Having a tagline seems like such an after-thought--after all, you wrote an awesome back copy, so why do you need to further condense your story into a single line? Well, taglines are versatile and a good one helps you turn the corner on sales and professionalism. We’ve all experienced the deer-in-the-headlights moment when someone finally asks what we write and we just blink and stare and mutter. It's great to have a rehearsed line to whip out when our brains blue-screen, plus it shows we’ve done our research and have confidence in our work.
I'll talk about the two main styles of tagline: Pitch-style and Plot-style
Pitch Style (i.e. Comp-title Approach)
While not strictly a tagline, some pitches can be used like one and vice-versa. Plus the mechanics are pretty similar. If you’ve ever taken part in a pitch party, this will sound familiar. Even if you’re taking the indie route, rather than traditional, you should at least check a pitch party out. There’s a ton to learn from the folk participating and the agents’ and publishers’ feedback.
The comp-title approach is great if you haven’t honed your plot-tagline yet, or if you’re pitching people in the industry, like influencers or publishers (if you’re going traditional). If I’m making it sound easy, it is--but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to do your work. The key is to find modern, relevant comp titles--they don’t have to be books if you have a great fit, but when in doubt, err on the literary side. If you have a bit of flexibility to add things as needed, that’s perfect.
Here’s an example and variations on it:
“Lara Croft meets the X-files in this Snarky Sci-fi.”
“Lesbian Lara Croft meets the X-files in this snarky Sci-fi”
“Lara Croft meets the X-files in this Snarky Sci-fi about where we come from and where we’re going.”
See how different versions showcase the voice and message of the book?
Beta readers and author friends are a great resource for brain storming too. As them to pitch your book to you, and see what stood out to them as a reader.
Plot-style (i.e. Traditional)
This one is a bit harder, but if you nail it, it will be marketing gold. These are like shorter, punchier versions of a movie's logline. The best approach is, as always, do your research. Check out best-selling comp titles from the last two years and see what they use as taglines. Do they focus on character? World-building? Stick with your genre norms, especially if you’re just starting out, but I’m always a fan of character-first.
My little formula for plot-taglines is this: Fact or Law meets Problem.
The order isn’t important as long as it’s catchy and concise. Like the back copy, it doesn't matter if the story is more complicated than that (um, it should be). All that matters is you hook readers enough to want to know more. That being said, don’t outright lie to hook them.
“There's only one person protecting them from The Things That Go Bump in the night..." fact
"and she just arrested him." problem
Another approach is to just cut right to the problem, if it encompasses the plot a bit. The famous example of this is from one of my favs, Alien.
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” The problem (no one can hear you) is the fact here, and it states you will, in fact, be screaming. Note that this has honestly very little to do with the meat of the plot, but it's still incredibly catchy.
A Note about Length
Regardless of what style you feel is best, your tagline needs to be a single sentence, or as short as possible. Active voice, dashes, elipses, whatever you can do to make it as short and punchy as possible. Think back to elevator pitches and twitter character limits (not the 280 you have now, the 140 we used to squeeze our thoughts into). You need to be able to whip it out in one breath (probably while hyperventilating and fan-personing).
I recently trimmed mine down:
“What if the only person on earth she trusts...is in space?”
“The only person on Earth she trusts...is in Space.”
If yours starts with “what if” see if you can reframe it as a statement, rather than a question. Questions are great in some genres, and certainly go with what sounds best, but if you can re-word, try it out!
Catchy is Key
This is arguably the most important part, and why taglines are so hard to write. Turns of phrase, classic lines, pun, and word play are all your friends here. Bonus points if you can reference your book title, character name, or series.
If you can name your character while being catchy, go for it, but don’t throw a name in when you can just use a pronoun. A pronoun helps the reader put themselves in the character’s shoes, regardless of whether their name is Karen, too.
“Sometimes heroes are as broken as the world they must reforge.”
I use the series title (reforged) and hit on the meat of my plot plus my message--characters who have mental illnesses like depression or PTSD and magical powers, but the latter doesn’t fix the former. Full disclosure--it took me three years to figure this one out, but I noticed an uptick in interest when I started pitching it that way to influencers.
Taglines are some of the best marketing materials out there--you can put them on promos, use them at conventions and conferences, pop them on your business cards, feature them across the top of your series section on your website and social pages.
What's your favorite tagline? Do you have a great one? Share it in the comments!
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