Hook Your Readers with a Compelling Storyline, Tagline, & Back Cover Copy

by Jodie Rennereditor & author 

You run into a friend and mention you’re writing a novel. “What’s it about?” they ask.

You stammer, “Well, it’s about this guy… Actually, and his sidekick too. She’s a woman. They don’t really get along all that well… at least, not at the beginning. He’s former FBI agent and she used to be a cop. Did I tell you they’re private detectives? Anyway, they get this weird case… Hey, where are you going? I was just getting to the good part!”

This is the kind of situation where you wish you had created a succinct, compelling storyline or “elevator pitch,” well-prepared and memorized.

Here are some tips on writing an engaging storyline, tagline, elevator pitch, and back cover copy for your novel. These are all essentials for hooking potential readers and enticing them to read your novel. If you’re still writing your novel, doing these exercises will help you focus on the core of your story and how best to engage readers.


Your storyline (or logline) gives the gist of your book in a few sentences. It tells something about the main character, the conflict or dilemma, and the stakes.

When someone casually asks you what your book is about, you’ll probably give them your storyline/logline. It’s a condensed version of the elevator pitch.

Even if you haven’t yet finished your novel, writing a storyline for it will help you zero in on what your story is really about, at its essence, and what emotion(s) you want to evoke in your readers.

Start with a 5-6-sentence version (up to a paragraph or two) and work down to one or two sentences. Keep your longer version as your “elevator pitch” for when the situation allows enough time to use it.

To create your storyline, first answer these questions:

Who is your main character? (Not just the name, or not necessarily the name at all.)

Where does the story take place? (if it’s of interest)

What is the protagonist’s goal?

What is the situation, problem, challenge, obstacle, or dilemma the protagonist faces?

Why does it matter? Why does he/she have to overcome the obstacle, vanquish the foe, or solve the problem?

How does he/she solve the problem?

Of course, you won’t reveal the answer to the last question in your logline, tagline, or back cover copy!

Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, in their excellent book for newbie writers, Writing Fiction for Dummies, talk about a one-sentence storyline or “one-sentence summary,” which is kind of like a condensed elevator pitch or condensed back-cover copy. They say to “shoot for 25 words or less. If you can do it in less than 15 words, you get extra credit.” Other tips by them for a compelling one-sentence storyline, condensed and paraphrased:

  • Limit the storyline to just a few main characters. Of course, include the protagonist.
  • Tell one thread of the story, ether the most essential one or the most interesting one.
  • Most of the time, don’t name the characters. Instead, find unique, fascinating ways to describe each of them.
  • Use adjectives that evoke empathy or cast a character as vulnerable or an outsider.
  • Include verbs that pack a punch, like battles or struggles.
  • Backload the storyline by putting a surprise or some emotively punchy words at the end of the sentence.

Ingermanson and Economy provide some one-sentence storylines for well-known novels. Here are a few of them:

The Firm, by John Grisham (legal thriller): “A brilliant young lawyer gets a fabulous job at a firm that is a cover for a Mafia money-laundering operation.”

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel (historical): “A young human girl in Ice Age Europe struggles to survive persecution by her adoptive clan of Neanderthals.”

Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith (mystery): “A Moscow homicide detective investigates a bizarre triple murder and runs afoul of the KGB and FBI.”

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (literary): “A boy raised in Afghanistan grows up with the shame of having failed to fight the gang of boys who raped his closest friend.”

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy): “A Hobbit learns that destroying his magic ring is the key to saving Middle Earth from the Dark Lord.”

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (time-travel romance): “A young English nurse searches for the way back home after time-traveling from 1945 to 1743 Scotland.”

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown (thriller): “A Harvard symbologist and a female French cryptographer solve the puzzle of the Holy Grail in a race against death across Europe.”

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (romance): “A young English woman from a peculiar family is pursued by an arrogant and wealthy young man.”

Resources: Randy Ingermanson & Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies; Shaunta Grimes, The Everyday Novelist blog, “How (and Why) to Write a Logline and a Tagline for Your Book”


The tagline evolves from the storyline but is even briefer and snappier. It’s a one-line hook whose job is to evoke emotion and compel readers to open your book. Readers want to know what they will feel if they read your book, so it needs to pack an emotive punch.

The tagline might go on the front cover of your book, in bold and/or italics at the top of your back cover or your book description on Amazon, at the beginning of a query letter, in the signature of your emails, as part of your Facebook or other social media page, or elsewhere. It might be as long as two or three brief sentences if it goes at the top of your back cover or Amazon description.

What makes a great tagline? Here are some tips:

  1. Keep it short – a sentence or sentence fragment is best.
  2. Make every word count. Skip “This book is about.” Make it pack a punch.
  3. Hint at genre. Readers want to know what they’re getting into, whether this is going to be their kind of book.
  4. Capture the tone of your story – overall, is it lyrical, nail-biting, romantic, sad, humorous, intriguing, fanciful, sexy, adventurous?
  5. Arouse curiosity. Maybe ask an intriguing question, raise a question just by the wording, or hint at danger or an impossible dilemma.
  6. Invoke emotions. Choose words that appeal to readers’ emotions.
  7. Make sure your phrase has an easy rhythm and flow. Read it aloud and cut out any unnecessary or convoluted words.

Brainstorm a variety of taglines. Write them all out and compare them for emotional punch, intrigue, brevity, and flow.

Here are some taglines from the front cover, the top of the back cover, or the top of the Amazon book description of well-known novels:

Blue Moon, by Lee Child: “Jack Reacher comes to the aid of an elderly couple . . . and confronts his most dangerous opponents yet.”

The Return, by Nicholas Sparks: “In the romantic tradition of Dear John, an injured Navy doctor meets two extremely important women whose secrets will change the course of his life.”

The Dark Hours, by Michael Connelly: “Has a killer lain dormant for years only to strike again on New Year’s Eve?”

Legacy, by Nora Roberts: “…a new novel of a mother and a daughter, of ambition and romance, and of a traumatic past reawakened by a terrifying threat…”

Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz: “Every gift has a price.”

Willa of the Wood, by Robert Beatty: “Move without a sound. Steal without a trace.”

Insurrection, by Tom Combs: “Domestic terrorists, a captive ER, and a nation held hostage.”

Her Last Tomorrow, by Adam Croft: “Could you murder your wife to save your daughter?”

Taken, by Robert Crais: “The search for a missing girl leads private investigators Elvis Cole and Joe Pike into the nightmarish world of human trafficking.”

The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty: “The trouble with the truth is that it can change everything.”

Silent Child, by Sarah A. Denzil: “Her child has the answers. But he can’t tell her the unspeakable.”

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn: “There are two sides to every story.”

The Crucifix Killer, by Chris Carter: “Cross your heart and hope to die…quickly.”

Outfox, by Sandra Brown: “One man with multiple identities. Eight vanished women. The next target…his wife.”


Your back cover copy or book description is the biggest deciding factor for readers picking up your book for the first time. Not only does it have to be enticing and polished, but it has to strike at the heart of your actual story, hint at the genre and tone, and incite curiosity among the readers, to compel them to open the book and read the first page (which, as you know, is also critically important).

Your back cover copy or book description needs to:

– Grab readers’ attention – in a good way

– Incite curiosity about this book 

– Tell us roughly what the story is about

– Give an indication of the genre and tone of the book

– Introduce us to the main character and his goal

– Tell us the protagonist’s main problem or dilemma

– Leave us wanting to find out more

James Scott Bell (Yes, TKZ’s beloved Sunday columnist and writing guru) gives us a great template for writing strong, compelling back cover copy in his excellent book, Plot & Structure.

Jim’s outline is a perfect jumping-off point for creating your own book description.

Paragraph 1: Your main character’s name and her current situation:

__________________ is a ________________ who ___________________________________.

Write one or two more sentences, describing something of the character’s background and current world.

Paragraph 2: Start with Suddenly or But when. Fill in the major turning point, the event that threatens the character, disrupts his world and forces him to take action. Add two or three more sentences about what happens next.

“But his world is turned upside down when…”

Paragraph 3: Start with Now and make it an action sentence, for example, “Now (name) must struggle with….”

Or use a question or two starting with Will: Will (name) be able to….? Or will she….? And will these events….?

Then add a final sentence that is pure marketing, like “(Title) is a riveting…. novel about …. that will …you…till the … twist at the end.

Now polish it up, making sure every word counts and you’ve used the best possible word for each situation. Aim for about 250-500 words in total.

There are of course many other ways to grab your readers in your book description, but be sure to use the main character’s name and hint at the threat that has upset his world and the obstacles he needs to overcome to win, survive or defeat evil, and right wrongs. And leave the readers with a question, to pique their curiosity and propel them into the story.

Then, if there’s space, you could squeeze in a great blurb or two, or a short author bio.

Resource: James Scott Bell, Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure. I highly recommend this book of Bell’s, as well as his excellent Revision & Self-Editing for Publication, which I recommend to all my clients.

TKZers – Would you like to share your back cover copy, book description, storyline, or tagline with us? Or create one for a well-known novel?

*By the way, I’m over at Kay DiBianca’s blog today as well. Kay is interviewing me about my writing advice in Fire up Your Fiction and related topics. Hop over there for a look! 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized and edited two anthologies. Website, Blog – Resources for Writers, Facebook, Amazon Author Page.

46 thoughts on “Hook Your Readers with a Compelling Storyline, Tagline, & Back Cover Copy

  1. And for goodness’ sake, don’t include plot elements in the description or back cover copy. Otherwise the reader will have no reason to buy the book.

  2. Thanks for a great post, Jodie. Nicely done and organized. All in one place. I’m bookmarking this one.

    Tagline for a middle-grade fantasy (Heart Brain 180) that takes place in the Heart World, inhabited by giant chess pieces and playing cards:

    “Play Simultaneous Chess and Poker for the Life-Changing Bet of Your Life”

    • Thanks, Steve. I LOVE your tagline! I know from your wonderful contributions to our anthology, CHILDHOOD REGAINED, that you’re a very talented writer, but I didn’t realize you’re writing middle-grade fantasy. Must check it out!

    • Thanks, Jim. Your instructions for creating compelling back-cover copy are succinct and easy to follow, and provide a perfect recipe for intriguing potential readers. Thanks so much for that!

  3. Jodie, it’s nice to see you here again. Thanks for the great post which I am bookmarking as well. Have a great day!

  4. Wonderful information, Jodie. Here are the taglines for my two novels:

    “A Watch that tells more than the time” – The Watch on the Fencepost

    “Saving one life is like saving the whole world” – Dead Man’s Watch

    Thank you for appearing on my blog today! I entitled the interview “Vision and Revision with Jodie Renner” because you cover it all in your book. Hope to see some TKZ folks at

    • I love your taglines, Kay! And thank you so much for inviting me to be on YOUR wonderful blog! I love the title, “Vision and Revision” — Fire up Your Fiction is mostly about revising a novel or short story to remove the clutter and take the story up several levels. See you over there! 🙂

  5. Always a pleasure to see you here on TKZ, Jodie. Fabulous advice as usual. 🙂

    Ruth Harris is my “sizzle” guru for fiction; Jordan nailed my sizzle for my true crime WIP. It’s nice to have friends!

    SILENT MAYHEM: HE has left a trail of beheadings. SHE is working for the cops but when he warns her she will be next, how can Shawnee Daniels believe—or trust—a vicious serial killer?

  6. I really like your post today and thank you. I’m sure this will help me out as I put some finishing touches on my current WIP.

  7. I’ll stick my neck out, Jodie. My newest project is a netstream style series titled City Of Danger. Here’s the goods.

    Tagline: Dispense street justice. Restore social order.

    Logline: A modern city in dystopian crisis surreptitiously enlists two private detectives from its utopian past to dispense street justice and restore social order.

    Blurb: The City Of Danger is in peril. It’s in 2020s dystopian crisis with infrastructure crumbling, social systems collapsing, corruption infesting all civic layers, and crime overflowing from clogged gutters of every alley—gushing gangland and political blood onto its streets. The City Of Danger urgently needs help it can’t get from its mainstream. For salvation, it surreptitiously enlists two private detectives from its 1920s utopian past.

    Susan Silverii and Al Monagham share a split-room office with frosted glass doors in the city’s low rent district. They’re ex-police officers who weren’t a good fit. It’s the Roaring Twenties, and they’ve struck out on their own. Al with his street justice vengeance. Susan with her social change agenda.

    And they have a past, Susan and Al. A past of personal passion and poisoned positions. But when the City of Danger assigns, they put professionalism first and inter-conflict second as Susan Silverii and Al Monagham step from runnin’-wild, Charleston-dance speakeasies onto the mean streets in the ugly world of a modern city—an interconnected city sick with immoral chaos.

    Dispense street justice. Restore social order. Treacherous tasks ordered by a desperate client—the City Of Danger.

  8. Always wonderful advice, Jodie, clearly and concisely presented. Thanks for this post. It comes at the right time b/c I need to freshen up loglines for in-person appearances.

    Here’s a new one for Instrument of the Devil, book 1 in my thriller series:

    “Trusting the wrong man snares a lovely Montana widow in a terrorist plot to bring down the electric grid.”

    • I’m glad the timing of this post works well for you, Debbie. Wow! Your tagline makes me want to rush out and buy your book. Think I’ll go do that now! Seriously. Can’t wait to read it!

  9. This is a great one-stop-shopping / tiered approach! But I add one more (which I learned from Larry Brooks) on the front end: the Concept. Or the “conceptual landscape.” Something before the Logline/Premise. Like this (on my current series):

    CONCEPT: What if a modern man accidentally travels back in time to the era of the Neanderthals?

    LOGLINE/PREMISE: A trouble science reporter travels back in time to the age of Neanderthals and changes the course of human history.

    • Oops! Looks like I responded to your comments in the space below instead of right here, Harald. Please scroll down to see my reply. Thanks.

  10. In a workshop years ago, Deb Dixon suggested that you find an adjective and a noun to ‘describe’ your protagonist, and not the obvious, first ones that come to mind. It was a tough exercise, and I wish I could put my finger on my notes with her examples. As I recall, one was “cocky smuggler” for Han Solo. We played with “troubled teen” for Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, but then she said, “All teens are troubled, so that’s probably not the best one.”

    Tagline for my upcoming release, Trusting Uncertainty: “You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.”
    The book is part of my covert ops Blackthorne, Inc. series, so I don’t think readers would think it’s about time travel. Not after they read the description, anyway.

    (The beauty of being an indie author is I can change it if needed. )

    • Thanks for that advice about describing the protagonist, Terry. And your title and tagline definitely make me want to read the book — and series. 🙂

  11. Thanks, Harald, for this additional aid to zeroing in on the core of your novel and hooking readers. I must check out Larry Brooks and add this step in. Is the concept always a question?

    It’s so great that we can always count on TKZ readers for added value to posts!

    I love your concept and logline/premise. Intriguing!

  12. And let’s not forget Hollywood’s favorite description, the high concept! OUTLANDS: HIGH NOON in space. Classic STAR TREK: WAGON TRAIN to the stars. The “Temeraire” series: The Napoleonic Wars fought with dragons. (Best high concept ever!) My STAR-CROSSED: ROMEO AND JULIET in space.

    Years ago, those of us who worked with small ebook publishers had to write our own back cover copy and other promotion material, and most didn’t have a clue so I wrote a tutorial article because nothing existed on the subject at the time. It’s since been taught in universities, reprinted in books on the subject, as well as in a book aimed at teachers on how to teach kids to write fun book reports.


    I also did a series of articles taking apart real promotional book blurbs that failed spectacularly. Click on the “book blurb” label on the right. You will need brain bleach after reading some of those blurbs.

    • Thanks for these additional excellent tips, Marilynn! I’m about to click on your link now to see what else I can learn. I hesitated to use the term “blurb” because I thought that referred more to the quotes from well-known authors or reviewers that appear on the front or back cover. Your thoughts on this term? Does “blurb” refer both to the back-cover copy and also to the praise from others?

      • For companies who work with professional word smiths, publishing is pretty dang sloppy with its terminolody. According to whom you are talking to in the industry, a blurb can be either a quote on the cover from a famous author about the book, or the plot/content description on the back or on the inside of a dust cover. I try to call it a back cover blurb for some clarity.

  13. Thanks, Jodie! Bookmarked this one. (And thanks to JSB also…)

    I’m too shy to share my “stuff”. I’ll just read and re-read this post and work to polish up my tags, logs, blurbs, etc. for my two WIPs.

    I do have a question, though, with regard to the quote from JSB’s book:

    Paragraph 1: Your main character’s name and her current situation:

    __________________ is a ________________ who ___________________________________.

    Write one or two more sentences, describing something of the character’s background and current world.

    Question: How do I choose which protagonist (main character) to focus on in the back cover copy? In one completed WIP (edited and ready to shop out or indie publish), there are five characters who have arcs which contribute to the theme. Their arcs are interwoven and complementary to each other. Do I just pick one? Or somehow weave them together?

  14. I like the succinct explanation and examples of these selling points, and they come for me at exactly the right time. Thank you, Kathryn.

    Tagline for my most recently published book:

    She wanted the story. She’ll settle for her life.

    • Hi Rick. Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I just used Kathryn’s log-in as I’m guest-posting here today. Love your tagline! Definitely intriguing!

  15. Hmmm… good question. I’m not sure what kind of approach would work for this. Most (basically all) the novels I read have one main protagonist and other supporting characters. And of course an antagonist. Maybe Jim has a suggestion for this…?

    • I assume this answer is for me… 🙂

      Maybe that’s what those other characters really are: supporting. But they are all necessary to the theme. They each have their own scenes where the 5 are the POV character. I guess I need to be clear in my own mind who the main character really is. Maybe they all want to be the MC, and I just need to lay down the law with them… 🙂

  16. My logline: An ambitious young reporter tracks down the online troll threatening her Pulitzer-prize winning mentor only to uncover a story that could destroy both their careers.

    tagline: Three Women – Two Secrets – One Lie

    TRUTH AND OTHER LIES will be out March, 2022

  17. Terrific post, Jodie! We had a power outage at Casa Smith this morning, followed by a slate of chores and exercise before it got too for either, so I’m chiming in late.

    Really great advice here.

    The tagline I’ve cooked up for the urban fantasy novella I’m currently working on for an anthology is simple:
    “Werewolves break all the laws of magic.”

    The tagline for my cozy library mystery set in the 1980s:
    “Murder in the library, 1980s style, with big hair, bigger motives, and not so simple minds.”

    Definitely will be referring to today’s post in the future–it’s a keeper! Thanks for all the great tips.

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