The First Line Monday facebook page is a painless education on what works and what doesn’t as the first line/lines in a novel. And, how much people’s opinions about working/not working vary! All writers are advised that the openings of their books, if that not one single line, are critical in finding agents, publishers, and readers. What about the ending? That’s important too in a different way. It’s the author’s last chance to make a point or an impression. Or not.
I’ve written about endings before—endings and ambiguity, book endings that disappoint. Here I’m going to do what the facebook page does and just provide the last lines as a standalone. The big difference is, of course, that by the time you get to the last line, you’ve (most likely) read the rest of the book. So you interpret the words much differently than you would a first line. You have context. Still, some lines work better than others in planting a lasting seed.
Here are a few:
“The automonk carried the empty wicker basket up the beach. Eiko followed.” (Ray Nayler’s wonderful The Mountain Under the Sea). This line conveys a since of “ok, life goes on here,” in its quotidian way, which is a very hopeful place to end. Read the whole book and find out why!
“That’s where we are. Well past the Christiansburg exit. Past Richmond, and still pointed east. Headed for the one big thing I know is not going to swallow me alive.” (Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, Dickens’s David Copperfield adapted to today’s also-not-very-kind-to-children-in-difficult-circumstances world—a fantastic book). The reader knows the “one big thing” is the ocean (and so much more of life) and that Damon believes it “won’t swallow me alive” because he’s protected against drowning, but also because, in other aspects of life, he’s developed the skills and relationships to save himself. A perfect summation of the entire book.
“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.” (Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch). Opinions about this book vary, and this last sentence is a good example of why I think the whole final quasi-philosophical section is just Too Much.
“There’s nothing as exciting as a fresh new start when the page is blank and the future is all for the making!” (Janice Hallett’s clever The Appeal). The last words are from Izzy, the clueless instigator of a lot of bad stuff, and the exclamation point represents her perfectly.
“He is far from England now, far from these islands, from the waters salt and fresh. He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall.” (Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light, third in her trilogy about Tudor England’s Thomas Cromwell). I frankly don’t know how she wrote this; I would have been weeping all over my typewriter, but to have to write the moment of Cromwell’s death after so many intimate pages, I think this, with its poetic tone, really works.
“Kate found her seat. Never looked back.” (Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris). This ending certainly fits, because through the whole of this WWII thriller, Kate doesn’t seem to think about consequences.
Do you have some favorite endings? Ones you thought really worked well?
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The last lines of Smiley’s People, the final book in Le Carre’s trilogy. So perfectly understated.
Yeah, endings are important. As Mickey Spillane once put it, Your first line sells your book Your last line sells your next one.