What’s the first thing most readers look at when they pick up a book? If they’re anything like me, their attention is first snagged by the cover art, the title, and the author name, and from there they flip the book over and a take a gander at the back cover or the inside jacket flap. This is where those crucial split-second decisions are made (to buy or not to buy?), and it’s also where the reader will make his first encounter with your story, your plot, and your characters.
This is not a post about writing a killer synopsis, but rather about realizing and utilizing the power of that synopsis within the story itself. How many books have you delved into without knowing anything about the premise? Most of us at least scan the back cover before cracking open chapter one. After all, why waste our time when we can use the crucial info on the back to narrow down our reading choices? That’s just savvy readership.
But what does this mean for writers (other than the fact that poor cover material leads to poor sales)?
Chapter One Is Not Our First Opportunity to Impart Information to Our ReadersAll too often, we face the impossibility of cramming “crucial” information into the first chapter. We approach the plate, bat in hand, behaving as if the reader doesn’t even know the rules of the game. But if our savvy reader has read the back cover, he probably already knows quite a few things, including:
- The hero’s name.
- His occupation.
- The setting.
- The basic conflict.
- The antagonistic force.
- The theme.
The back cover is a crucial part of the reading experience. It not only creates certain preconceptions and expectations that the author must fulfill, it also creates them with more certainty than the foreshadowing found in the pages themselves. Because the info on the back cover is stated as fact, and because the narrative voice of a synopsis is understood to be reliable, readers always expect the promises on the back cover to be executed precisely.
This knowledge, I think, is often (if not always) overlooked by authors. And, in so doing, we not only neglect the opportunity to use the back cover to our advantage, but we even abuse it.
Abusing the Back CoverI’ve read dozens of novels that start off chapter one by bombarding me with information I’d already learned from the back cover. Inevitably, I squirm and mentally urge the author to get on with it. The carefully constructed suspense doesn’t fool me when I already know the basic premise. To go off on a little tangent: The 2003 movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World contains a scene that always makes me roll my eyes. In the movie’s opening sequence, as the call to arms is being beaten, the camera shows us the (faceless) ship’s captain scrambling into his sword belt and coat and getting ready to go on deck. Then, suddenly, the camera dramatically pans up and reveals—surprise!—Russell Crowe. Only I wasn’t surprised because naturally I had seen the DVD cover and knew who starred in the movie.
Back cover info often creates a similar situation. As authors, we carefully construct our opening hooks (the hook that will reveal the premise to the reader), but we overlook that the reader is usually already privy to this premise. Hence, we risk our authorial flourishes being overlooked or even scorned.
Using the Back CoverAcknowledging the back cover means that we get to enjoy a teeny bit of wiggle room in crafting both our opening chapters and the general suspense throughout the novel. A good back-cover synopsis, of course, gives away as little of the crucial plot information as possible. We always want our readers to know as little as possible about our climaxes. But it also means that we can take advantage of what they do know.
In a sense, the back cover is the mini hook before the hook. If the synopsis on the back doesn’t grab him, the reader probably won’t flip on ahead to chapter one. This creates two very important opportunities for the author:
1. We don’t have to worry about explaining everything in the opening scene.
2. We must be careful we find the right balance between explaining the necessities and boring the reader with what he already knows.
A word of caution: Although I absolutely believe that authors, in crafting their openings, generally overlook the back cover, I’m also aware that not all readers read the back cover. And those that do don’t always read every word. The story between the covers must be complete in its own right. We can’t lean upon the back cover as a crutch for our narrative deficiencies. But that’s no excuse for not being aware of it and its effect upon our readers.
Story by K.M. Weiland