There is often much talk — for good reason — about the opening lines in novels. After all, a good first line can hook a reader and immediately pull them into your story. The writer’s job, of course, is to keep the story interesting, so the reader stays invested long after the first page.
Beyond the hook — in the early pages, we as writers and readers, are taught to look for the implicit promise. What does this book promise me? What can I expect? What can I predict? Mystery novels are often formulaic in their approach to unveiling the implicit promise — someone dies early in the novel and their death/murder is a mystery. The implicit promise is that the murder will be solved by the time the book ends. All novels hold a promise and often the success/popularity of the novel hinges on whether the reading audience was satisfied with how the writer fulfilled the promise by the time they read the last lines.
This leads me to the topic of my post today. Last lines. Compared to first lines, not as much attention is often paid to the lonely last lines of novels. (Arguably the opposite is true of movies — people often remember the last lines in films.) If we love a book, we often dread the last line because we don’t want the story to end. It’s common for the implicit promise to be fulfilled several pages before the end of the book, so sometimes the very last lines may seem less important, with the purpose of just rounding things out and tying up any loose ends. My favorite stories, however, have killer last lines. The kind of lines that linger in your mind. The kind that make you rethink the novel. The kind that fill you with emotion and make you want to turn to the first page and begin all over again. If the book is part of a series, the last line can be used as an early hook to entice us into reading the next book.
Earlier this year, in a creative writing class at Stanford, my professor asked us to revisit the last lines in novels. This proved to be one of my favorite exercises in the writing class. She organized our task into three parts:
Classic novels — look at the last lines of some classic works (that you have previously read) and notice how they resonate with you. Do these last lines underscore what you remember about the entire story? Is there a hint of a promise fulfilled? Is there satisfaction noted? Do you sense a lesson learned? Is there emotional longing or fulfillment in the words?
Random Novels — pull any book off of the shelf (one that you have NOT already read) and read the last line. Can you infer anything about the story? Did the last line intrigue you in any way? Does it make you want to read the book?
Your Novel (or the draft of your novel-in-progress) — what is the last line in your novel or WIP? Does it imply the voice and sentiment that you had aimed for? How can it be improved?
The American Book Review has conveniently compiled a list of the 100 Best Last Lines from Novels — take a look at some of these to get an idea of what I mean — http://americanbookreview.org/pdf/100_best_last_lines_from_novels.pdf
Are there any you would add to the list?
Watch for my next blog post — using first and last lines as writing prompts — coming soon!