The Last Line

by limebirdster

In my last year of uni, I gate crashed one of my sister’s writing residentials and spent a week at a lovely house in Wales being tranquil and writing poetry. Well, ish.

While I may not have got a great deal of actual writing done, it was at least calm and tranquil. That is until my sister’s book sailed across the bedroom and she started swearing and gesticulating wildly. I looked up from my blank sheet of paper and waited for her to explain.

‘Read the last line!’

I did. I laughed, but I could see why she was so annoyed. She’d just read roughly 100,000 words of a book, only to hate the last line so much that it ruined the entire story for her. She may even have gone through the stages of grief:

‘It can’t end here, this can’t be the end.’

‘Why would they write that?! I can’t believe I just read that!’

‘Maybe there’s a sequel that would redeem it…’

‘I just wasted hours of my life reading that.’

‘I’m starting a new book and forgetting that one ever existed.’

On the rare occasion that I’ve written enough of a story to actually reach the final line, I always find myself thinking about my sister and her anger over a terrible last line. The last line is important, perhaps the most important. The first line can be helped along its way by the lines that follow, but the last line has no outside help.

I once wrote an entire extra chapter in a story just to accommodate the last line. It genuinely scares me, the fact that the last thought that any reader will have of your story, no matter what may have come before it, rests on those last few words.

I have yet to come up with a perfect last line, though not for lack of trying! But here are a few of my favourites:

‘Ah, Arutha, you take all the fun out of life!’ – Magician by Raymond E Feist.

The third book in the series ends almost identically with; ‘Ah Arutha, You still take all the fun out of life!’

‘[Atticus] would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.’ – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

‘I ran with the wind blowing in my face, and a smile as wide as the Valley of Panjsher on my lips. I ran.’ – The Kite Runner by Kheled Hosseini.

‘I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer…’ – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling.

And possibly my least favourite: ‘All was well.’ – Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows.

Do you any favourite or hated last lines? For those of you that are wondering, the line that my sister was shouting about was something like this:

‘Everything will turn out alright in the end.’

‘It doesn’t feel alright.’

‘That’s because it isn’t the end.’

I honestly can’t remember what the book was and that might not be a direct quote, but the very last line is definitely right!

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30 Responses to “The Last Line”

  1. Great post Ster! I definitely agree that the last line is important. There is nothing worse than getting all the way through a novel, to be left feeling disappointed! My favourites are:

    “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” The Catcher in the Rye

    “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” Animal Farm

    • Thanks Beth, I’ve somehow never managed to make it to the end of The Catcher in the Rye, I keep meaning to try again and not getting round to it!

      Animal Farm has a great last line, rounds off the story really well. If only I could think of a line like that!

  2. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” – Sidney Carton from A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

    and from one extreme to another, Mickey Spillane said,

    “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.”

    • I haven’t heard that quote from Mickey Spillane before, but it’s very true! If you don’t like it at the end, you’re never going to pick up the next one!

  3. Good blog, definitely made me think about how to end future (and to check past) stories.

    I’ve just read the last lines of my two favourite books, the first from The Beach “I carry a lot of scars.” Which I think sums the book up and ends it perfectly.

    Then from The Bell Jar “The eyes and the faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.” Which I guess just as a last line isn’t that great but at the end of the book actually made sense and didn’t make me want to throw it across the room but did make me wish there was more to read.

    • I think for the last line, it doesn’t matter how it sounds out of context, it’s all about how it connects to the story. It could make absolutely no sense by itself but if it rounds off the story then I think it’s done it’s job!

  4. Its thought provoking, since I am reading lots of poetry at the moment, and wondering about the order that some work is put into. Does last line stretch into last poem in a collection?

    I have struggled to order the collection I am trying to put together at the moment, finding how to end. Not to low, not to cheesy…

    Difficult. Should you leave them wanting more with a last line and risk their wrath? Or does a story have a natural end?

    Jim

    • I think that with poetry, it’s the last line of every poem that’s important, no pressure! Because a lot of people dip in and out of collections, so every poem needs to make you read the next one. Maybe the last poem as a whole needs to kind of sum up the entire collection rather than just the last line, or end whatever story you’ve been telling throughout the collection.

      Poetry is more difficult I think because every line is important, you can’t really have a lazy line in poetry, you could hide one in a novel but in a poem it’ll always stick out!

  5. Excellent post. I don’t have any examples off the top of my head, and no books handy but I know there’ve been one or two where I’ve gotten to the end, stared at the page and proclaimed, “Well, that sucks.” Or, “What the heck kind of ending is that?!!?” Now in my final edit, I know some readers are going to be ticked at my ending, but there is a sequel so my ending almost has to read like a hook, yet still wrap everything up.

    • Sequels are even more difficult I think! You can’t tie up the story completely because you need to continue in the next book, but too ambiguos might annoy readers!

      I think that’s why a lot of first books in series can stand alone, because you’re planning for a sequel but at the same time, if it doesn’t happen you need enough of the story to be concluded so that it makes sense!
      I always hate reading series before they’ve been finished because I don’t want one to end on a cliffhanger and have to wait a year to find out what happens next! But then I’m very impatient like that, I’m one of those people who reads the last line at the beginning.

  6. Yes! Last lines and first lines are two big challenges. I don’t usually have any trouble with first lines, but last lines sometimes give me trouble, because I have the idea in mind, and yet the story keeps evolving, so I have to keep on writing until I can put that ender on. Uff, it’s frustrating!

    • I know what you mean! I had a last line in mind from the beginning of a draft once, and then the story veered off in a different direction and it took me months to think of a new one! Frustrating indeed!

  7. redjim99 : I was going through the threat of redundancy when I was putting my collection together. Being an anal retentive type of guy I didn’t want lots of white space in the book and so, in the couple of months that I was finalising everything, I wrote a daily poem on twitter. 26 of these Twitterludes made it into the book and were scattered around as “fillers”. The last one was used to sum it (me) up.

    “I am not my job
    three hours out of four
    I create
    I dream
    this is the real me”

    it seemed to work and took the pressure off of the last real poem.

  8. Brighton Rock has a stunning last line and first line…

    ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’

    Through to

    ‘She walked rapidly in the thin June sunshine towards the worst horror of all.’

    The last line is so effective because we know what’s coming, she doesn’t…

  9. The last line I hated more than anything:

    “Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”

    If we readers really wanted to choose our own ending, we would be writing our own damn story!

    • I can’t think of my own example off the top of my head (although I’m definitely going to be thinking about this), but even though I have no idea what book M.K. Hajdin’s example is from, that strikes me as being an infuriating last line!

      • Oops, Sally, I am sorry. It’s not from a novel, but a famously infuriating short story entitled “The Lady or the Tiger?” It was supposed to be so clever, but I couldn’t stand it.

    • I hate that too! There were so many people on my course at uni who liked to leave thier endings ambigous and I always wanted to ask if they were writing a choose your own adventure story!

  10. My own recently published novella “Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder” has an absolutely perfect last line, but wild horses couldn’t make me tell you what it is! You know how to find out, though!

  11. Hey, I just wanted to let you know about The Dark Globe’s “February Shoot Off! Photography Competition that will beginning February 1st, and Running Through February 14th… At The Moment We’re Voting on the Themes for the Photos if you’d like to Partake Here http://thedarkglobe.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/february-shoot-off-help-us-choose-the-theme-s/

    Also, if you’d like to Submit a Photo, or know people that might want to, be sure to Let them know it will be Starting February First

    Thanks

    DarkJade-

  12. Hi Ster,

    Great post. You mentioned one of my favorite lines already, the one from To Kill a Mockingbird–which is my favorite book.

    I like the last line in The Prince of Tides: I can’t tell you why I do it or what it means, but each night when I drive toward my southern home and my southern life, I whisper these words: “Lowenstein, Lowenstein.”

    It’s the kind of line that only makes sense if you’ve read the book. It’s full of longing and loss and yet, hope too. I think I like the lines that have a little bit of that balance.

  13. I write short stories based on my life. I know the finesse of writing the right last line. Sometimes it just comes to me easy as rain falling from the sky and sometimes it take longer to write than the entire story. The first and the last line often make or break the story.

  14. I… never remember anything specific, it seems. No last lines or even first lines are coming to me, but plenty of things in the middle!

  15. Oh wow. You’re totally right, but now I’m totally intimidated! I hadn’t even thought about that yet. Though I suppose I’ve completed a couple of short stories…

    I can’t think of any faves or dislikes right now, but you’ve definitely given me food for thought!

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