Tommy receives an unexpected gift—one that just might make the longest year of his life go by a little quicker.

The third in Stan Crader’s Colby series, THE LONGEST YEAR will bring a smile to your face as you remember the trials and tribulations of your own youth.

The book isn’t about any of these subplots. But when you see them recounted together in this way, a picture forms in your mind. It’s about growing up. It’s about the the challenges you face as you navigate the journey from childhood to adulthood.

(Also notice that when you describe subplots, you can sneak in techniques for plot-driven blurbs. What gift did Tommy receive and why did it have such a big impact? You have to read the book to find out!)

In the end, all back cover copy serves the same purpose: to tell potential readers how the book will benefit them. If you can convey why they’ll enjoy getting to know the people who populate your story, your job is done.

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One Response to What it’s about: Blurbs and the character-driven novel

  1. Stan Crader says:

    Thanks for the shout out for “The Longest Year.” But more important, thanks for the tips on cover writing. And I appreciate your insight. Cover writing is extremely difficult. You do it well. It’s a gift.
    Merry Christmas.