Monday, October 15, 2018
The Last Words Are Pretty Tough As Well
In my last post, "The First Words are the Hardest," I discussed the importance of that first sentence and how it set the stage for all those tens of thousands of words to follow. After all those words have been written and the story has reached its ending, we need the second-most-important sentence – the last one.
The closing line does more than conclude the story. What follows this sentence is the reader closing the book, setting the story aside, and considering just what they read. This will be echoing in their mind as they let their inner critic take over. If this line is effective, they might exhale gently, hug the manuscript, wipe away a solitary tear or all of the above – or maybe not. However, if this line fails; if this line does not meet the build-up created by the author, things can get ugly fast. The bad line can carry over to the next book that reader picks – assuming they ever pick another book you write.
I would offer some of literature’s great closing lines, but that’s a problem. The first thing a good closing line should do is bring closure to the story, and getting that line first is a bit of a spoiler. Without naming the book, a great closing line was simply, “I’ll try.” Two words, yet if I told you those words first, it would ruin the story about a man torn between settling in to a safe but boring life or taking a risk at something he really wanted in life. The writing would still be engaging, but you already know the ending, and lose the suspense.
To make a great closing line, first look at the story and think about what question it asks. Think about what the challenge is for the protagonist. Write one sentence about the hero’s journey that ends with a question – the answer to that question should be found in the last line. The concluding chapter will tie up all the loose ends and be full of all kinds of summarizing details, but that last sentence needs to crystallize how our hero has grown, changed, and ultimately reached that answer.
This rule does not just apply for books – any narrative will be judged on how it concludes. People read character sketches, narratives, and stories of all sizes to participate in an experience that preferably has a beginning, middle, and end. If they are not satisfied by the result, the experience is a disappointment because it does not offer the escapism of a full, complete story. As someone once said, “If I want to see a boring story that doesn’t go anywhere, I already have my life.”
Typing the final line of any work is a very exciting experience, but never be afraid to change it. Write several concluding sentences. Get a lot of outside input, and be open to change. By the time all that storytelling is complete, it might be satisfying to just wrap it up with the hero walking off into the sunset. However, the reader better be equally pleased with this, or al those thousands of words will be for nothing.
This is not to say that the ending cannot be controversial – the hero can fail at the mission, not learn the great lesson, or even die. These things will be talked about and discussed for years to come if they are written well and fit the mood. But if that last line does not offer a conclusion of some form to the question asked by the story, the whole story is at risk.
It’s easy to write a great three-hundred page story then ruin it with the last page. Give that last sentence a particular amount of attention – enough to do justice to everything that preceded it.