Loglines and Blurbs – Short and Sweet and Stinkin’ Hard

By Debbie Burke

A log line or logline is a brief (usually one-sentence) summary of a television program, film, or book that states the central conflict of the story, often providing both a synopsis of the story’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest. – Wikipedia

A blurb “is a short description that praises something (such as a book) so that people will want to buy it.” – Merriam Webster

Okay, the definitions sound simple enough, but the truth is, most authors would rather write an entire novel than struggle over these few words that are critical to successful marketing. How do you condense your 100K-word masterpiece into a few lines that are so intriguing, so compelling, readers will drop everything and click on the “buy” button?

The quote by Mark Twain comes to mind: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Brevity is essential. Elevator pitches used to last 10 floors.  Now they better fit between the lobby and the mezzanine.

For instance, the Kindle Scout contest requires a book one-liner of 45 characters or less. Yikes! That’s only one-third of a tweet. The book description itself allows a slightly more generous 500 characters (fewer than 100 words), but is still tight, compared to a typical synopsis length of 250-500 words.

I checked out a number of successful authors we all know to discover how they handled these daunting tasks.

A few examples of loglines:

“When he sleeps, the hunt begins.” – Jordan Dane

“She was beautiful and naked and dying…” – James Scott Bell

“No names. No feds. No trace evidence.” – John Gilstrap

“Welcome to Durham, North Carolina, the diet capital of the world.” – Kathryn Lilley

“Three women. A cursed house. Generations of lives at stake.” – Laura Benedict

“When the old money façade fails, the lies come to light.” – Elaine Viets

Six different approaches, yet each reflects their particular subgenre, showcases a distinctive voice, and sinks a hook that draws the reader in. Jim’s is a paean to Raymond Chandler noir. John’s is stark and no-nonsense. Kathryn’s hints at her ironic humor.

For the slightly longer blurb, consider these examples:

“In darkness…. Two strangers meet. A woman without inhibitions…a man without limits…for a private game between two consenting adults.” – Larry Brooks

“They say it’s better to battle the devil you know. But what if you don’t recognize him before it’s too late?” – PJ Parrish

“Exchanging their bodies for machines, these teens will defy expectations, brave danger, and defend civilization. They are The Six.” – Mark Alpert

“Ursula Marlow thought she was done with death, but when her fiancé, Lord Wrotham, is arrested on charges of treason, her world is turned upside down.” – Claire Langley-Hawthorne

And last, but not least, Joe Hartlaub knows how to sum up books in his reviews that are both pithy and intriguing: “BRONX REQUIEM serves up a heady, dark, double shot of urban noir.”

Why are loglines so stinkin’ hard to write?

For authors new to marketing, loglines and blurbs are especially intimidating. Let’s break down the reasons for the difficulty and, one by one, find ways to overcome them.

  1. Overwhelming – How do you distill 60-100K words into 45 characters? Or 100 words?
  2. Hard choices – What do you include? What do you leave out? Will the story make sense to a reader who is unfamiliar with the plot, characters, or your intentions?
  3. Lack of objectivity – You’re too close to the story. You no longer have any idea what will capture the interest of readers.

How to overcome being overwhelmed:

First, identify what elements must be in a logline: Character, conflict, stakes, and reader engagement.

Consider the legendary Hemingway six-word novel:

“For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

While questions still swirl whether or not Papa actually wrote the story, it illustrates a skillful example of a logline.

Even though no specific characters are mentioned, we understand the inference that a baby has died, leaving behind grieving parents.

The conflict is how/why the death of the child occurred.

The stakes are also inferred. Can the parents survive the unimaginable nightmare?

Reader engagement comes from the need to learn the details behind the tragedy.

How to overcome hard choices:

Again, the focus must be limited to only essential elements. No matter how attached you are to subplots, minor characters, and lyrical setting details, there’s no room for them in loglines and blurbs. Stick to “just the facts, ma’am.”

Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? What does each want/need? How do their respective wants/needs come into conflict? What happens if they don’t achieve their goals?

Which qualities of your story are universally understandable?

What is unique, that only you could have written? If your voice is distinctive, let it show through.

How to overcome lack of objectivity:

This is where you enlist the help of coworkers, friends, critique partners, beta readers, book club members, and sometimes total strangers. They offer fresh eyes and fresh perspectives because they are not as intimately involved with the story as you are. You’re lost deep in the trees, while they see the whole forest.

Write at least 10, preferably 20, different one-liners and short descriptions. Show the examples to some (but not all) of the consultants described above.

What are their reactions? What intrigues them? What makes them yawn?

What questions do they raise?

What isn’t clear to them (even though it seems obvious to you)? Does the story make sense?

Would they buy the book based on your logline?

Next, combine the best elements of your examples and rewrite.

Put yourself into the mind of a potential customer. What qualities of your story might fascinate a reader living in a different region, or in a different socio-economic strata? Would a reader who’s younger or older than you identify with the story?

Winnow the choices down to three loglines and three blurbs. Show these to different consultants than you approached in the first round. You’re seeking fresh perspectives on the revised versions. Ask the same questions as before and see if you’ve resolved confusion, filled in missing parts, and deleted unnecessary information.

Like Blanche DuBois, rely on the kindness of strangers.

Strangers and casual acquaintances can be more accurate barometers of typical customer reaction because, unlike family and friends, they’re not as concerned with hurting your feelings. You don’t need to be embarrassed because you may never see these people again.

Visit your local librarian and verbally audition your short description to him/her. Librarians read thousands of blurbs and decide from a few words whether to stock a book or not. Ask if your book would be ordered or passed over based on your description. If a librarian offers a suggestion for improvement, take it!

On a plane trip, find out what your seatmate likes to read. Then ask, “What do you think of this idea for a book?” and recite your logline. If the person expresses further interest, try out your blurb. Pay close attention to their questions and opinions. You’re seeking honesty, not compliments.

One caution: if someone responds positively, don’t become a pest and regale him/her with a scene-by-scene outline. Thank the person for helpful input and offer your business card (which of course lists all your books for sale).

 Based on feedback, refine your examples further. The process should yield several solid, compelling variations on a theme to use for different applications. One might be appropriate for entering contests, another for submitting to agents or editors, yet another can be your Amazon description and the back cover of your book.

Barter with other writers – You write my blurb and I’ll write yours. My beta readers and I have successfully come up with titles, loglines, and blurbs for each other. Sometimes you’ve already written the perfect logline, but it’s buried in your novel. A helpful beta will spot it and point it out.

When a stranger can read your precious few words, understand the gist, and wants to know more about your book, you’ve succeeded.

TKZers, do you have a secret formula for crafting loglines and blurbs?

Debbie Burke just endured the ordeal of writing a 40-character logline and an 83-word blurb for her entry in the Kindle Scout contest. A sample of her thriller Instrument of the Devil is online until July 7. If the book is selected for publication, everyone who nominates it will receive the eBook for free. Thanks for checking out the link.

 

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26 thoughts on “Loglines and Blurbs – Short and Sweet and Stinkin’ Hard

  1. Fun and informative post, Debbie! I think it helps to do a close study of Hollywood-style “high concept pitches ” that boil down the essence of a story to one line that incorporates and plays on recognizable concepts to convey an intriguing story idea: for example: Jaws in Space (Alien), Snakes On A Plane (self-explanatory), What if Peter Pan Grew Up? (Hook).
    I also learned a lot by writing back cover copy for Nancy Drew. Those little summaries and one liners were essentially a formula that translated well into other uses such as query letters and verbal pitches. For example: “Nancy is (doing something fun and happy) , but when (something or someone does something bad), she has to (fight for her life or rescue someone else)!” This one liner is from the back cover of last book I wrote for that series, Mystery On Maui: “Nancy rides a wave of danger in pursuit of a surfing saboteur!” (Admittedly, I tended to go overboard with alliteration and cliches , but got away with it for that audience). 😄

    • Kathryn,

      Loved Nancy Drew, altho I outgrew them before (LONG before) you were writing them. That gig must have helped your craft in many ways, including loglines and back cover blurbs.

      TV Guide and movie loglines are great, pithy descriptions. But it’s still a struggle to reduce my own stories to a one-liner. That’s why I enlist the help of more objective eyes than my own.

  2. The 45-character one was hard. In this example, I had to exchange “betray” for “give” to make the limit, although the first is a much stronger word.

    “Give a client to the FBI or her father dies.”

    This was off the top of my head, so more work might give better results. Here are my other WIPs.

    A historical romance: “Bleeding Kansas. Romeo & Juliet. Quantrill.”
    (And yes, I totally cheated with that ampersand.)

    A noir mystery (Dammit Phil): “Never rent your basement to a hacker.”

    The mystery sequel to Devil’s Deal: “Have you indicted your local sheriff today?”

    It’s a fun exercise. I had to really think about what the plot really distils down to. I hope some of the other KZers will play along with the game.

    Terri

    • Terri,

      An ampersand is not cheating when you’re only allowed 45 characters. I used plus and equal signs for mine: “Terrorist+Smartphone=Power Grid in Jeopardy.”

      Your examples are great, especially, “Never rent your basement to a hacker” and “Have you indicted your local sheriff today?”

      Do you hire out writing loglines for others? Need some help with my next book…

  3. Great topic Debbie and one I’m afraid I’m not very good at! I’m even worse at book titles so I guess that’s something. I think the hardest part of distilling the essence of a book down into a logline/pitch or blurb is avoiding the cheesy cliches that seem to creep into so many ‘one liners’ for movies or books. I wish I was better at the process but your blog post has helped inspire me to try a little harder:)

    • I agree cheesy clichés are tiresome, Clare. B/c it’s so difficult to come up with a fresh way to say something, it’s easy to fall back on clichés.

      Maybe we need to do a TKZ online workshop on pitches and titles b/c they are challenging for most authors.

  4. Great article with lots of good info. I know how important this is, but haven’t seen much on the mechanics/art of crafting loglines and blurbs so this was helpful. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Sheri! As you say, there is a real “art” to crafting them.

      Years ago, I entered several “tell a story in 100 words” contests. When you have to make every single word count, it’s surprising how much slop you can get rid of. But 45 characters cuts to the bone.

  5. These are definitely a challenge. We’re all too close to our work to think our baby can be strained down to a mere line or two.

    Thanks for featuring my Ryker Townsend series line. I think of that as more of a TAG LINE, which would go on a book cover. My publishers got me trained a long time ago to think in term so promo and to create a line that could go on a cover to intrigue the reader.

    Tag Line: When he sleeps, the hunt begins…

    Log Line: FBI profiler Ryker Townsend has a secret he won’t share with anyone—not even his own team—that sets him on the trail of a ruthless psychopath, alone.

    For my book jacket blurbs, I try for 200-250 words that focuses on the emotion and conflicts in my book, without giving anything away. But for Facebook parties and other online promo like Amazon Marketing Services, where brevity and intrigue are important, I create varying lengths.

    In query letters, an eye-catching tag line or logline can be used in a cover letter. This is an important aspect of what we do, Debbie. I’m glad you showcased it today. Thank you.

    • You’re welcome, Jordan. TKZ’s group of experts offered plenty of great examples to draw from.

      Your use of “tag line” is more precise and correct. I just lumped terms together for the sake of simplicity.

      Thanks for sharing your three different uses of tag line, logline, and blurb. You mentioned the blurb is the place for emotion and conflict. That made me think. The tag line is a hook, pure and simple. The logline example you gave focused on conflict, but didn’t have room for much emotion. So, of course, that makes sense to play up the emotion in the blurb.

      Whether querying conventionally or catching the browsing shopper’s attention, a stellar one-liner is critical…which is why it’s so hard.

  6. Good blog, Debbie, and thanks for mentioning the log line for my new Angela Richman mystery, FIRE AND ASHES. I wish I’d written, “When the old money façade fails, the lies come to light” but that was done by the very clever Thomas & Mercer staff. They did the work and I chose the one I liked best.

  7. Good article, Debbie! I agree with Kathryn. I started off writing screenplays and those pesky loglines/premises are musts. But they’re fun challenges!

  8. Debbie, your breakdown of how to approach tag lines and loglines is spot on. I struggle with this every single time. One thing I’ve found that helps is to come up with this kind of distillation well before the writing begins. I honed my brief premise for my next crime novel with several other writers before I wrote word one. It became something to hang the story on.

    No matter how hard I work on my elevator pitch, when I get on an actual elevator and have to talk, I become completely tongue-tied and find myself drifting into descriptions of one of the protag’s random cousins or something. Hopeless.

    Thanks for picking up my tag line for The Abandoned Heart. I think I wrote it originally for a .gif banner over at Writerspace. Then I put it on bookmarks too because it worked.

    Terrific post!

    • Appreciate your kind words, Laura.

      Developing a logline/tag line upfront before writing the book is a great idea that I’m trying to put into practice with my newer work. Many pantsing writers, including myself, don’t know what their books are about until they’re finished…and sometimes not even then!

      Your method requires focus and gives a guideline/goal to work toward, yet still doesn’t have the restrictiveness of an outline that pantsers chafe against.

      Funny thing about elevator pitches. Talking to an editor/agent either makes us tongue-tied or prone to verbal diarrhea. Yet if you and I (and probably most authors reading this) met in an elevator, the pitch would slide out flawlessly. It’s the pressure that causes us to freeze.

  9. Terrific post, Debbie. What’s really helped me is Twitter. With no alternative than 140 characters it forces me to be brief. I’ve come up with a few log lines/tag lines that way. Alas, it’s still not my forte.

    • Thanks, Sue.

      Yes, Twitter is a graduate-level course in brevity. Generations behind us who’ve grown up with Twitter should be succinct, pithy, and cogent.

  10. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 06-29-2017 | The Author Chronicles

  11. The best book ever written on this topic is Michael Hauge’s “Selling Your Story In 60 Seconds”. I would encourage everyone to take a look.

    You’ll never regret owning this book.

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