Some novel ways to end on a high
It’s one thing to start a book with a line that pulls readers in, but how should you bring it to a close? Happy or sad? Go out with a bang or opt for a more subtle ending? SINÉAD GLEESONasks some well-known writers about a tricky task – and what their favourite endings are
I wrote the closing lines of my current novel, Ghost Light, many months before I completed the book. I’ve often changed a last line in the hope of improving it. But once I decide on it, some version of it nearly always stays. It’s useful to have something more or less unchangeable to aim at. I think the last line of a story should be a beginning, not an end. It should at least leave open the possibility that something fundamental has changed for the characters and that they find themselves in a new world, perhaps unprepared. If the last line truly ends the book, it kills it.
The last line of my novel Redemption Falls carries a major revelation that retrospectively changes everything about the book, but generally I think such a late detonation is better avoided. Of course, there’s a wonderfully cheap pleasure to be got from a sort of heavy-metal ending, the literary equivalent of the two-minute-long repeated thrashing power-chord climax before you set the guitars on fire and stalk from the stage, but it’s nearly always wrong.
When I was 16 I read a novel I absolutely loved, and I can still remember the shimmering pleasure its last line gave. From Dickens’s Great Expectations: “I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”
A last line can be all sorts of things: a last kiss, a twist, a blow, a beginning. I don’t write last lines first, but I do write my books out of order, so I will write the last few scenes long before the book is finished. I find it very helpful to know what I am working toward. I think the ending and the last lines should both resolve things for the reader and open something that makes the reader see the ending in a new way. Of course this is not always possible; sometimes you just want the story to glide to a close. I have changed and edited a last line, but I don’t make a fetish out of it. My favourite last line is from The Lotteryby Shirley Jackson: “ ‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”
The last line reminds us that no author has ever been truly original. Emphasis is hard-wired into our language, and the end of anything has more emphasis than the beginning. This includes the ends of sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters and entire books. And this emphasis is signalled by more than content. The last line often ends on paired heavy stresses, from accentual metre, or iambic pentameter, because these metres create the feel of a satisfying conclusion. There’s a higher level of phonological cohesion in last lines, with greater alliteration and even a preference for longer vowels. The author and reader go through a kind of ceremony together. The master of the last line is James Joyce, with Arabyand The Deadbeing the most famous, I would guess. My own experience with last lines is that they can’t be forced. If they don’t work, then no amount of revision will help. The problem is always earlier in the story. Until the earlier kinks are worked out, the last line can’t happen.
The best last lines are those which act as the final hook to ensure a novel stays in the reader’s mind, either because it contains some closing revelation, because it clarifies a previously veiled theme or because it suggests narrative developments to come.
The best last line should be like a stone dropped in the pond, setting off ripples. Trying to write a last line with significant impact is a dangerous thing to do. Trying to do most things in writing can be problematic, as usually the reader can see the trying. It’s more a question, as with first lines, of choosing the right one from all the lines you already have, and those are usually not the first or last lines you write: as with film, it usually helps to enter as late as possible and get out as quick as you can.
It can be tempting to fiddle endlessly with last (and first) lines more than the rest, but it’s a temptation which mostly should be avoided, again because it will probably show. The last line probably is one of the most important in a novel, but that’s all the more reason to allow it to be a natural and spontaneous one. Sometimes you can have the rare blessing of just knowing that the right line has turned up. I’ve just finished Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, which has a quite beautifully devastating last line: “You do decide when it hurts.” Which sounds, in isolation, a little glib but, as the conclusion to all the pain and hard-earned resolution which the book contains, is quite masterful.
My favourite last line has to be from Pat McCabe’s incredible The Butcher Boy: “He told me what he was going to do when he won his money, then I said it was time to go tracking in the mountains, so off we went, counting our footprints in the snow, him with his bony arse clicking and me with the tears streaming down my face.” Most great last lines only really work in context, but that sentence holds everything that makes the book punch you right in the gut: that perfect balance of black humour, vortexing insanity and terrible sadness.
When I’m working on an ending it’s more about the whole last paragraph than about the last line. It doesn’t need to pack a huge punch, but it does need to bring the book to rest, like you’re bringing a bird in to land after a long flight. For some reason I usually end up writing it when I’m about halfway through the book, probably because then it gives me something to move towards, an end point for the arc of the book. That last paragraph is the last thing you’re leaving in your readers’ minds, so it needs to be absolutely right. When I first write it I edit it and rewrite it and mess with it about a million times, but once it’s done it stays that way. I’ve never gone back and changed it later.
The last line of The Twinwas the last line of chapter 55: “I would never have known that they’d had poles here with wires strung between them.” A couple of months before it was published I wrote an entire new last chapter, because I felt the ending was wrong, a bit like an American movie with a happy ending. It now ends with the line: “I am alone.”
The last line of a story can be an end point, except of course if the book has an open ending. Then the last sentence can also be, for the reader, the start of a complete new novel (by the same author), a novel that will probably never be written but might take shape in the mind of the reader. What happens is that the last line is usually a line somewhere in the last chapter, and this last chapter gets edited back to the new last line. An ending is very hard, I find; one tends to want to write too much in the end. I always strike the last two to four last lines when I write a poem, something which usually makes the poem much stronger.
A simple last line is best, for me. Writing something in the hope that it has a huge impact is usually not a very clever thing to do, because you can’t fool a reader that easily. And it is tempting to try to write the best last line ever written. The last line of my new novel, De Omweg ( The Detour), is: “There would still be a couple hours of light left.” I love the ending of Lord of Dark Places, by Hal Bennett, a rather obscure American novel written by a black (and now dead) author.
It is a wonderful and terrible book that has opened my eyes. I read it and then thought, One just has to be courageous, one can write about everything, just do it! It ends with: “He died.” You can’t get it any more simple. I also like the ending of At Swim, Two Boys, by Jamie O’Neill. It’s a very thick book that has an enormous amount of stuff in it but simply ends with: “ ‘What cheer, eh?’ he called.” Which left me smiling.
The walk-away line at the end of a novel is just as important as any opening line. It’s like closing the door on the story but also leaving it ajar, so that the reader cannot help glancing back in at the last minute to see the entire novel undressed. Not something a writer can possibly plan in advance. Come to think of it, the last line is probably more like a first line, a final twist of irony, something uncomfortable, a question mark, anything to stop the story being neatly tied up like a gift. Albert Camus’s short novel The Outsiderhas never been far away from my grasp. In fact there are at least three editions of it in various parts of the house right now. The protagonist is on trial for the mindless murder of a man in Algeria. The profound detachment from human feeling throughout the novel is brought to a provocative screech in the last line when he suddenly welcomes the imminent shower of public condemnation. “For me to feel less lonely, all that remained was to hope that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”
I wish I were the kind of writer who didn’t begin a story unless she knew where it was going. Katherine Anne Porter, for instance, or John Irving, who famously follows that last sentence as though it were a beacon. But I’m one of those other writers, who’s trying to figure it out along the way. I struggle with endings far more than I do with beginnings. I think you can begin a story anywhere – at the beginning, in the middle or at the end – but when you work the way I do (haphazardly), coming to the end is really a question of recognising it.
I rewrote The Pleasure Seekerseight times, and it was only when I recognised the end, and caught hold of it, that I could then edit my way towards that last line. The test of a really good last line is to see whether it makes you want to go back to the beginning and read the book again. I’m not a fan of abrupt or ambiguous endings. I like knowing that I’m coming to the end, so I quite enjoy the tidy resolution with a bit of a punch. Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, for instance: “We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”
But what I really love are intoxicating endings; endings that leave you with an aftertaste, an essence of the book. Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez are all modern-day masters in this regard, but my favourite is probably Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights: “I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”