Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Best (and Worst) Last Lines

For writers and readers, there is a great deal of focus on the first line of a written piece, the grabber, the so-called hook. I agree that the way a work starts is vital--many readers, for example, judge whether or not to keep reading based on the first line.

As a writer, I struggle mightily with the last line, what we English teachers call "the clincher". I am horrific at ending my own writing ... I think that's why it took me fifteen years to write my first novel (and I'm still not thrilled with the ending). This is an area of constant struggle for me, and I'm just wondering if others feel the same way.

Why is there so much focus on first lines yet not as much to last lines, to the last thing a reader sees, to what he or she carries away with them?

John Irving is, in my opinion, the master of the last line. "In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases" is as much the ultimate close to a book as "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed" (from Stephen King's The Dark Tower, natch) is the quintessential opening. However, Irving has a very interesting approach to his writing--he writes the last line first, and goes from there. All of his books have amazing ending lines (although my personal favorite is the aforementioned one from The World According to Garp), but I suppose it could be argued that Irving isn't really in the running were there to be a contest since he puts the same effort into his concluding lines that most writers put into their first ones.

In looking through my nearby bookshelf, I found the following noteworthy final lines:

"'Peter, my dearest heart. Peter. Hello, love. You see? I did wait ...'" (from Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons)

"'Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin' them two guys?'" (from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck)

"Life isn't fair. It's just fairer than death, that's all." (from William Goldman's The Princess Bride)

"When the long winter nights come on and the wolves follow their meat into the lower valleys, he may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack." (from The Call of the Wild by Jack London)

"'I'm so glad to be at home again!'" (from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum)

"They will not know I have gone away to come back, for the ones I left behind, for the ones who cannot out." (from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros)

"I been there before." (from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)

With the exception of Twain and Goldman (and possibly London), none of these are particularly thought-provoking notions to leave your reader with. Does this mean that many (most?) writers share my difficulty with ending a novel, or am I just overly picky?

What is the best last line you've ever read in a book? What is the worst? If you're willing to share, what's the last line of something you've written (I'm not willing to share the last line of anything I've written ... my last lines are all crap ... I've definitely identified an area I need to focus on big-time as a writer)?

4 comments:

  1. I think I'm like Irving...I always know what the first and last lines will be...it's what's in between that I agonize over...:-) Great topic!!! I'll look forward to hearing what others have to say!!! Have a great Memorial Day!!! ~Janine XO

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  2. The only one I can think off at the top of my head is Harry Potter: "All is well." It was such a neat little sum-up to all the trials and tribulations of the series!

    I focus much more on the feeling than the words of the last line of a book...but it is terrifically important!

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  3. Hmm... I'd have to do a little researching here to answer your first two questions... that should be interesting, though!
    Sometimes I come up with the perfect last lines for my poems... I think I am a good closer overall, poetry wise. But I really haven't written too much in the way of actual prose or novel length... except for every year during the month of November when NaNoWriMo comes around. I'll share my last line from the 2007 attempt... and try not to laugh...
    "His father had destroyed his life and all Jack could do was sit there, in his loneliness and rage, and war against the man who took away his wife and daughter."
    Ah, so much for a happy ending...
    ;)

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  4. Great post -- and yeah, it's true that we seem so focused on that hook that we overlook the final line. The last line in my MG is, "Let's go home, little king ..." -- Of course, this hasn't been published yet, so who knows.

    I just pulled open my husband's nightstand and pulled out the first book I saw. It's "Chickenhawk" by Robert Mason. The final line is, "No one is more shocked than I."

    I love the last lines in books. They either finish the story up for good, or leave you wanting/expecting more.

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