Summary, premise and blurb: different tools for different jobs

threebirds-modWhat’s the difference between a summary, a blurb, and a premise statement? If you don’t know the answer to this question, your marketing and your writing may both be suffering for it. Many new writers treat all three more or less interchangeably. When asked for a blurb, they’ll write a summary. When asked for their premise, they recite their blurb. It’s true that all three are a form of encapsulation – an effort to boil a lengthy, complex literary experience down into just a few succinct words, but because their audiences and functions are different, what goes into each of them, and how you phrase them, are completely different. You wouldn’t consider submitting a sonnet to a haiku contest, would? Well, learn the difference between these encapsulation devices, or you may end up doing just that. But take heart, in this case it will save more than just a bit of embarrassment. Once you understand the differences, and their uses, both your writing and your marketing will likely improve.

Before I launch into this analysis, let me preface it by saying that there is no ultimate arbiter of what these terms mean, nor how they’re used. This discussion is based on my own evolving interpretation, as I’ve seen the concepts applied in the publishing wild and begun to divine the importance of each of their functions. I’m sure many people will disagree with some of the finer points of what I’m about to say, and that’s fair. What matters most is that you realize that the three concepts are different, and that they are intended to serve different purposes. If I can take you at least that far, then I’ll consider my job a success. Anyway, let’s jump in and start with the easiest one first.

The Summary

Definition: A restatement of the major events of a story, usually in narrative ordering.

Uses: Requested by some publishers or agents as part of the query package.

Of the three terms we’re examining, I would say that summary is the least clearly defined, largely because it is also the least useful. When an agent or publisher request a summary, they will usually provide details about how long it should be and what degree of summarization they expect. But when they don’t, I think it’s best to avoid the “He did this, then he did this, then he did this” style of presentation and instead, provide a brief list of the major dramatic conflicts or steps taken by the protagonist on his journey. If there are sub-plots, you would summarize those separately, and only include them if they are significant to the main story.

bb457b6cExample story summary: A princess is captured by an evil general, but her assistants escape. The assistants are marooned on a desert planet, but then they’re captured by slavers. A young farm boy then buys the assistants as slaves and puts them to work, but they soon run away. The boy tracks his slaves to the home of a crazy old man out in the boonies, who now claims to be a famous general himself. And so on.

Most people find a summary boring, for the same reason that we prefer “show” over “tell.” You can see how some of those details might be fun, but they aren’t fun there, in the list. They’re just kind of limp. A summary is, of necessity, a superficial recounting of the events of a story, after the fact. It is not immersive, there is little immediacy or engagement. It is simply a dry, historical summation. When people ask you what your book is about, never, ever, ever answer the question by giving them a summary. They will hate you immediately and they will shun your writing. The correct answer would be to respond with the blurb, which you can think of as the shortest possible, yet interesting, answer to that question. But that describes what effect it has, and doesn’t say much about how to build one, so let’s try a more constructive definition.

The Blurb

Definition 1: A distillation of the dramatic arc of the story, highlighting the key forces and consequences that propel its drama.

Definition 2: A laudatory quote about a book, usually supplied by a high-profile 3rd party, for use on the cover (in excerpted form) and in other marketing/advertising copy.

Uses: Regardless of definition, the purpose of a blurb is to excite a prospective reader about the story and make them want to learn more. used on the back cover and in marketing/advertising copy.

Remember, these are my own definitions – they didn’t come out of some Secrets of the Publishing World handbook that the rest of us keep hidden away from beginners, just to protect our fiefdoms. (Honest.) For the most part, I’m going to talk about the Definition #1 sense of the word, but I’ve included Definition #2 for completeness. If you’re asking another author to give you a review quote, that is also known as asking for a blurb. You’re not asking them to write the marketing encapsulation that will go on the back of the book, of course, but you are asking them to write something that you can use for exactly the same purposes. You’ll write lots of your own blurbs as you’re getting started, but you’ll know you have arrived when you start getting asked to blurb other peoples’ upcoming releases.

When it comes to Type 1 blurbs, the length tends to vary – especially across genres. Romance novels, for example, seem to have settled on a three-paragraph form, and Wild Rose Press gives some advice on how that blurb structure works.

In my own experience, most fantasy novels tend to go with shorter blurbs – one or possibly two paragraphs. But more important than word or paragraph count, what really matters is the content and structure of the blurb. What goes in? What do you leave out? And how do you organize it? To assist with this, here are two different “template” sentences that can help you to zero in on the blurb essentials:

David Arney‘s template reads: When protag A is/has/does/wants/gets B, he gets/does/tries/learns C, only to discover that D now happens; and he must respond by doing E.

Similarly, C.J. Redwine (via Tori Minard) gives us a different version: W must do X in order to get Y, but Z is a big problem.

Note that both formulas require a protagonist (A/W), his/her fundamental need (B/Y), their proposed solution (C/X), and a complicating factor (D/Z). Arney calls for an extra term (E) for the final resolution, but one could argue that Redwine’s formula that same concept as part of her X, but it’s unclear. I prefer Arney’s version, simply because it accounts for both the hero’s failed plan and the revised plan, although we have to be careful with that E bit, because we don’t want to give away too much of the plot.

Most of these elements are pretty easy to understand, but remember that the intention is to tease the reader, allowing their own internal story-engine to imagine how your brief phrases will play out. The more provocatively you can engage that story engine, without giving anything away, the more successful your blurb will be. Let’s now take a look at each of the components, constructing an example blurb as we go.

A/W: This is not simply the name of the protagonist. We want a very brief character sketch here – a noun clause that gives us just enough of the character’s context that we’ll be able to appreciate the rest of his situation. For our example, we won’t say, “Luke Skywalker.” Instead, we’ll use, “Luke Skywalker, lonely farmboy.”

B/Y: The protagonist’s need. This is the dramatic carrot that will draw our protagonist (and our readers) through the story. We don’t have to share Luke’s passion for whatever it is he’ll be chasing, but we do have to believe that it is devastatingly important for him that he get it. For the sake of our example, Luke is a bored young man, frustrated by the lack of opportunities on his farming planet. So for his carrot, let’s use, “a life of adventure.”

C/X: The protagonist’s plan to achieve B/Y. It must be credible and it must demonstrate real effort on the part of the protagonist. It is only when characters take real action, by their own hand, to achieve a heart-felt desire that we can empathize with them. But it has to be believable. If the plan is too lofty, you strain the reader’s credibility. Really? The gerbil is going to take down the Chinese Government? Yeah, right. But if the goal is not difficult enough, the quest loses its dramatic appeal. Really? The gerbil is going to to run on his exercise wheel? Yawn. So in our evolving example here, Luke’s plan will be to, “rescue the abducted princess.”

D/Z: The obstacle. Remember where I said that C/X must not be too easy to achieve? Well, it’s got to look tough all by itself. Then your complicating factor comes in to kick him in the jewels and make it look nearly impossible. In Luke’s case, the complication is that, “she’s being held captive in a high-security prison by an evil general.” In most cases, the protagonist will have committed to their goal before learning of the complication. If he’d known about it before hand, you’d be in danger of tripping over that credibility problem I mentioned. But if it only becomes impossible after he’s started, then he just looks plucky and courageous for sticking to his guns when the situation kicks him in the stones.

E: The escalation. This is what the hero is going to have to do in order to defeat the obstacle. Again, it should be a credible and believable response to the changed situation. Given what your protagonist now knows about the situation, that new knowledge should make it possible for him to rise to this additional problem. How does Luke respond to learning that she’s being held in a fortress? He decides to, “bust her out of prison and disable the enemy army.” A pretty tall order for a farm boy, huh? That’s what makes it exciting.

J: Before we go any further, there’s something invisible going on here that I want to point out. Let’s call it the J factor. In all likelihood, between the time your hero sets out on his journey and the time his complication arises, he’s probably learned a few tricks along the way. At the beginning, there was no way that he’d be credibly able to tackle the original goal along with its complication, but with those new skills/knowledge he’s developed/acquired, he is a changed person, and will now have the credibility to face the greater challenge. This is part of what we usually mean by “character growth.” But the important part to notice is that neither of the templates we’re looking at want you to give away the J factor, and I agree. It’s an important part of your story structure, but it shouldn’t be included in the blurb. You need to hold some surprises back for inside the book. You want them to read your blurb and say, “But how? How is going to rescue the princess from that impossible prison?” You don’t want them saying, “Oh. He learns magic and uses that.” When presented as part of the unfolding story, that ‘magic’ is exciting and dramatic, but if you present it in the blurb, it can only serve to deflate the dramatic conflict your hero appears to be facing.

So. With those parts all in place, let’s have a look at how they come together. In Redwine’s template, they combine to give us something like this:

“Lonely farmboy Luke Skywalker must rescue the abducted princess in order to achieve the life of adventure he craves, but this is complicated by the fact that she is being held captive in a high security prison by an evil general.”

Meh. It has most of the right parts, but they’re not presented in a very dramatically satisfying way, are they? And it’s missing that escalation bit. Let’s take a look at how things shake out in Arney’s structure.

“When lonely farmboy Luke Skywalker yearns for a life of adventure, he sets off on a quest to rescue an abducted princess, only to discover that she is being held captive in a high-security prison by an evil general, and now he must find a way to free her and disable the entire enemy army in order to escape safely.”

Wow! What a difference, huh? That ain’t half bad. But what’s the difference? Why does the second version sound so much better, even though it has pretty much the same content? In my view, it’s because Redwine’s formula emphasizes what the protagonist must do, and Arney’s emphasizes why he must do it. Furthermore, Arney’s formula presents us with the complication in terms of how it directly conflicts with the hero’s aims, whereas Redwine simply cites it as an aside. But the biggest difference is the presence of that escalation. Luke’s first plan looked tough enough, but now, there’s been this hideous, unforeseen complication and so he has to turn it up to 11 to survive.

LargeacornSo that’s your blurb: the story, in a nutshell. It encapsulates the strong dramatic heart at the center of your much longer and more expansive tale. It tells us what’s at stake, why it’s important, why it’s tough, and then – BAM! – how it just got tougher but our hero ain’t going to quit. And if that isn’t a recipe for engaging people, and making them want to come along for the journey, I don’t know what is.

Before I move on, though, let me draw particular attention to some more details that are not in the blurb. There is no discussion of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Force, the droids, Han Solo, backstabbing bounty hunters, X-Wing fighters, Rebel Alliances, or any of the other details that make Star Wars such a fun and engaging story. Yet even without all that, even when we boil it down to just Luke’s main dramatic arc, it still has the power to captivate us as a  story. And that is the most important difference between a summary and a blurb. The blurb is the forest, and the summary is a list of all the trees.

The Premise

Definition: The unique or provocative idea that makes your story worth writing. And reading.

Uses: To guide the writing process. Focus the story. Motivate the author. Shape the blurb. Drive the marketing campaign.

You’ve no doubt heard the advice that a writer should write the stories that they themselves want to read. The premise is no more and no less than the answer to that question: Why the hell would anyone want to read this? But despite the simplicity of defining it, I have found premise to be a concept that many writers struggle with. I am hoping that by having gone through summaries and blurbs first, I now have the basis to give you some insight into what the premise is all about. So if it’s not a summary, and it’s not a blurb, what is it?

Earlier I said that the blurb can be thought of as the shortest possible, yet interesting answer to the question, “What is your book about?” Well, if that’s true, then the premise can be thought of as the answer to another question: “What is the idea behind your book that made it worth writing?” Every work of fiction should at least try to say something new, to explore some new question, or to provide a new take on an old one. This kernel idea can often be written in the form, “Wouldn’t it be cool if …?” Or maybe, “I wonder what would happen if …?” Your premise is how you fill in the ellipses for that question.

Abraham-Lincoln-Vampire-Hunter-Night-550x814Let’s look at a few examples. In recent years, two books have leapt out of the media stream at me for the sole reason that their titles are also perfectly crafted premise statements, both of them by the same author. Seth Grahame-Smith has given us both Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I haven’t read either book, beyond a simple skimming at the local book store, so I can’t tell you if they were any good or not, but I know enough about them to be sure that the titles are perfect premise statements – they convey the entire idea of the book, and present it in a way that keeps the important concepts front and center.  They don’t give any idea what the plots might be, but the premise statements alone set off possibilities in your head. A Victorian era President who battles vampires in between diplomatic missions? I’m in!

Not all premise statements will serve as a title, but they all serve one crucial role: they tell you, the writer, what the fundamental point of your story is. Not the plot, but the scenario – the dramatic juxtaposition or construction that turns your simple anecdote or sequence of events into a story worth telling. (And eventually, worth reading.) It is the original idea at the heart of your tale.

If we go back and look at the Star Wars blurb above, you can see that it paints us an interesting picture of the major dramatic arc, but does it tell us what excited Lucas enough to invest his entire life and career in it? Why didn’t he just make American Graffiti II? The answer to that question will point us at the premise statement. It won’t be a paragraph of character motivations and complications. It’ll be something along the lines of, “What would happen if we remade Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, but put it in space? That’d be so cool!”

Now, if you’re like me, you probably haven’t seen The Hidden Fortress, so any attempts I might make to illustrate what I’m talking about would be pretty much the blind leading the deaf. So, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to imagine that George Lucas grew up in a slightly different universe, and in that universe, his motivating idea was, “What would happen if we remade Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, but put it in space? That’d be so cool!”

donkeykong1And that’s it. That’s your premise statement. Donkey Kong in space. Mario, your earnest peasant carpenter becomes Luke, lonely farmboy. The damsel Pauline becomes Princess Leia. Donkey Kong himself becomes Darth Vader. The construction site full of tumbling barrels becomes the trench of the Death Star, full of TIE-Fighters and gun emplacements. Mario’s special jumping skills get transformed into “The Force.” The exciting idea (at the time, anyway) was to take a familiar dramatic tale and put it into the exciting new frontier of space.

Sometimes, a premise statement will be in what I call open form, where the idea is described using references to other stories and projects, being combined in new ways. The examples we’ve discussed so far have all been in open form, but not all premises are. The other type is what I call the closed form premise, in which the idea is contained within the statement itself, without reference to external archetypes. A closed form premise for The Matrix might be, “What if you woke up and discovered that your entire existence was a computer simulation, run by hostile machines?” Or Lord of the Rings might be motivated by, “What if the war between good and evil, and the survival of light and life in all the world, rested in the hands of a simple nobody?” There are advantages and disadvantages to each. The open form premise can often convey a great deal more story in a very few words, but the also have a tendency to lead toward more derivative works. On the other hand, a closed form premise can allow the author to focus on a very specific idea, but often provides much less guidance for how the story itself should unfold.

The point, however, is to find a statement that works for you. Open, closed, it doesn’t really matter. The premise statement is not, in and of itself, intended for public consumption. It is the key statement that reminds you of what you are trying to accomplish. If it does that, it’s perfect.

Remember also that a premise statement is not a marketing tool. It is a writing tool. It is the writing tool. In my view, the premise statement should be the very first thing you write. Because in it, you are declaring why the fuck you are writing the story in the first place. What is it about this story that makes it worth a year of your life to wring it out of your kludge of a brain and smear it across perfectly good paper? “What? Why am I writing it?” you scream at me. “Because Donkey Kong in space, motherfucker!”

That’s the point of the premise statement. It gets you riled up. It reminds you why you’re doing this. And it helps to keep you on the straight and narrow. Think I’ll add a singing goldfish. Oh, wait. Is that Donkey Kong in space? Nope. So goodbye goldfish.

So write yourself a summary if you want one, but for my money, it’s the blurb and the premise that are your key tools. In the next article, I’ll go deeper into how to use them together, as a brilliant tag-team of focusing energy to help you write tighter and more exciting stories. But in the meantime, practice. Go write a blurb for each of your ten favorite books or movies. Make it a game with your writing friends. Each of you read a blurb and see who can guess what story it goes with. And if you haven’t got a premise statement for your own projects yet, go write some. It’s okay if you refine them later, but get into the habit. You might be surprised how useful a tool they become.

The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, by S. A. Hunt
Passive Marketing: A long term tool in your marketing arsenal

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.