“The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.” — Mickey Spillane
There are three places in a piece of writing that are crucial to growing your readership. The first is the tease. The second is the lure. And the third is the payoff.
The tease is what attracts someone to the writing. For an article or blog post, it’s your headline. For a book, it’s the title and cover art. It catches the reader’s attention just long enough for a click, or to pick the book up off the shelf.
The lure is your openng. It’s what tells the reader that this piece is speaking to them. That the author understands where they’re coming from and what they want.
And the payoff is the feeling the reader gets at the end. It’s what they read for. The moment when they smile, or sigh, or wipe a tear from their eye and think, “That was worth it.”
Fail to deliver a good payoff, and the reader thinks, “That was a waste of my time. What was that author’s name again? Remind me never to read anything else they write.”
I’m assuming that you’re writing a good book or article. You’re delivering on your promise in the tease or the lure. Here are three ways to make sure you deliver a strong ending.
Take a stand
I recently watched a film with my husband. Ten minutes from the end, I said, “You know what I bet really happened?” And I laid out a really cool twist ending that would have explained everything that happened in the film.
We waited to see how the film resolved the main character’s dilemma. Was I right? Was my husband right? We never found out. The film left the ending ambiguous. You could put whatever interpretation on it you wanted.
Except, that’s not a good ending. If the filmmaker had chosen one interpretation or the other, we could have argued for or against it. We’d have discussed the film. We’d have asked friends to see it and asked them what they thought.
Instead, we looked at each other, and said, “Huh.”
His view was slightly less charitable. He added, “I guess that’s what a talented actor who needs to pay the bills looks like.”
The myth of pleasing everyone
As creatives, we often hesitate to take a stand, especially on something controversial. Why? We’re afraid we’ll alienate some of our potential readers.
I’m not saying keep the hero and heroine apart at the end of a romance. Don’t write a mystery where the detective can’t solve it. That’s not controversial, it’s failing to meet the genre expectations.
But within the structure of your piece, first you deliver on your promise. The how-to has shown someone how to do something. The list article has counted down the number of promised tips. In the romance, the hero and heroine end up in each other’s arms.
What then? How do you end it? How do you wrap it all up in a bow and please the reader?
If you try to avoid alienating anyone, you’ll disappoint everyone.
Consider one of the most controversial plot developments in recent years — the death of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. That was all anyone was talking about for months. Readers were dying to get their hands on the next book in the series to learn the explanation.
I am certain that there were some very nervous people on the publisher’s staff quizzing J.K. Rowling. Did he really need to die? Perhaps he could just be badly wounded? Maybe it looks like he dies, but it was a trick with magic to fool the bad guys?
I can see one of them begging her, “Kids love Dumbledore. You can’t kill him. We’ll have bushels of protest letters, and outraged mothers boycotting our books.”
If she’d waffled and given in, rather than stuck to her guns, readers would have known. They would have sensed that there was someplace the story could have gone, and that they didn’t get to go there.
If you try to avoid alienating anyone, you’ll disappoint everyone. Take a stand. Create a memorable ending.
Consider a list article, that promises ten tips to solve whatever your problem is. Nine of them are pretty solid, but one of them looks a little fishy. You’re not sure it would really work.
Then, the author slips in a bonus eleventh tip, because it was too good to leave out. And it’s a doozy! What do you know? You got more than ten tips.
You’re so happy about that bonus tip, you forgot all about the tip you thought wouldn’t work. The author leaves you with a smile on your face, and you’re ready to see what they have to say about your other problems. You may even click the “Follow” button.
Don’t be coy
There’s a trick to overdelivering, though. You don’t want to seem arbitrary. If you have six tips of the same relative strength, don’t say you have five, just so you can throw in a bonus.
There has to be some reason why the bonus tip didn’t make it into the main article. Remember the kid’s game “one of these things is not like the others”? The reader needs to be able to see how the bonus tip is not like the others.
I read a lot of cooking articles. The reason usually given for the bonus is that it’s more advanced. The rest of the tips may work for the intermediate cook, but this tip is only for the advanced cook.
That works on two levels. It lets the reader know there’s a reason you didn’t just make a bigger list for the article. This thing is obviously not like the others.
And it also lets the reader feel like they’re special. They’re an advanced cook. It may actually be no more difficult than the other tips. You’d only need it if you were making more advanced recipes.
But the reader looks at it, and thinks, “I could do that. Hot dang! I’m an advanced cook!” Bonus!
Never ever ever do a reset
You’ve taken the reader on a ride with you. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction. The reader is in a different place at the ending than when they began.
If you’re writing fiction, they’ve been on an emotional roller coaster. Your protagonist has struggled, and persevered, and grown. And the reader has been with them every step of the way.
For non-fiction, the reader has made a journey of personal growth and competence. They started off not knowing something. By the end, they feel that they understand it.
Don’t you dare take those feelings away from them. That’s why the reader is reading. Yet all too often, authors invalidate what has just happened, in the name of a sequel.
I read a self-help book that ended that way. After 14 chapters of detailed instructions of how to fix your life, the author reset. He basically said that what he’d just told you would only work in a limited number of situations. To find out how to handle the other situations, you’d need to read his next book.
No. Uh-uh. Not me.
Your readers will love you for finding a way through
There was a fantasy author whose first book won quite a few awards. His second book leaped onto the best seller list. Readers who’d loved the first book couldn’t wait to read the second book.
His plucky band of adventurers worked through detailed and complex character arcs. By the end of the book, they’d moved on in their lives, finding love, or patronage, or whatever they’d sought. And then he did a reset.
The love died, the patron had an argument with the artist, etc. And they all ended up back where they’d started. They were outsiders, with no one to depend upon but each other.
His second book did not win any awards. If there was a third, it didn’t hit any best seller lists. He lost his readers.
C.S. Friedman created die-hard fans for life by refusing to do the same thing in her Coldfire trilogy. The first book ends with the plucky band of adventurers…going their separate ways. When one asks if they should reassemble for another adventure, he’s laughed at. And then, in the final pages, she finds a way to make it work.
Not a contrived reset, like the first author. No, she ups the stakes for the characters in a fully believable way. She uses the strengths and flaws of the characters to maneuver them into a situation. If they’re going to be true to everything we know about them, they must reassemble.
As readers, we agonize for the characters. We hate that they’re not allowed to enjoy their victory. And we pick up the next book.
It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or non-fiction. Your lure and tease get readers to start reading. How you end this piece of writing determines if your reader will read your next.
To keep your readers reading:
- Take a stand
- And never ever ever do a reset
If you do these things, as long as the rest of your writing is good enough for the reader to make it to the end, you’ve sold them. You’ve delivered the payoff they wanted. They’ll look at the next thing you wrote, too.
And if you liked this article about the payoff, let me know whether you’d like one on the tease or the lure next. (Sure, that’s a cheesy way to overdeliver. But I’m standing by it…)
Oh, did I mention? There’s one other strong way to close your writing. That’s with a little bit of humor that makes the reader smil