67. How to Write Taglines for Novels

Author: Nola Published: 3 months ago.
Tags: novels, marketing, taglines Category: Writing tips

I walked past a book display and a novel leapt into my hands. I’d never heard the title (Elizabeth is Missing), I didn’t know the author (Emma Healey), but it had a quirky cover and a great tagline: ‘How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?’ I flipped over to the back-cover blurb and found that Maud was a forgetful old lady who knew her friend Elizabeth was missing because the note in her pocket told her so. The key to a seventy-year-old mystery was also tucked away somewhere in Maud’s confused mind. Now I was hooked, but I may never have gotten as far as the back-cover blurb if the tagline hadn’t intrigued me first. I bought the book and loved it. You can read my review here.

So what makes a great tagline? Here are some tips.

1. Keep it short. A tagline is usually just one line. It could be a sentence, part of a sentence, or two or more fragments. It’s not the same as a logline in which you tell your plot in one sentence (see Post 66). Think ‘headline’ rather than whole story. The tagline for Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas is simply, ‘Every gift has a price’.

2. Hint at genre. While you don’t usually mention the genre in your tagline, readers should be given some idea of what it is or isn’t. The tagline for Cinder by Marissa Meyer is ‘Even in the future, the story begins with Once Upon a Time’. If you guessed ‘sci-fi fairytale’, you’re right. In some cases, you might not know the exact genre (e.g. whether it’s historical or contemporary), but you should at least know what it’s not. If your tagline suggests a political thriller, but it’s a quirky rom-com, your readers will be disappointed.

3. Capture tone. Is your book funny? Sad? Tense? Atmospheric? Convey that in the tagline. Murder on the Seventh Green is a fairly neutral title for your golfing murder mystery, but readers know they’re in for a lighthearted romp if the tagline promises that ‘It’s hard to stay alive when your game is under par’.

4. Pique interest. If a tagline does its job, you’ll want to read the back cover-blurb or a sample. So how do you snag the reader? You could ask a question that the reader wants answered, as in the tagline for Elizabeth is Missing. You could also use contrasts or irony to show that your book is unique. The tagline for Adele Jones’s Integrate is, ‘Trust the science—unless your life depends on it’. There we have the paradox of science being something that helps or harms, and we want to know what the life-or-death situation is going to be. Liane Moriarty also uses contrasts to great effect in her tagline for The Husband’s Secret: ‘The trouble with the truth is that it can change everything’. The combination of the title and tagline entice us to find out about this life-changing secret.

5. Keep it fresh. Some taglines are so general, they could apply to hundreds of books (e.g. ‘A love that lasts forever’, ‘What do you do when time is running out?’). Try for something more memorable (e.g. ‘A tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge and seafood’ from the movie A Fish Called Wanda). If you use a pun, cliché or word play, be sure to give it that original spin. ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ is a cliché, but ‘too many nail clippings spoil the broth’ could be fun.

6. Make it sing. Read your tagline out loud and check that it has a good rhythm and flow. K. S Dearsley likens it to writing poetry. Keep playing with the words until they sound right. Which flows better? ‘In space no one can hear you scream’ (from the movie Alien) or ‘In space no one can hear whether you scream or not’? I’m glad the producers went with the first option.

For more on taglines, please see the movie examples in my earlier post (Post 65) and Nicola Alter’s analysis of good and poor taglines. K. S. Dearsley also offers some great marketing tips using taglines.

Now it’s your turn. Have a look at the covers on some of the novels from your real or virtual shelves. Which taglines work for you and which ones don’t? I’d love to hear your examples.

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