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Read on to hear Jeannie's take on the importance of nailing the ending and creating a lasting impression on your audience.
How to Avoid Last Line 'Lemons'
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” ~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
“Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” ~ Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (1936)
“And they all lived happily ever after.” ~ fairy tales the world over
When a last line really resonates with the reader, it becomes somehow etched in their mind as a beacon, illuminating the entire book. Some of the above examples are no doubt familiar to many of you. They have become immortalized in time. The perfect ending to inspire wonder, instill hope, allay fears and clear up questions.
As writers, we should pay particular attention to our last lines, because if they are lemons, this also will stand out to our readers—for reasons we don’t want to consider. How many of you have heard or given a review of a book that went something like, “It was such a good book…except the ending. Totally threw me off.”
Unfortunately, it’s the ending that a person is more likely to remember, due to a phenomenon called the Recency Effect. Researchers discovered in the late 60s that if subjects were given a list of items to remember in a list, they would remember the first few items (primacy effect) and the last few the best. The subjects never had good recall memory for the items located in the middle of the list.
This is actually good news to writers. We spend inordinate amounts of time of the first chapters because these are the chapters most likely to be entered into contests and sent via queries. We want the reader to be wowed and amazed—and most important, to want to keep on reading.
I’m not advocating for having a sagging middle, either. Bear in mind that all the research centered on subjects being given itemized lists, not reading books. But it stands to reason that a reader will mentally bookend your work of art with the beginning and the end—with the latter taking on an extreme importance.
So how can you avoid last line lemons?
1) Consider your audience. If you’re writing thrillers, mysteries, and romances, the reader is going to want most, if not all, loose ends tied up. If you deliberately leave something dangling, you had best include a teaser chapter of the next book that’s going to address that very thing. A reader will hang on—for more than a year, if need be—just to have resolution, but they have to know that the author knows they want it. If, after reading an ending, your reader scratches his or her head in bewilderment or dissatisfaction, chances are less likely they want buy another book from you.
2) Revisit your theme to wrap things up. Since the middle is often a big blur to a reader, bringing back up the overall theme of the book at the very end is a great way to keep it in their head long after they turn the last page. If the moral premise is repeated, it’ll stand out in the reader’s mind. Sometimes a way to do this is to work in the title of your book by explaining it or giving it a twist the reader didn’t expect.
3) Work on the craft of cadence. Cadence of a sentence can make it or break it. When writing the last line, say it aloud over and over. Listen to how it rolls of your tongue, because if it sticks or hedges in any way, it will also cause the reader to pause. A well-crafted sentence that doesn’t wrap up everything in a book will still go a long way in appeasing a reader because it will leave them feeling satisfied.
I hope that these suggestions get you thinking about your last lines. Are they lemons or literary masterpieces? What ideas could you share in the comment section below that could expound on this idea of perfecting a book’s ending?
Many thanks to Angela and Becca for hosting me today!I also have a quarterly newsletter and anyone who signs up for it will also receive my Writer’s Guide to Character Motivation, too!