If an opening line sells a novel, the closing line sells the authors next one. I’ve written lately about good opening lines, which to me should be a mixture of intriguing and quirky, and include something a little strange, or, something that’s just not quite right. Posing questions without asking them directly. But what about last lines? Ending a novel can be as difficult a task as starting one – if it has been an epic adventure, claiming that “They all went home for tea” won’t really suffice. Similarly for a love story – “They lived happily ever after” works fine for fairy tales, but not really anywhere else I don’t think (unless its perhaps used in an ironic way). And for the middle book of a series, the author needs to leave the reader wanting more, but also provide some kind of conclusion to the part of the story just finished.
Warning: the rest of this post contains some of my favourite last lines. If you don’t wish to know anything about the ending of the following books, please skip to the last paragraph!
Bridget Jones Diary; 1984; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Book Thief; Of Mice and Men; Brokeback Mountain; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; Beneath the Surface.
For me, a good example of a last line leading to another book is Bridget Jones’s Diary:
“An excellent year’s progress.”
Short and simple, but a perfectly good summing up of a novel detailing a year in her life, with just a little hint that there could be more to come (and it might not be as productive as the year just gone…)
One of the opening lines I highlighted as being particularly worthy of mention was from 1984 – “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” And the last line of this novel I find to be chilling and an absolutely perfect end to a story about a dystopian future and a man simply trying to make his way in the harsh reality of that world. For those who have been immersed in Winston’s world, there is nothing more disturbing than this on which to end his tale.
“He loved Big Brother.”
This is the key, I think, to a good last line. A reader has (hopefully) been totally immersed in the world of the characters and the events they have experienced. The last line read needs to epitomise what those experiences have meant, whether it’s a lesson learned, a mistake made (or rectified), a reconciliation or acceptance, or a promise of things to come (good or bad). Here are some of my favourite examples:
The ending of an epic journey; a lesson finally learned: “Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.” Memoris of a Geisha.
A dreadful comment on mankind after the horrors of war, which only appears so when you know the narrator is Death: “A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR. I am haunted by humans.” The Book Thief.
A simplistic comment on a complicated relationship: “Curley and Carlson looked after them. And Carlson said, ‘Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?’” Of Mice and Men
A tragic love story end with an even more tragic acceptance: “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.” Brokeback Mountain
However, to take an example I am not so fond of, I would have to go for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Such investment in a very long and at times slightly tiresome series, and what do we get at the end? “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.” Technically, the very last line is just the incredibly underwhelming “All is well.” Great. But I can’t really criticise without including the example from my own published novel for consideration:
“But she quickly looked away. It might just have been a trick of the evening light, after all.”
What I was trying to convey here was the notion that Maria, the “she” in question, can’t quite comprehend what has happened to her. She probably knows that what she has seen isn’t just a trick of the evening light, and that inn reality, she might see many more things in the future that she may want to turn away from. But she can’t; she never has. Again, as with my analysis of the opening line of Beneath the Surface, I don’t think this is of the calibre of 1984, but it’s not too bad. And as readers who heeded the spoiler alert rejoin the post, my final question is what, to you, makes a good last line? Let me know some of your favourites.