Description or Teaser?
When you write the blurb that goes on the back of the book, should you write a description or a teaser? This article explores that question, explaining why each of them work and what their effects are, and why sometimes one is a better choice than the other.
I wrote this article back in June 2017, and it has become one of my most popular articles on writing. I've moved it here to give it a wider audience.
Back when I was at school and bereft of money, I used the public and school libraries to sate my thirst for things to read, and managed to get through about a hundred and fifty books a year. Luckily, both libraries were close to hand. Thanks to the genius of my English teacher, fresh from teacher training college, reading suddenly became immensely popular and so the libraries were well stocked and frequently updated with fresh books.
You have to remember that this was at a time when there were only three channels on the TV, there were no cell phones (let alone smart phones), and computer games were limited to a rudimentary form of tennis. It was either read or do something that would likely get you in trouble, and I chose to read.
So the question was (and still is), how did I choose which books to take home with me? You might think that the cover art played an important part, but the truth is the art only got me to look at the back cover to read the blurb, and I was just as likely to read that blurb no matter how good or bad that art was, until I had picked out the three books I’d be taking home with me that week.
I quickly realised that the back-cover blurbs fell into two distinct groups. There was a general description of the story, so you knew what it was about, and then there was the teaser. I’m going to talk about both, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and make a case for abandoning the description and using a teaser instead. You might not agree with me, and that’s fine, as long as this makes you think about what you are trying to achieve and why, when you write a description or teaser for your story.
The description is just that, a general description of the story. It may start off with the starting premise of the story, and how the main character gets launched into the story proper. On the other hand, it might describe the general state of affairs and how something upsets the balance - the fly in the ointment, so to speak.
The good thing about a description is that it gives the potential reader a good idea of what the story is about and where it is going, so they know if this is the sort of story that interests them. It is particularly useful for drawing in a certain kind of reader, the kind that has an active interest in your kind of story. The downside is that it is very likely to put off almost every other kind of reader. You are in effect, targeting a particular audience. You can mitigate this through the wording, by trying to make it appeal to a wider audience, but what you are really saying is “this is the sort of story it is”.
The teaser on the other hand, is capable of reaching out beyond a discrete readership. The way a teaser works is simple enough; either excite the reader by shunting a whole bunch of possibilities into their head, or raise a question that burns so bright they feel they have to read the story to find the answer.
In my rummaging in the libraries, I nearly always found teasers to be far more exciting. That might just be me of course, other readers might want to know more about the story before they can commit.
Let’s examine the same book using both methods. I’m going to use a story that is well known (and sadly, not written by me), both as a bestselling novel and a major movie: The Martian.
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Mark Watney is an astronaut, partway through a mission to Mars, when a major storm forces them to abandon both the surface and the rest of the mission. Critically injured during the evacuation, he is left for dead by his crewmates.
Alone on a hostile planet, he must learn how to survive for four years using every ounce of his training as an astronaut, an engineer and a botanist. An uplifting story about overcoming insurmountable odds.
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Admittedly, the description could be a bit longer, but you get the drift. Andy Weir, the author, wisely went with a teaser instead.
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I’m stranded on Mars.
I have no way to communicate with Earth.
I’m in a Habitat designed to last 31 days.
If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m screwed.
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Note that the story (and the teaser) is written in first person. This very cleverly engages the reader with the main character immediately, making the story a very personal journey for the main character and the reader alike. Questions abound here: how did he become stranded? Why doesn’t he have any way to communicate with Earth? Will any of the dire things that he predicts might go wrong transpire? What can he do about the food situation on a planet where nothing grows? Ultimately, we want to know if he survives.
In just a few words, he tells us what the story is about, without really telling us anything. We’re being teased into opening the book, and if he’s written the first page well, we’re hooked.
If you look for the book on Amazon and skim down to the reviews, you'll find some that begin by saying “I don’t usually enjoy reading sci-fi…” This is a testament to the efficacy of a teaser in pulling in people who might otherwise overlook this kind of story.
What is just as fascinating is that the theme for this story is nothing new. It is a variant on the Robinson Crusoe theme, widely seen as a contender as the first English novel and published in 1719.
There are other ways to write a teaser. This the teaser I wrote for a story called “The Ghost Gun”. It works by introducing you to the strange weapon, two of the leading characters, some of the complications, and then throwing in a plot twist that grabs your attention:
The Ghost Gun
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The Armshadd-650 is known to the military as the game-changer. On the streets it's known as the ghost gun. Nobody has ever been wounded by it. If you get hit, you die. It doesn't even leave a body.
Shay Burton, caught in the crossfire between rival street gangs, is killed by a ghost gun.
Ellen wants to catch the sod that killed her sister, and begins a hunt for which she is unprepared and untrained. She is rapidly getting deeper out of her depth.
Daz is on the run. The police, the army and rival gangs are all hunting him. So are intelligence agencies and a group of mercenaries, not to mention a crazy girl. Things look bad for him right now, and he has no idea how to get out of this mess.
Only one thing is certain. Shay Burton is dead. The problem is, she's really not happy about it.
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The art of the teaser seems to be dying, with descriptions becoming more dominant. The Ghost Gun is a contemporary sci-fi novel, but the gun is the only bit of sci-fi in it (well, almost the only bit). It’s a manhunt story set in the same world we all inhabit and can relate to, raising issues of political interference, international intrigue, turf wars over who has precedence on jurisdiction, and of course, the story of two young people in extraordinary circumstances and well out of their depth. If I’d written that as a description instead of the teaser, would it have seemed so interesting?
I also have to say, that I find teasers much more fun to write. We’ve seen two examples, one that simply raises so many questions we are almost compelled to read the story, and the other that throws in a plot twist to grab our attention. There are other ways, and you can quite literally say that imagination is the only limit to what can be done.
Most interestingly, you can do a general description of the setup, the status quo at the beginning of the story, then announce the event or action or character that can upset that status quo, then follow that with a plot twist. It’s a bit like mixing a description with a teaser.
Whether you write a description, a teaser or mix the two is up to you, but remember that something that excites is always going to have more pulling power.