Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at, and website at, The Character Therapist, at

How to Avoid Last-Line “Lemons”

Since 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 memorable ones:

“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 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 up questions.

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.

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 readers will ultimately come away remembering your book.

How can you avoid last-line lemons?

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 masterpieces?


The Character Thrapist