I just finished reading a vampire romance by an author who will remain nameless, and was reminded of an old piece of writing advice: Your first chapter sells the book, the last chapter sells the next.
There’s scientific evidence for why this is so. The last part of an experience colors your recollection of an entire event, especially if it’s emotionally intense, unique, or recalled after a delay. If you have an argument with your husband at the end of a great picnic, your memory of the entire day will be tainted. When you think about what book to buy next, your recollection of the unsatisfying end of a certain author’s book will make you veer away from the rest of her work.
The author whose book I just read is a competent writer. She’s a New York Times bestseller. Her prose is smooth, her love scenes hot. But I won’t be buying more of her books anytime soon. Why? She committed one of the most heinous crimes a writer can: the set-up for the denouement hinged on the heroine doing something stupid. Even worse, the author didn’t sell it.
Sometimes characters do stupid things. It’s not recommended. Your book will much stronger if your characters do their very best and the villain still gains the upper hand (for a while) because the bad guy is just that good. Nevertheless, you can have your protagonists make mistakes in judgement and action if you sell it. If you’ve laid the foundation in the reader’s mind so well that even though she doesn’t agree with what the character is doing, she understands how and why the hero is making that choice. Ideally, it’s done so smoothly the reader accepts that action as the only one the hero could make, given who he is.
How do you do that? You feed the reader bits of backstory, and show character development gradually through action (other choices) throughout the book. No info dumps, no last minute revelations to make the reasons behind the behavior plausible.
And for God’s sake, please, no blatant stupidity. I would have thrown this NYT bestselling author’s book across the room except I’d never treat a book that way.
Actually, I’m grateful to this author, because she reminded me of a change I want to make to one of my unpublished novels to strengthen the ending. My characters aren’t being stupid, but I’ve thought of a way to increase the tension level, the intensity. The greater the intensity, the more memorable my book will be–hopefully in a good way!
Every single one of our books is an ambassador to the reader. With books staying on the virtual bookshelf forever, each of our novels could be the first and only chance we have to snag a reader and turn her into a fan. We can’t please everyone, nor should we try. Just make your own unique story is the best it can be, and don’t rely on the characters’ stupidity to carry the plot.