December is the last month of the year, I thought it might be
appropriate to talk about the last lines of our books. Here are some
“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
“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 resonates with
the readers, it becomes somehow etched in their minds 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
As writers, we should pay
particular attention to our last lines, because if they are lemons,
they also will stand out to our readers—for reasons we don’t want to
consider. We’ve all read, or maybe 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, they would remember
the first few items (Primacy Effect) but remember 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 with proposals. We want the readers to be wowed and amazed—and
most important, 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 readers will mentally bookend your work of art with the
beginning and the end—with the latter taking on an extreme importance.
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
readers will ultimately come away remembering your book.
can you avoid last-line
1. Consider your
audience. If you’re writing thrillers, mysteries, and
romances, the readers 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.
Readers 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 readers scratch their heads in
bewilderment or dissatisfaction, chances are less likely they will buy
another book from you.
2. Revisit your theme
to wrap things up. Since the middle is often a big blur to
readers, bringing back the overall theme of the book at the very end is
a great way to keep it in their heads long after they turn the last
page. If the moral premise is repeated, it’ll stand out in the readers’
minds. Sometimes a way to do this is to work in the title of your book
by explaining it or giving it a twist the readers 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 off your tongue, because if it sticks or hedges in any way, it
will also cause the readers to pause. A well-crafted sentence that
doesn’t wrap up everything in a book will still go a long way in
appeasing readers because it will leave them feeling satisfied.
I hope that these suggestions
get you thinking about your last lines. Are they lemons or literary