Last week, I talked about exploring the last lines in novels — and how much can be learned from some of the classic novelists, often ending their stories with impact. How do those last lines linger? Make you think? Make you feel?
A fun and alternate exercise can lead to some creative and thought-provoking writing prompts. Want to try a some? Choose a book you have not yet read OR haven’t picked up in a long time. Read the title of the book, the first line, and the very last line. (Hint: Sometimes the cover art can give away some details of story, but sometimes it can be deceiving.) Do the lines give away the arc of the story? Is there a shared thread between these lines — or do you sense a drastic change in tone from the beginning to the end? What can you glean about the story as a whole?
I’ve pulled a few great titles for you to experiment with. Here are a few to try (then skip to the bottom and try some of the writing prompts):
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
First line: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Last line: And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.
First line: On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashimi Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.
Last line(s): But for now his mother is distracted, laughing at a story a friend is telling her, unaware of her son’s absence. For now, he starts to read.
Sula by Toni Morrison
First line: In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.
Last line: It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
First line: There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
Last line: But between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.
First line: Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election.
Last line: Though the headmaster was the younger man, and much shorter, and though Arch was lame and had white hairs coming out of his ears and white stubble all over his face, he felt no more than a boy again — but a very well-versed boy who couldn’t help thinking of the scene described by these old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
First line: The match snapped, then sizzled, and I woke up fast.
Last line: But I was tougher.
- Using only the title, first line, and last line, write the premise of the story.
- Pretend you are writing the jacket copy for marketing purposes, what would it say?
- Describe the main character in the story.
- Summarize the emotional arc of the story.
After you complete one or more of the writing prompts, you can explore the books and see if your hunches were right. Those first lines and last lines can be surprisingly powerful — and generous.