#writerproblems: finding help #writing that d*** #bookblurb with #inspiration from #tvthemes

A few years back I wrote about the struggle to create a blurb for my YA Fantasy Middler’s Pride. Studying the blurbs of my favoritest of favorite writers Diana Wynne Jones helped me see that so long as I gave readers the protagonist and problem in as few words as possible, I’d be okay.

However, as book reviewer and author S.J. Higbee has often noted, many authors and/or publishers feel compelled to stick waaaaaaaaaaaay too much information into the book blurb. (Click here for just one of MANY reviews where Sarah touches on the problem of chatty blurbs.) Where is the line between too much information and too little? We want to give readers a taste of the story inside, but we don’t want to ruin their appetites. We want to engage readers without killing all the story’s surprises or subverting all the expectations.

Which got me to thinking about M*A*S*H. Yes, the TV show.

I never watched M*A*S*H as a kid, nor did I know about the original book on which the film and television series are based. I only knew that whenever the theme song started playing on the TV, I went off and did something else.

Just listen to that mellow song played alongside these doctors and nurses treating soldiers near enemy lines. The show’s opener had the look and feel of some medical drama, the last sort of show Little Me would want to watch.

Then I learned after marrying Bo that this show was a comedy. A COMEDY?! How the heck is someone supposed to catch the comedy vibes from that opener? The melody’s a sad one; heck, the original song’s called “Suicide is Painless.” We see no happy or positive expressions on people’s faces, only the urgency of aiding the wounded. There is absolutely nothing present in this theme to tell one that they’re about to watch a comedy. Imagine if a book tried to pull this same stunt with their cover art and blurb. How do you think the ever-watchful Goodreads community would respond?

As writers, we need that blurb to give readers a genuine sense of the story-world they’re about to enter. Usually just a few elements of the genre are enough to tell readers, this is what you’re in for. If you dig X, then you’ll love this.

Since television themes are always held to a similar degree of requirement (unless it’s M*A*S*H, apparently), let’s use a few more for examples: Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and Dragnet.

Not one of these theme songs is all that long, but we get enough out of the music to know the genre of each show: the twang of the western guitar, the dissonance of an eerie suspense-filled horror, the stalwart drums of justice. With just a few seconds, these themes accurately and concisely provide the audience a sense of the stories that will accompany the themes.

Now I’m not saying that chattiness is always bad. Heavens, Rod Serling’s speech for Twilight Zone’s theme is iconic. Then you have shows like Dukes of Hazzard and A-Team, which just so happen to be Bo’s and my favorite TV shows from childhood. Both are spot-on with their carefree guitar and military snare, and both directly address the audience with the premise of the show (only the A-Team don’t need no Waylon Jennings to sing because they got Mr. T, fool!). These themes are slightly over a minute long, but they don’t overwhelm the audience with information. We only get what we need: Protagonists and Problems. It’s up to us to stay tuned for more.

So what happens when that blurb of a theme does give us more?

This is where I think we enter the “chatty” territory, the “too much” territory. Allow me to force more of my 80s upbringing on you for examples.

Okay, I’ll let the monotonous “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sung over and over in the background slide because it’s like a companion to the drums. But do we really need to hear the traits of every main character in the opening of EVERY episode? She-Ra and Masters of the Universe did that, too, always breaking down every damn character so you would know just who the good guys and bad guys are, and who knows the secret identity stuff and who doesn’t, because apparently you, you snot-faced lump of Cheetos-dusted child, are too dumb to catch on to any of this when watching the show.

And I think this is what really gets to me about those chatty blurbs on books today. It’s like the publisher/writer thinks they have to talk down to the reader to ensure they understand the story’s premise and conflict. Sure, no one wants the reader to feel confused, but the consequence of over-talking is that we make the reader feel inferior.

Hero, or Villain? Gosh, I just don’t know!

Yes, there are some that like having all the dots connected for them, but not this gal, not this gal’s kids, and I have a feeling that you don’t dig being babied, either. Plus, it says something about us as writers when we don’t trust our own storytelling skills to adequately show readers who’s who and what’s what inside the story itself.

There simply comes a time when all we can–all we should–give readers are duct tape, a lemon, and a broken magnifying glass. If they’re intrigued with the few pieces you leave for them to find, then you can bet your MacGyver-lovin’ boots they’re comin’ into the book for more.

Anyone else have a favorite television theme to share? I was trying to figure out how to squeeze in Hawaii Five-0, but I just couldn’t make it work, dammit.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I’m really keen to dig into Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun. There’s a lot to learn here about the use of the fairy tale’s structure to create some very real history in a story’s world-building.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

38 thoughts on “#writerproblems: finding help #writing that d*** #bookblurb with #inspiration from #tvthemes

  1. From my music perspective this is a seriously interesting post. I don’t know much about Mash but from the little I do know it seems like a satire more than a comedy. ‘Suicide is Painless’ I do know because I like the lyric and the story behind its composer. I think – just an opinion; I’m not a writer – that the surreal effect it had on the show that followed the intro worked well, although I agree with you, to a kid the song doesn’t match the show if it’s laughs your after. Similar to Mash was the out and out comedy ‘The Office’ with Ricky Gervais using the ‘Handbags & Glad Rags’ as an opener. Again, for some surreal reason it worked for me even though it didn’t have an obvious link to the shows content. I enjoyed this post a lot – you’ve got me thinking ~ George

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks so much for commenting, George! Knowing the book to film story and the choice of the song for the movie’s theme, I can see why they’d also use the song for the tv show. Without that knowledge, though, the song’s connection to this show feels really lost. I didn’t know the story behind the original ‘The Office’–I’ll have to scope that out!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I remember when I watched the first Halloween Horror movie. I was sold more on the Don’t Fear the Reaper tune than what the film was supposed to be about. I really hoped that the screen writers had started with the song and built the movie around that. But that film is made by the soundtrack and Donald Pleasance. Maybe it’s just me but I tend to read the reviews rather than read the official blurb.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for bringing up this this topic of blurbs, Jean, as it’s one that really gets my goat! I’m going to put aside your TV theme approach (fascinating though it is) and stick with book covers.

    My first thought is the maximum number of sentences and/or paragraphs that blurb writers should ideally use: three. I have to hand two books, John Le Carré’s A Murder of Quality and Volume One of Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet (with the first two titles). Both have exactly three paragraphs to introduce the reader to the books’ contents.

    The Le Carré’s three paras comprise three, three and two sentences, respectively. It mentions a place with secrets, two characters by name, and the murder that kicks everything off. In my view, that’s all you need to know — more than that and it’s overload.

    The DWJ compendium does something similar. An opening paragraph of two sentences introduces the quartet’s premise, a land wracked by conflict and the notion that four young people have a part to play to resolve things. The second paragraph (also two sentences) mentions the main character, an instrument and a crisis. The final paragraph introduces the protagonist, a plot and a perilous place (a ‘storm-tossed sea’), all in two sentences. Again, sparse details but enough to pique one’s attention.

    So, the rule of two or three seems to me as much as the casual mind is able to comfortably retain before confusion sets in; also, not giving too much of the plot away is a plus!

    My second main thought is a beef, and it’s mainly to do with fantasy fiction blurbs — and that’s the introduction of too many outlandish names. The Le Carré book mentions Carne School, Stella Rode and George Smiley, all appropriate to the mid-twentieth-century English setting. The DWJ volume has Dalemark (a North European kind of name) plus Moril, Mitt and Hadd as personal names, easy enough to pronounce whatever one’s origin.

    It’s when we get really obviously made-up names, multi-syllabic, ambiguous in pronunciation, gender, status and age, that my brain freezes and I (along with others, I’m sure) place the book back where it came. And it’s the same with a potential cast of thousands: When X, thwarted by Y, decides that Z is not who they think it is, A attacks B who is helping C regain the throne of J. Meanwhile Q is causing havoc in K…

    You get the picture. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do indeed, my friend. What is it with just dumping ALL the elements–hero, villain, setting, quest, romance, and whatever else–onto the back cover? It’s like the publisher just takes the synopsis the author put together and paste it onto the cover.
      Movies suffer the same problem, stuffing all the best bits into 2 and a half minutes of trailer and leaving nothing to the audience’s imagination.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yet again, oh wonderful one, you have brought up a crucial issue that affects both writers and readers. Brilliant article Jean!

    And thank you for the shoutout:))) Not that I feel strongly about this issue at all! I was really intrigued by your example of M*A*S*H – because I think they nailed it. They didn’t WANT children sitting down to watch this one – because while there was a lot of humour, it was definitely of the dark, hard-hitting kind. I often laughed aloud at what went on when I used to sit down to watch it – but I wept, too. That episode with the chicken… it broke my heart. I cried aloud – big noisy sobs and it also had hubby no 1 in bits, too.

    And as for blurbs – ohhhh – where do I start??? For starters, I think what you said about publishers lifting chunks from the synopsis is spot on – it certainly reads like that! Apart from being confusing – what REALLY gets my goat is that it SPOILS the reading experience! Most writers who know their writing craft throw in that THING – the gamechanger – that spins the story up and takes it to the next gear, upping the stakes at around a quarter of the way into the book. What shocks me as both a reader AND writer is the number of times when that THING is casually revealed the blurb. WHAT?? It’s supposed to come as surprise to the reader! But if they know it’s there and are waiting for it – what then? Well, then you get a steady stream of complaints about just how much this story dragged until then – because folks know it’s coming and are skimming the buildup. Thus completely messing up their reading experience and throwing out the dynamic of the story which someone SLOGGED to get right! *breathing deeply and calming down…* Sorry about that… but as I said before – huge kudos for raising this subject, my friend.xxx

    Liked by 2 people

    • LOL! Weeee, this *is* a fun topic, isn’t it? 😉 I love your point about the reading experience. Why are we forecasting so much to readers? Where is the joy of discovery? Hmm. You know, I’m going to take a wild swing at the Internet and suggest that these last ten years of online culture–the binge watching, the spoiler leaks, etc– have really done a number on the reading experience. People want the whole story, and they want it all NOW, in 300 words or less. No one knows how to wait for things…sigh.
      And having watched MASH as an adult, I totally agree. There are indeed some hilarious episodes (though it’s no fun when Frank leaves), but the struggles of living a life on the battle front is there, too, and that’s just not something a kid’s going to appreciate.

      We should host a panel on blurb writing sometime, shouldn’t we? 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Oooo, I dig this smooth class here! I think there’s always those themes that carry a special style; Law and Order was certainly one. I know any time I hear the Murder She Wrote theme I’m transported back to my grandparents’ couch, where we all sit together after a game of cribbage and watch JB Fletcher do her thing. 🙂 Thanks so much for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A lot of memories in those theme songs. Introductory music affects animals too. Our dog loves watching animals on TV. If she hears the music for a program or advertisement that features an animal, she races to the TV.
    As for blurbs. I tend to pay more attention to what reviewers have to say. Agree with all of sjhigbee’s comments.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. An excellent analysis, Jean. Inaccurate blurb, or worse, blurb with spoilers, are why I gave up reading the back covers of books a long time ago. It means I can stumble into reading a genre I wouldn’t normally opt for, but that’s brought me some lovely discoveries.

    I would say, re the MASH theme, that once I’d seen an episode, that song became irrecoverably bound with that particular style and tone of comedy. I suspect I tuned into my first episode by accident, when it was already started, so only heard the theme in the end credits – which, as you’ve possibly found, often adds a punchy extra ‘comment’ to the situations. Thanks for the reminder, it’s a long time since I’ve listened to it. I may have to track down some re-runs, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, I should follow your example about not reading the back cover. I should just run into the book front-first–it’d probably save me a lot of headache!
      Bo had me watch a lot of MASH some time back, and I didn’t mind the early seasons. Only when I saw the original film did I better understand how the song was truly involved. I doubt I’ll read the book, but my adult self certainly better appreciates what MASH set out to do than my kid self.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Gosh what a big topic! I love your approach to focus on the dreaded blurb. I still cannot get this right and i’m sure I’ve given too much away on the one for my ever-so-soon to be published novel. Mmm.

    But M*A*S*H* was one of my absolute favourite shows. I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch it in the 1970s. There was no laughter on the soundtrack when it was shown in the UK (so, so much the better). In fact, I don’t think we regarded it so much as a comedy, but rather as a drama containing humour. You know, I cannot watch the re-runs with the canned laughter? It seems totally inappropriate. However, a great, great show. Just hearing the music moves me.

    Other favourite title tunes – Miami Vice (our first cat loved this too); The Sweeney (British cop series, very 70s, very not-PC now), Cagney and Lacy… and of course, Ster Trek (original).
    Thanks for the memories – I could fill a page with them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • OH THAT LAUGH TRACK! I tooootally forgot about that! Well, you know Americans–we want to be told when we’re supposed to laugh because we don’t want to have to think about things. 😛
      I feel like the early seasons were more comedic than dramatic, but you’re quite right that drama came more and more to the fore in the later seasons. Hmmm. Maybe I just don’t remember the balance well. I think you’re right–we need a rewatch!
      Oh, there are so many great themes! Speaking of MASH, I love the Trapper John MD theme! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIdRgqfHSGQ Not that this is a part of my childhood, but it was on one of Bo’s TV theme discs. 🙂 Dr. Who’s engrained in my wee psyche, as is the theme for Star Trek the Next Gen. And Murder, She Wrote. Or the theme to PBS’ MYSTERY! Ah, so much wonderful music.
      And I almost, almost included the theme to Inspector Morse, but I wanted to save that composer for a separate post. 🙂

      Like

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