Lasting Impression of Last Words…
Things are a little hectic round about the Dragonsnest and at the Editor’s Corner. It’s October: Month of the Dragon starts today and, well, you can just imagine the flurry of activity. So I thought I would bookend last week’s ramble on openings with one this week on closings.
And there are great ones.
Some are meta statements, literary conceits that step out of the tale and remind the reader that they are just that, a reader:
And you say, ‘Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.’ …Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler
Some are the simple culmination of the tale’s action – aka they-all-lived-happily-(or not)-ever-after:
Shining fragments of aquarium glass fell like snow around him. And when the long-awaited white fingers of water tapped and lapped on Oscar’s lips, he welcomed them in as he always had, with a scream, like a small boy caught in the sheet-folds of a nightmare. …Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
Still others offer a philosophical, poetic tying up of loose ends:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
…F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
(For the life of me, I do not know why Francis Ford Coppola chose not to use this in his 1974 screenplay, opting instead for the far less powerful lines of a couple paragraphs earlier.)
And then, some lines do not end at all, but propel the characters – and the reader – into a whole new venture:
The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
So, what makes for a good closing line? Unlike your first line, you aren’t looking to create that throat-gripping “Ah-ha!” moment. This is the moment when your characters – and you, yourself – exeunt the stage, and you want to leave your reader satisfied. An audience wants – nay, demands – that their hours have been wisely and well spent. They want to close the book and say, “Ah, yes! Exactly!” then rise to their feet and cheer. That’s not asking much, right?
There are no rules for penning the perfect close, though I would suggest you don’t force it or try to be coy. Dig deep into your story and let it flow organically. If you know your tale, know your characters, their end will be a natural offshoot of that knowledge. Messy or neat as Sam Spade’s whisky, nine times out of ten, if it comes from that place it will work.
Now, for the sheer joy of it and because I am a sucker for glorious prose, I shall regale you with a select few of my favorite last lines. Enjoy.
I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom, I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa prinstina nomine, nomine nuda tenemus.
…Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by.
…Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.
…Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn grey and cold.
…Charles Dickens, Hard Times
But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want, they said in their hundred voices, ”No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”
…E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
(I love the bittersweet irony of this passage; the loss of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation is enough to break the heart.)
Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.
…Russell Banks, Continental Drift
“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”
…John Gardner, Grendel
He was, indeed, so confidently happy that he completely forgot Fran and he did not again yearn over her, for almost two days.
…Sinclair Lewis, Dodsworth
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
…Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
This was not judgment day – only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.
…William Styron, Sophie’s Choice
But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.
…John Irving, The World According to Garp
No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie.
…Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.
…E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending – a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.
…Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
As Margaret Atwood said, “Are there any questions?” (A Handmaid’s Tale).
No? Then I will simply fade away. For now…