Author interviews return next week on Writers’ Wednesday! Today, though, I thought it would be interesting to look at last lines.
Yes, you heard (read?) me correctly.
As authors, we often struggle with the opening lines of a book much more than we do the final ones. We must get that “hook” just perfect, we think! We must reel in the reader right from the start! And indeed, we do.
But last lines have power too, perhaps more so than first ones. I blogged a few weeks back about ways in which to wrap up your novel. But the structural or thematic ending is somewhat different from the literal one. You can get your emotional point across but fumble with the words you use to do so. You want those last words to echo in the reader’s mind, to stay with the reader long after he or she has closed the book. No pressure there, right?
So what makes a great last line? Well, over the weekend I read an article about this topic, and the co-writers were at odds. One nominated the final lines of Charlotte’s Web as the best in modern literature:
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
while the other thought The Great Gatsby’s final lines were better:
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Both are powerful, I think. Both thud against your heart in just the right way. So I started thinking about how to apply this idea of last lines to my own writing, and here’s what I came up with. You could…
1. Re-emphasize the theme of your book. That’s what E.B. White does masterfully with Charlotte’s Web. We’re reminded, finally, of the power of true friendship along with the rarity of true talent and devotion. Fitzgerald does it equally well in Gatsby, with his final commentary on the futility of trying to find one's place in the world.
2. Show the main character’s growth. One of my favorite last lines appears in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon). To me, these lines are a glorious celebration of the success this narrator (an autistic teenager) experiences:
“And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.”
3. Send the reader a lesson or moral. This does not mean “be preachy.” It does mean share a thought with, or challenge, your reader. I’m pretty pleased with the last lines of Lost in Paradise (Yours Truly, coming soon!), because I’d like to think they’re a reminder that stepping outside of one’s safety zone is where the most fun/learning/thrill/reward takes place:
“I know now that being lost is sometimes that best thing that can happen to a girl. Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and jump.”
4. Remind the reader the promise you made at the start. A romance novel by Jenny Crusie promises a happy ending:
“The evening was turning out much better than she’d expected.” (Welcome to Temptation)
One the other hand, a horror novel by Stephen King promises a gory, terrifying, unpredictable ride:
“Of course it’s impossible, but it was all impossible to begin with.
I keep thinking of George LeBay in Ohio.
His sister in Colorado.
Leigh in New Mexico.
What if it’s started again?
What if it’s working its way east, finishing the job?
Saving me for last?
His single-minded purpose.
His unending fury.” (Christine)
5. Leave ‘em hanging. Especially if you plan to write a sequel, frame those last lines so that you give away most of the answers, but not all. Or introduce just enough element of wonder so the reader will need to pick up the next book to find out what happens. Or leave something about the characters’ lives unresolved.
It can be tough, when you really think about it, to get those final words just right. But that’s part of the creative process, isn’t it? Because when you do, and when you type the words “The End” at the bottom of the last page, that feeling of perfect conclusion can be magic.