Now we come to the tricky part — actually writing a good description. I say ‘good’ because I think some writers do themselves harm by either spending months on it, or giving up and calling a half done description ‘good enough’. I picked five Amazon listings sort of at random, ones that I thought were quite good — Gone Girl, Coraline, The Hunger Games, About A Boy, and Maurice (you might want to open these links to read the descriptions and play along). Remember to write it in third person, present tense — ‘Joe has a problem’. This is true even if it’s a first person novel. I have also read through every Query Shark query on that website (at least as of March) and queries are very like Amazon descriptions — and with both, there’s no one right way to create it, but there are guidelines —
Start with the Lead Character, the Setting, or a Great Tagline
Janet Reid of Query Shark suggests opening with the character. And when I looked at good examples I found that starting with the character’s name and then having the word ‘discovered’ in the sentence worked well (‘Will Freeman may have discovered the key to dating success’ [About a Boy]) (‘Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house’ [Coraline]). If the setting is arguably as important as the lead character (Panem in The Hunger Games or Edwardian England in that wonderful story of being a gay man Maurice) then you might want to begin with that. Girl Gone simply starts its description with the tagline ‘Marriage can be a real killer’ and then explains what that means for this story.
As this ‘Far Side’ picture suggests, the next thing you need is a sense that this character / situation will probably cause a lot of conflict and drama. In our examples, this is either achieved by explaining what going really right — but too good to be true (About a Boy, Coraline), what’s going really wrong (The Hunger Games, Gone Girl) or a giant secret (‘Maurice is a conventional young man in almost every way … except that he is homosexual’). I think a real problem writers have is trying to stuff too much back story right here in order to MAKE YOU UNDERSTAND the lead character’s plight. A simple idea like being investigated by the police for your wife’s disappearance, or finding a marvelous new house with a different set of parents are easy and compelling ideas for your readers to wrap their heads around. Even The Hunger Games, whose description is almost all setting, keeps it short and elegant. The flip side here is that you want SOMETHING big happening in the beginning of your novel and the stakes should be sky high (at least for the lead character).
Here’s where you need to tell us a little more about the plot (don’t be scared; it’s not a scary word). Just add in a few sentences about what happens in the story. The goal here is to let the reader get a feel for what the actual reading of the book will be like. Whether it’s competing in the Hunger Games (and the fact Katniss doesn’t think she has a chance) or Will inventing a two-year-old son (he’s obviously not planning on any long term relationships with these women). Gone Girl gets quite involved here while Coraline is a mere line about her using her wits to escape.
Leave Them Wanting More
Don’t tell the ending. Don’t mention it ends in a cliffhanger that isn’t resolved until book 5 (actually, just don’t do that to your readers at all). Instead, capture their interest and then stop. Make them want to ‘Look inside!’, or buy the book outright. What does a teenage ‘kill or be killed’ tournament look like? How does a twelve-year-old named Marcus mess up Will’s plans? How does Maurice’s homosexuality ‘save him’ in a repressive society? And most impressive to me, what’s in the ‘silvery gift box’ of Gone Girl? I don’t even think it’s my kind of novel, but I’m thinking of buying it just because I want to know. That’s real power.
The V-Word (Voice)
Voice is that thing that comes through naturally the more you write but, in the case of a description, you may want to goose it up a little. The goal here is not to sound forced but instead make a description that matches the book in tone. Don’t use ten dollar words and expound on the nature of the universe if your story is about a rude, funny, half crazy bard who never has had a deep thought in his life (I’d read this BTW). Gone Girl’s description is a little too on-the-nose for me with its ‘mix of sharp-edged wit and deliciously chilling prose’ but the rather unconventional use of Forster’s description of the lead character I think works wonderfully in bringing out the thoughtful humanity and wonderful writing quality of the piece. But I really think each of these examples does a good job of letting you know whether the tone is disarming and funny; epic; magical etc.
Remember the goal (at first) is to be good, not great. You can keep working to hone your description, and keep rechecking it for spelling and grammar problems. Remember, this is your reader’s introduction your wonderful world — just let your enthusiasm, your passion, and a desire to share your story guide you. They’ll be lifelong fans in no time.
And feel free to post a comment (or email me) with your description and I’ll give you a free critique of it.