ROOM by Emma Donoghue and another book: When the Narrator is Really Different

Allergy season killed me this year. I’m entering my third month of lots of medications, using the nebulizer, steroids for the asthma that accompanies allergies. Haven’t been this bad, this long, in a lot of years. Like 1999? 2000? So, I have been absent here. Still not 100%, but I felt up to doing a double-title post.

Today we look at two major bestsellers, one with a movie behind it.

What makes these connected is that the narrators are minors. One has a very young child as the first-person POV storyteller. And both have unusual situations of life.

Here’s the back cover blurb (sandwiched between review blurbs) for the first, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time 





It really is no wonder the book caught on. That’s an amazing premise. A murder mystery solved by a teen with autism.

If you’ve read the novel, you’ll notice that the middle part of that description reads a lot like the narrator: short clear sentences. It tells you about the narrator in the narrator’s voice.

There are key words/phrases that will nab a reader, promising an adventure.

**”never gone further than the end of the road on his own” (now he will step out of comfort zone and go solve this canine murder)

**”terrifying journey”

**”whole world upside down.”

So we have an interesting, different character. A young one. He goes on an adventure that will affect him (character’s life will change). Conflict implied in all that. Especially “terrifying.”

What the description left out that I would not have are other hooks for readers: that the boy uses Sherlock Holmes as an inspiration for solving the crime; that the boy was initially wrongly accused of being the culprit behind the dog-killing.

A cultural icon = hook

False accusations against the innocent = hook

The second one above gives us his motivation and makes him sympathetic: who would want to be thought capable of such a horrible crime?

That book description got  me to buy the book, btw.

Here’s a current bestseller with a child narrator:

Room Emma Donoghue book description not back cover

The back cover I saw was all reviews, so I took this book description (almost identical to the Amazon book blurb, except for the last paragraph).

Room is a top ten NY Times Bestseller right now, #3 in paperback trade fiction. Maybe you read it. I have not. But this blurb tempts me.

The very first paragraph gives you a snapshot of the setting (a room) and that these two (Ma and the boy Jack, 5-year-old narrator) are living a life that is not normal.

Not normal = a hook.

In this case, they live in one room and the boy sleeps in the wardrobe. All sorts of questions are raised in the book browser’s mind by just that. WHY one room? Why only two of them? Why does he sleep essentially in the closet?

Raising questions in the first paragraph of a blurb is a great way to keep the browser READING and not skipping off to another book.

So, unusual situation, unusual narrator: hooks.

The second paragraph answers some of that. We learn that the narrator’s mother has been imprisoned in that room for seven years (two more than the boy’s age), so she gave birth there, presumably. The child is probably her captor’s. And that mom has now planned an escape, one that relies a lot on the boy (he’s FIVE, but it relies on HIM).

Danger is up ahead: hook. A change in situation: conflict is sure to arise.

And we get some of the child’s perspective and voice in there: Ma, Old Nick. This is his way of seeing these people. His names for them. It echoes the first person perspective, even though this blurb is not written in the boy’s voice.

Both books have commonalities. One clear one: a boy must go out of the world he’s known and into a strange environment to solve a problem.

The first is a quest to solve a mystery: who killed the dog?

The second is an escape journey: get out of the room and be free!

Both are adventures. Both contain crimes.

Adventure = hook. 

Crime = hook.

Peril for a protagonist is also a reader hook.

Both have a danger factor, these novels. In the first, the boy may find that whoever killed the dog does not want to be exposed, and so might hurt the boy (I won’t say what it actually is–read this terrific novel). There is also danger in an autistic teen encountering a world where interaction is difficult.

In ROOM, although I have not read it, it’s clear someone dangerous and criminal and maybe unhinged has kept a woman prisoner, likely raped her repeatedly, and has now kept the child a prisoner as well. He might be able to murder one or both to keep his secret or get the mother back.

The last paragraph tells us qualities Jack has that add to story: energetic, pragmatic. This tells us he’s not flighty, and he is a boy of action. He’ll get things done. And that it speaks of a central theme: the bond of mother-son. People who like to read stories of parents and children (in any situation) will find that a hook, as well.

The main lesson here, however,  is that if your first-person POV narrator is unusual in some way or several, highlight that.

Is your narrator/protagonist of an unusual age? (Very young, very old)

Is your narrator in a strange or unique situation?

Is your narrator in some danger?

Do you use a cultural icon as a device?

Do you have some element that draws immediate reader sympathy to your character?

Use your difference.

Use your hooks.

And if you can replicate some of the narrator in the blurb, such as the first one did, why not? The reader may not realize they already had  a foretaste until they sample the first pages, but it will still tie it together in their mind when they do. It will prepare them for a different style.

Until next time.




How Numbers Work In the Blurb for the Bestselling Mystery Novel of All Time

For our third and final example on using numbers in book blurbs, let’s take a look at the #1 mystery novel ever: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. While you  may think there isn’t a number in the title, there is: none. None is equivalent to zero.

But an interesting fact is that this is not the original title. The original title contained a vulgar word we don’t like to use anymore in modern society (a good thing), one beginning with n and ending in r. You can Google it up. In the US, it was changed to Ten Little Indians. Still not PC, but more acceptable than the original.

As you see, the number that is key to the novel is 10.

Here’s a back cover:


And then There Were None Christie back cover

There are several things to recommend this exceedingly well constructed back cover–both in blurb and design.

First, notice the top right exclamation. If you ever studied journalism or just are aware of how those front pages are constructed for print papers, you know that top right is where you place the thing you consider priority–the lead story. The eye automatically goes to the top of a page first. Put something important at the top. If it’s a key recommendation or statement or story question, that’s a good place.

Top right on this back cover has a clear, all-caps, exlamation-point statement that will nab the attention of any mystery novel lover (or any reader who enjoys fiction, period). THE WORLD’S BESTSELLING MYSTERY!

That’s a pretty emphatic statement that has to make any browsing reader curious.

Now we get into the countdown. Starting from the key number 10.

In the novel, there are serial killings, countdown killings, in an isolated location. (See image on top left that gives a sense of an isolated island residence.)

Notice that the countdown doesn’t go on to the end. Just enough to get a count going, leaving it hanging–which is also effective, isn’t it?

Each countdown in the blurb gives a story element. Key terms that ignite interest when it comes to mysteries: strangers, isolated, guilty secrets, haunted, violent storm, begin to die, dead.

And the question finale, the story question itself: Who among them is the killer and will any of them survive?

Being in an isolated location, taunted by a nursery rhyme, dying one by one, and the killer in their midst–that’s a fabulous, “hook-ish” set-up.

The countdown always adds suspense and dread. (Just as in the previous novel, where you know if they got the number ahead of you, you’re next.)

The final recommendation blurb by TIME–an established and well-known journalistic entity–gives the final “read me” nab to the browser, assuring them this mystery is an “ingenious thriller.”

Even if you don’t have TIME or famous writers giving you rec-blurbs, you can use key imagery on your back cover and, if applicable, a clever countdown or numerical motif for all your types of blurb uses.

Next Time:

Well, wait and see.