We writers pay a lot of attention to first lines. They’re supremely important — for the reader, they are the opening impression, the first glimpse not only at the story but also at the style of the story and even (dare I say it in this age of modern criticism) at the author. For the publisher and the bookseller, they serve as the hook to snare a reader — a buyer of fiction — and pull them into a story. For the author, they can easily become mere gimmicks, catchy one-liners tossed onto the beginning simply to snare not a reader but a publisher. Yet they remain deeply significant, particularly when done right, and we writers rightly pay them a great deal of our time. Some of my Writer’s Notebook entries, in fact–including last week‘s — have come from a blog titularly devoted to the First Line. And when we writers and readers and nerds play those literary games in which we quiz ourselves over our knowledge of the written word, one of our favorites is the recognition of famous first lines.
But recently, my wife discovered a different game, in the form of an online Entertainment Weekly article: Great last lines in literature.*
The last line is perhaps as important as the first; in terms of posterity, I might say it is more important, since the first line draws us into a story but a last line can affect the way we forever feel about a story. It is our exiting moment, our echo from the end that will carry into our everyday lives after we close the book. Last lines are hugely important. Yet we pay so little attention to them, at least in our popular or everyday conversations.
Perhaps we’re afraid of giving away an ending. Perhaps we are intimidated by them. But we need them so desperately, we writers. Endings are one of the most crucial bits in a story, because they need to do more than simply leave us with a “wow” moment, and they need to do more than simply wrap up a story: the best endings will change the way we see the story we’ve just read, they will leave us reviewing (or, ideally, even re-reading) a story again and again.
I know that in our private lives, we writers in particular take great care with our endings. Many writers even choose to begin with the ending and work the story backward. In workshops, beginning writers are often warned away from this because it can lead to stories that feel too forced, less organic, too much in the service of a cute, gimmicky last line. Our teachers and mentors are right to warn us. I remember that in many of my later, advanced workshops and one-on-one conversations with mentors, one of the most common criticisms on my fiction was that my stories didn’t quite earn their endings. I came to learn that my problem wasn’t in writing for the ending but in letting the ending exist separately from the story, so that even as I wrote toward the fantastic last line I’d conceived, I wasn’t writing a fantastic story — I was content to rest the weight on the ending and leave it at that.
Those writers who successfully begin with the ending — sometimes a last scene, sometimes the exact final sentence — have an array of techniques for using it to drive their story. Some will write backward, working out in reverse how all the elements of the story can lead to this final moment (this is especially common in mystery fiction). Others will work into a story the front way, the “organic” way, but at some point realize where the story is headed and, to give themselves an end point to work toward, will skip ahead and scribble out the ending. (I’ve used both these techniques, on both stories and novels, with mixed success.)
Occasionally, an ending will come all on its own, a part of the “organic” process itself, and we won’t even realize that this is the ending we’re working toward. Recently, I began reading the collected stories of John Cheever, and in his preface to the book, Cheever describes how he would sometimes compose those stories out loud, trying lines in his own voice or simply announcing them when they came to him, formed on their own. “It was under the canopy of a Fifty-ninth Street apartment house that I wrote, aloud, the closing of ‘Good-bye, My Brother.’ ‘Oh, what can you do with a man like that?’ I asked, and closed by saying, ‘I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.'”
What a fantastic last line! I’d not yet read the story, but already I had an idea of what sort of story it must be, and reading it later that same night was a delightful exercise in both how right and how wrong I’d been. Such is the power of a terrific last line.
So tomorrow, I think I’ll return to Lori Ann Bloomfield’s First Line blog, but instead of starting a story with one of her first lines, I’ll use it as a last line and see what sort of story might lead there.
* I should confess that I had my wife read these to me aloud, and when she mentioned a title I’ve not yet read but want to, I asked her to skip it. I am, in fact, afraid of giving away the ending. So read this article at your own risk.
2 thoughts on “Last lines”
Gee, Sam let me know how that experiment goes. Last lines in my opinion are even harder than first lines. One of my favourites is the last line of The Great Gatsby. Beautiful stuff. Hey – I’ve been dipping into Cheever’s collected stories lately too!
Will do–look for it later on Friday. It’s going to be tricky, of course, because if I carry it through to its end, I’ll essentially have to write an entire story, and I’ll have to write it backward. I could try to confine it to a short-short, just to make my life easier, but I’ve written a few stories backward already, and my experience so far is that, even more than with forward-written “organic” stories, you have to let the story tell itself, which means there’s no telling how long it’ll wind up being. So as much fun as this will be as a full-blown exercise, it might become a failure as a blog post. We’ll see.
But I’m thrilled you like the idea! And it’s weird when our reading habits trend together, isn’t it? Weren’t we once reading a lot of Munro at the same time, too?