“I HAVE to Read That”: How Many Words Does It Take to Hook a Reader?

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Have you ever heard just the tiniest premise about a book and thought, “I have to read that”?

Let me tell you, coming up with that golden tiny premise is not easy on the author’s part. I still dread the prompt, “So tell me what your book’s about,” because I don’t know which part they want to hear. My book’s about a lot of things. It’s so hard to sum up 330 pages in a few sentences!

Here’s my best attempt so far:

Life always ushers in the least likely. How else could the universe amuse itself?

Seventeen and staring down the last summer before graduation, Wendy Stark and the four guys she’s grown up with are making a break from gray-skied Portland — running away from looming adulthood by driving south on a whim and a blog (the ad revenue–generating kind). 

At least, that’s the story they’re telling site visitors. Really, Wendy is evading recently divorced parents, and each boy has his own reasons for tagging along. None of them knows about the fairy stalking them, trying to steal magic Wendy doesn’t know she has.

When the fairy’s pranks flop and her last desperate attempt goes awry, it leaves the guys wondering why “Dee” is suddenly so strange and leaves Wendy, now six inches tall, to learn to fly and dodge predators on her own — and to convince long-lost Peter she’s real.

That’s 150 words exactly, which was my goal. But something’s still not right. I guess my trouble is that I want to give a sense of my characters as well as my plot, but since there are just so many of them, fitting that into a short blurb feels hopeless.

Here’s a sample of some of the character stuff I’ve tried:

Topher has taken misery to a new level since his two-year girlfriend called it quits. Zander might get voted Most Likely to Be Stunned by Tasers thanks to the mob of girls he’s dated and dumped. Paint-splattered Phil keeps threatening to stab his hand if his artwork doesn’t get up to his own standards. And Drew the ever would-be hero would do anything for “Dee” . . . except admit he’s in love with her.

Seventy-five words. I could fit that in the full-page synopsis, but not in the query blurb. And at the super extreme end, here’s the one-sentence summary agents and editors sometimes want (20 words or less):

An ignorant fairy shadows five teens on a road trip, hoping to steal enough magic to survive.

Would that tempt you to read the book?

I’m guessing not yet. My blurbs are not quite there yet. They’re missing some umph.

Here’s the back cover of what I’m reading now (for the second time because I love it so much), I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak:

protect the diamonds

survive the clubs

dig deep through the spades

feel the hearts

Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.

That’s when the first ace arrives in the mail.

That’s when Ed becomes the messenger.

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

One-hundred-and-one words that are perfect. I know the premise, I know the main character, I know what kind of story this is, and I want to read it. Yes, the large Printz award on the cover and the FIVE starred reviews inside the cover (one of them featured above the sticker) definitely helped sway me, but I think if I were an agent or editor seeing this in a query letter, the 101-word blurb would have persuaded me to read it, too.

So here’s the question of the day: What does a blurb have to do to make you want to read the book? What books or movies (any story, really) have grabbed you because of a well-worded premise? How many words does it take to hook a reader?

Leave a comment!

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7 responses »

  1. To answer your question: It has to be a story that interests me, or strikes some kind of chord. Your story would appeal to me because I remember that scary summer before college, and the fear of what life held for me. I think the love of the characters will come when they read the actual manuscript, because those are just too many names to throw in when introducing the story. And while your story is about them, too, it is essentially about Wendy and Caprice.

    On the 1-sentence blurb, you need to bring up that it’s about the teens growing up — it’s not just a fairy story.

    But great job overall. It is definitely coming along!!

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  2. The last few blurbs I was sucked into picking up (at the library, fortunately) ended up disappointing me, so I don’t know that they’d be helpful. I tend to pick up things that amuse me though.

    Anyway, I went to a workshop with Elana Johnson a couple months ago where she talked about queries and broke it down into sections. She actually said to have separate files for each part (hook, setup, etc.). She has some of the info on her website:

    http://elanajohnson.blogspot.com/p/writing-query-letter.html

    It might be helpful. It definitely made me look at things in a different light.

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  3. I have to admit i was randomly searchin the internet when i found this site, but after reading that blurb i actually now want to read your story 🙂 good luck with it 🙂

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  4. Pingback: Markus Zusak and the Genius of the Egg « All About the Words

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