Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Problem With "Revealing" Information That's Already in the Cover Copy

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A novel's beginning is under a lot of pressure to hook readers and pull them into the story. But what happens when that hook is something we reveal on the back cover?

Opening scenes are hard enough to write already, but there's something writers need to be wary about, particularly if they indie publish.

An opening scene that "reveals" information stated in the cover copy as if it's a big secret.

For example, let's say your novel is about a town that's been hit by toxic nerve gas that's killed everyone under the age of twenty. Now the characters have to deal with this problem and the repercussions of it. Your cover copy might say something like...
When a tragic accident poisons a small town a kills everyone under the age of twenty, local doctor Jessica Halloway must find the cause before more fall ill and die. But as she searches for the cure, she uncovers a far more deadly source.
Every single person who reads this cover copy is going to know before they open the book what the problem is. 

Let's say the books starts with a scene where something crashes nearby, or a plane flies overhead and sprays stuff on the town. Characters notice it, worry about it perhaps, but it's no big deal overall. They go about their day and small clues start popping up, such as kids being tired or acting odd. The next day, Mom is trying to wake the kids, and she starts freaking out, then her shock and grief at discovering dead kids, and it goes on to show doctors bewildered and other people having the same issue and chaos all over crying out what happened to our children?

Tragic, yes. Sad, sure. Dramatic, totally. Will the reader be sucked in? Odds are not so much.

No new information is being revealed, so there's nothing for readers to discover except who the characters are. They know the reason and are waiting for the actual story to start. The longer it takes to get there, the more impatient they'll be.

(Here's more on Overcoming False Starts on Your First Chapter)

Now, I'm not saying skip the discovery part. That can be half the fun in a story like this, but if a piece of information is in the cover copy, trying to surprise readers with it isn't going to work. Dragging out false suspense won't be suspenseful at all, if the sole purpose is to reveal what readers already know.

There's a fine line between showing a situation and trying to use known information to create suspense. 

If you're unsure if your opening scene does this, ask yourself:
  • Does the scene end with the "shocking revelation" of the information stated in the cover copy?
  • Is the mystery of the scene all about discovering that information?
  • Is that revelation the only thing driving the scene?
  • Is the information hidden until the end and you have to do some fancy word gymnastics just to keep readers from knowing it?
If you answered yes to any of these, odds are your opening scene isn't doing enough to hook the reader. If you answered yes to more than one, that's a big red flag there's a problem.

(Here's more on The Joy of Discovery: Keeping Readers Hooked Through Story Revelations)

All is not lost, however. To fix this, just add in a separate goal and stakes. Suggestions include:
  • What problem can your protagonist face before the information is revealed?
  • Is there a problem that might be viewed differently if readers know the information? (play with the dramatic irony)
  • Can you just cut that opening scene?
  • Can you shorten it significantly?
  • What other problems can be going on that this information makes harder or causes additional conflict?
If you're concerned (or you know) your cover copy is giving too much away, try looking at your novel and finding other goals and motivations that aren't all about that revelation of information. Make that opening scene do more than just setup what readers already know.

This article led to a discussion about how e-books (and the lack of cover copy) affect this, so here's another look on the opposite side of this idea.  With the growing popularity of e-books, do writers need to work harder to show what the book is about in that opening scene or first chapter?

Have you read novels that were spoiled, or hindered by the cover copy?

Originally published April 2013. Last updated November 2019.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is exactly why I'm glad I was asked to change the opening of Locked Within by my editor. It took the focus away from "what do Nathan's dreams mean?", which is explained in the cover copy, and onto "who is killing these people?" which remained the core driving force of the story.

  2. This is why I skip reading a blurb a lot of times. Sometimes I can't help it, as it's part of the book buying decision. Contrarily, I've also sometimes been lost about what's going on in an opening scene and have to read the blurb to find out as the writer's assumed everyone's read it.

  3. This is exactly what I needed. Thank you!

  4. Oh, Sorry. Don't know why it didn't post my blog link.

  5. I get the point about not making a big 'reveal' out of something that's already in the cover copy, but I wonder how things might be different with an ebook as opposed to a physical book.

    I have books right now on my Kindle that I downloaded months ago, and on many of them I know I don't remember all the particulars of the books' descriptions -- so unless I connect to wifi and go back to the book's purchase page again, the only information I have to go on is the title, maybe the cover, and whatever folder I put the book in when I downloaded it. So in that case, all the particulars aren't necessarily going to be fresh in my mind when I get around to reading the actual story.

  6. That's an interesting point. In writing the blurb for my stories, I try to be careful of what to include without being totally vague, but it's rather easy to slip into that reveal-reveal that can then be a problem for readers. Once they already know for the blurb, not much of a revelation when it happens in the book lol!

  7. This has been on my list of 'unsolved problems' for a while: how do you get people into the idea of buying a book without giving so much away they think they already know what it's about - and decide NOT to try.

    This has to be done carefully when part of what you're aiming for is not just a story, but how the story is told and the quality of the writing.

    You get a lot of bites of the apple: Title and subtitle, front and back cover material, Amazon description, blurbs, genre, 'look' of the cover, typography, even flap copy.

    Making them all work together to tell just enough of the story to entice a new reader - well, it's going to be an interesting job.

    First finish it; then revise and edit. But all these little questions - which are vaguely related to marketing and discoverability - they are going to have to be answered.

  8. I think I'm missing something. Isn't the cover copy written after the book is finished? Do authors get much say over it? Or are you talking about self-pubbed books?

  9. Cover copy is written after the book is fully-edited, yes. How much say the author has over it depends on the publisher.

    Mine, for example, lets authors write their own cover copy themselves, then reviews it to see if any changes need to be made.

  10. Angela, you crazy girl, you :) I can't even imagine reading a book with no blurb. I can't even watch movies without reading the blurb, lol. That would change things though.

    Stephanie, oh cool, I'm glad the post helped you :)

    Reneecarterhall, that makes sense. I wonder how that will affect books and readers? I've just started reading more e-books, and I can't remember if I look for a blurb before I start the book or not. I do with a physical book. Interesting!

    Angela, exactly!

    Liebjabberings, that's why query letters and pitch lines are so important. They become marketing tools you'll use the life of the book. It does make me examine your story and hook closer before I write.

    Meredith, any book. The blurb is written after the book is done, but the author writes the query, and that's often the base for the later cover copy. Knowing what's likely to hook readers or be in your cover copy can help you decide how to treat something in your opening. If you know your query is going to give away a secret you spent three chapters building toward, that's a red flag that maybe you need to tighten or tweak that opening.

  11. I'm with Renee. Most time I can't remember what the ebook is about. I just know someone recommended it, which is why I downloaded it. I usually pick my next read based on the cover. :D

  12. Sounds like ebooks have an advantage, especially if a bunch is downloaded at once! (forgetting the reveals) The summary dilemma is easier to handle if the book is self-pubbed, but often with traditional publishing the info is written AFTER the book is, and sometimes not by the author. I fuss about that sometimes but will see what happens if I ever get there. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  13. Stina, you guys are probably on to something, so that could very well change how people read in the future. Be interesting to see if anything changes.

    Carol, true, but the author knows what the hook is, and odds are that's what they'll use to pitch the book. They'll probably use that to tell friends and crit partners about it. There's a fine line though, and as long as the story stays away from just delaying what the reader knows it's probably fine.

  14. I think there does need to be a balance between not treating information in the cover copy as a big reveal and also not assuming readers have read the blurb. I'm kind of weird in that I ALWAYS read the blurb; even when it's a sequel or the next book in a series I take a few moments before opening the book to read the blurb. But most people I know don't do that, so especially with sequels I think it's important to not assume the reader has read the blurb.

    My pet peeve, though? Cover blurbs that give away details from a hundred pages in. I feel like I'm trudging through the book waiting for the story to start.

  15. Interesting topic, I never read the blurb. Nor do I look at the first page, I flip to some where in the middle and listen to the voice and style. Works well for me. I do wonder on the occasion I go back and look at the blurb after and wonder what which had to do with the other.

    1. So you never know what the book is about before you read it or even buy it? Interesting. You like to be surprised I guess (grin).

    2. You can find out a lot with a few pages in the middle.

    3. I'm imagine you could. Not sure I could do it that way, as I need more context to start a book, but everyone has their own way of writing, so it makes sense they'd have their own ways of reading. :) Whatever works, works.