How to Avoid Last Line “Lemons”

Becca and I are super excited to have Jeannie Campbell with us on the blog today. We've been fans of The Character Therapist since forever, and the concept behind her blog--Putting Characters on the Couch, is plain brilliant. Jeannie uses her background in therapy to peel back a character's outer layer, unearthing the deep-set issues, phobias, fears and dependencies that makes them rich, interesting and complex. She has amazing insight on what motivates characters to act the way they do.

I could probably rave forever about this resource, so I'll just stop now and simply suggest you check her out. If you want to understand your characters on a deeper level, head on over to The Character Therapist site and explore all the writerly goodies like Character Clinics and Assessments. You won't be disappointed!

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.

Why? The Recency Effect exists because the items at the end of the list are stored in a person’s short-term memory. It takes less effort on the subject’s part to retrieve them. The same can be said for your book’s last line. It’s the bow on a literary package, and that by which the reader will ultimately come away remembering your book.

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!


48 comments:

Rebecca Clare Smith said...

Interesting reading and great to be pointed in the direction of yet another fantastic writing resource. It reminds me of some of the psychology lessons I used to take. It's certainly an eye-opener for the next ending I craft, too.

Katrina S. Forest said...

This post couldn't have better timing if it tried. I'm giving my ms a final readthrough today. I will definitely keep this stuff in mind when I get to that ending. Thanks so much!

Andrea Mack said...

These are great tips, Jeannie. I always want my last line to linger in the reader's mind.

Shakespeare said...

Fantastic post! So well explained, too. I remember the scientific study, but I'd never applied it to my novel endings.

Please enter me in the contest for your book--I've added your blog to my roll. Such good stuff!

And thanks to Bookshelf Muse for featuring you! I wouldn't have the link to your blog otherwise.

tracikenworth said...

A great resource!! Thanks!!

Matthew MacNish said...

I know Two Cities is more famous for the opening line(s), but I've always loved Sydney Carton's sentiments at the end there. I suppose that proves your point, eh?

Excellent post, thanks so much for introducing me to Jeannie, Angela and Becca!

Miranda Hardy said...

Last lines are extremely important. Great advice! I look forward to reading through your blog. Thank you.

S.E. Gaime (aka defcon) said...

Excellent post!

However (I always have one of these), I disagree about wrapping up every single loose end in a story. I actually like it when there are few loose ends left untied, it gives the book a sense of wonder and forces the reader to *gasp* think! Also, if everything is wrapped up in a neat bow, for me, the story feels TOO complete. I know that sounds odd, but I like to think that long after I close the book, that the characters go on with their lives. The story doesn't end just because the book ends (unless the characters die, of course).

But that's just my 2 cents.

genelempp said...

A great opening can propel a book through the middle and a great ending can propel it beyond the final page. Excellent advice, Jeannie!

Thanks to Angela and Becca for hosting :)

Stacy said...

Great tips, here. I struggled on my last line when I finished the first draft a couple of weeks ago, and I know I'll be rewriting it. My book is a psychological thriller, so I know all loose ends need to be wrapped up, but the book also has a strong theme. After reading this, I'll be revisiting that idea to help with the ending.

Thanks for the tips!

Becca Puglisi said...

I was JUST talking about this with some writer friends over the weekend--how so much attention is given to beginnings, but no one ever talks about the importance of a book's end. Thank you so much, Jeannie, for these tips. I think your site is genius, and is going to help so many people put better books out there. We all win!

April said...

Definitely great ideas and tips. The ending is what I struggle with more than anything. It's so hard to end a story in a way that works for the characters and makes the reader feel satisfied. I really, really struggle with the last line, so your advice is much appreciated! I think I'll have to bookmark this page to come back to when I get to the end of my current WIP!

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Thank you for the wonderful post. Everyone knows how important a grand entrance is, but we sometimes forget it's just as important that we not fall on our faces when leaving our readers, either.

Misha said...

Ooh ooh I'd love to win the book! Is the draw open to foreigners?

I do sometimes think that authors forget the importance of the end. It's easy to notice.

I loved the tip you gave about including a teaser. That's actually a good idea for my story...

:-)

Angela Ackerman said...

It has made my day to point so many new folks to this great site for writers. Woot!

I've heard it said many times that the opening of a book will determine whether a reader will buy or not, but it is the ending that will determine if they stay loyal to the author for the next book.

Misha, Yes, this is an ebook, so open to all. :)

Angela

Barbara Watson said...

Oooo! Timely post. The end of my WIP approaches. Thank you!

Angelina C. Hansen said...

While hanging out in a bookstore with a writer friend, she just pointed out the last line in Charlotte's Web. I'd never noticed what a gem it is! Thanks for the advice.

Ava Jae said...

Awesome tips! Perfecting the last line, for me at least, is always the hardest.

Tips AND a giveaway? That makes this blog post even better. Thanks for sharing with us AND for the chance to win. :)

wosushi said...

I am a long way off from the end of my WIP, but I think this is a great thing to keep in the back of my mind as I get there. Thanks!

Raelyn Barclay said...

Excellent post! I was thinking about this as I sent my WiP off to my first reader. Hoping I nailed it but if I didn't this post will definitely help. Thank you!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Would love to win the copy of the book, but I am in India...

Thanks for the great pointers. I will read the last few lines of my book loud and listen to the cadence of the sentence.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

rachna - it's a ebook (.pdf) so definitely can be sent to india!

s.e. gaime - the world wouldn't go around if people didn't disagree. i think there are more people out there like you who like a little dissonance at the end. nothing wrong with that! i just also think there are more people who prefer the wrap-up ending.

angela and becca - thanks again for hosting me here!! i'm gotten an influx of followers and am so grateful! :)

Heather said...

I love the idea of considering your audience when writing the last line. Of course I keep them in mind throughout the book, but I don't think I ever thought about them at that point. Thank you Jeannie!

Angela Ackerman said...

So glad to have you here Jeannie! You do so much for writers, and it's awesome.

Angela

Micki said...

The ending of a book has always been what makes or breaks a book for me. And of all the endings I have read, Gone With the Wind is the one that has stuck in mind above all others. Excellent post and excellent advice!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Authors tend to make sure that their beginnings shine to a brilliant finish, but it's just as important to have a great ending, especially the last sentence. Great post!

Carrie said...

What a great, insightful post! I'm so excited to follow Jeannie's blog now. Thanks for sharing her with us, Angela! :)

Riv Re said...

Great post! I'm not up to the ending yet in my MS, but you gave me plenty to keep in mind!
Thanks for the added giveaway!
rivkarno1(at)hotmail(dot)com

Lisa Hartjes said...

I've never really given much thought to the last line of a novel, but after reading this post, I felt like slapping myself. I can't tell you how many times I've thought "oh man, I love how this book ended!" I feel rather silly never having considered a reader's reaction to the last line of my book.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

lisa - i felt the same way. it was like being slapped when i was reading up on the recency effect. there have been many novels that i've read and hated how they ended....enough that i didn't want to invest in that author again. it really is HUGE.

carrie - thanks for the follow! i'll be sure to enter you (and my other new followers) in the extra giveaway!

Janet, said...

wonderful advice! We need to concentrate on the ending as much as the beginning of our manuscript. Thanks for the give a way.

Jeff King said...

Great post... consider it done!

Danyelle said...

I love her blog--even though I'm pretty much just a lurker. Great advice! :D

Cinette said...

I'll definitely keep this in mind. Another great post, Jeannie.

Karen Lange said...

Great post! Such good stuff, thanks to all of you for sharing these goodies with us. :)

Please don't enter me in the giveaway - not because it isn't great, but because I was blessed to win Jeannie's book at another blog recently.

Lynda R Young said...

Fantastic post. I don't think many of us think about the last line, but you are so right that it sticks with us when we're reading.

Dawn Brazil said...

Great post! I would have to agree with Lynda above, I hadn't given much thought to the last line - so consumed with the first. But I do believe mine is solid...I hope. LOL I'd love the book, too.

Dawn Brazil said...

Great post! I would have to agree with Lynda above, I hadn't given much thought to the last line - so consumed with the first. But I do believe mine is solid...I hope. LOL I'd love the book, too.

Susanne Drazic said...

Great post! I'm now a follower of The Character Therapist. I've also signed up for the quarterly newsletter. Thanks!

Gayle C. Krause said...

Excellent article, Sounds like your blog is exactly what the doctor ordered. :)

No pun intended, Jeannie. I'd love to follow your blog. Looking forward to the newsletter

Marisa Hopkins said...

Loved this post - makes so much sense!!

Thank you, Jeannie! I'm excited about your newsletter! :)

Laura Ann Dunks said...

Excellent post. I look forward to following your blog too - a fabulous resource!

Laura

Lisa Gail Green said...

How cool! And what an awesome post! The ending is so important and we do often focus on the opening. :D

David Jace said...

I love strong endings, and I've heard of these effects before, but I'd not thought to apply them to books ! Even more interesting, is this description of the Chatacter Couch! I'm going right over to check it out!

Sophia the Writer said...

Aww, so great to see last lines getting the attention first lines get so much of!

Morgan Barnhart said...

Wow! Great advice! It's so rare when someone talks about last lines. It's always about the first line, or the first 10 pages, etc. So this was really refreshing.

I always have trouble with the last chapter, let alone the final line. These are some great tips, though!

Sherri Hunt Smith said...

Thanks for the post. I like how your post help me homne the craft. what good is a great beginning without a great end?

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Endings can be so hard! These tips are great. I especially like revisiting the theme to wrap things up. Thank you for this!

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