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Last Lines

2011 Anna Furtado

I'm waxing nostalgic about endings these days. Perhaps it's because this is my last column for Just About Write. What a wonderful five years it's been. (I joined JAW in its third year.) With each article I've written, I've learned so much myself. Words can't express my deep gratitude to Nann Dunne for giving me a place to share my thoughts on the craft of writing. Nann has been a great leader and before I launch into my final column about "Last Lines," I first want to express my thanks to her, and to all the readers out there who come to this spot on the Web month after month to see what we have to offer and, I hope, to gain something from it to enhance their own knowledge of writing.

Now, to Last Lines...

There are two types of last lines. There is the last line in a story - the sentence before the literal or figurative "The End," and there are the last lines of scenes and chapters. The two serve very different purposes as far as I'm concerned.

The Last Line Before "The End"

The final line in a story is the one that has the potential to linger long after the story is done. That memorable last line may help keep the characters alive for the reader long after she's stopped reading, but even with the best last line before "The End," that lingering won't happen if the story and the characters aren't memorable in the first place.

You know the stories I'm talking about. Those that have you wondering what the characters are doing now, how they're getting on with their lives now that the crisis is over and they've found each other to live happily-ever-after, or the great tragedy has come to its sad end, or the mystery is finally solved. If the story is compelling and the characters memorable, having an impressive last line is like the cherry on top. But a brilliant last line isn't going to redeem a story that isn't any good in the first place. Consider these lines that end a story:
He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

For now she knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
-Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

Are there any questions?
-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
Those are memorable lines, it's true, but they each close a story that is remarkable on its own merits.

Margaret Atwood's ending is the most unforgettable one for me because by the end of the tale, there are, indeed, so very many questions-about the main character and about humanity in general. I read that book years ago, yet I still think about that story now and then. Long-lingering last lines have a haunting quality about them, but they must reflect the story as a whole.

The Last Line of Scene or Chapter

Last lines in scenes and chapters serve a different purpose. Type "last lines" into any search engine, and you won't find much. (Conversely, searching for "opening lines" will result in enough articles to keep you entertained - or at least occupied - for a long time.) Yet it occurs to me that last lines of scenes and chapters are a very important part of our craft. For, just as opening lines pull the reader into a story for the first time, lines that end scenes and chapters continue to keep the reader moving along. The last line in a scene or a chapter can keep the reader from closing the book and going to sleep or tackling some waiting chore. It can pull the reader into the next chapter, almost against the reader's will, with an urgency that can't be denied. A writer who can accomplish that will achieve the ultimate goal. When the reader closes the book for the final time, she will want more, and will find herself eager for your next book.

What draws people to the next chapter, even when they know they should have been asleep long ago? Here's an example to consider:

Prior to the end of the chapter below, Mary, a waitress in a local diner, has worked a ten-hour shift, but before her shift started, she interviewed for a position at a restaurant supply house in town. While she was on her break at the diner, her cell phone rang. The manager at the restaurant supply house wanted her to return for another interview. It all sounded very promising. If Mary gets the job, she'll be able to work "normal" hours, have weekends off, and have a better, more steady income that includes benefits. Mary and her partner have been having some personal issues, but Mary hopes the chance for a new job will bring about a new lease on their relationship.
End of Chapter 1:
Mary walked into the house after a long, hard day, excited to tell Julie her news.

Chapter 2
The house was empty, marked by an eerie quiet. On the kitchen table, a half-eaten sandwich and an opened bottle of water sat at Julie's place. The back door, like the front, was locked up tight... Mary didn't know what to do. Julie was gone without so much as a note. She might search for her, but she had no idea where to look. She could call the police and report her missing, but they probably would only think her a raving idiot without evidence of foul play...
So Mary walks into the house and finds Julie gone. Mary's thinking the worst has happened. (Cue the ominous music.) But as we re-read the last sentence of Chapter 1, it does nothing to suck us into Chapter 2. Oh, sure, Mary's excited to tell Julie some potentially good news. Big deal. At this point, we probably don't care enough about these characters to make that information compelling. What can we add to the end of Chapter 1 to make us want to - no, have to - start the next chapter?

What if Chapter 1 ended like this instead:
Mary walked into the house after a long, hard day, excited to tell Julie about her news, but as soon as she turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open, she knew something was wrong.
"Uh-oh. What is it that's wrong?" Can you hear it - that crinkling sound? That's the sound of the page turning as your reader tries to find out what it is that's giving Mary that ill-omened, sinking feeling. A minute before, Mary was tired, but happy and hopeful. Now everything's changed - but the reader has no idea what the change entails. Quick, turn the page!

Try this out on your own writing:
Take a work in progress. Look at the first line (or first few lines) of a new chapter (beginning with Chapter 2). Now look back at your last line in the chapter that precedes it. Does the end of the chapter draw you into the next one? If not, find something of those first few lines of the new chapter to turn into a "cliff hanger" for your previous chapter's last line. You might call that an end hook because it will reach out from Chapter 2 into the last sentence of Chapter 1 and pull your reader in, unable to put the book down.

My Own Last Lines

So, we've come to the place where I must put my own last lines on the page. Thank you, wonderful readers, for reading this column. It's been terrific to hear from those of you who have written to comment. It's been inspiring to work with Nann and my fellow JAW staff members. But most of all, it's been heart-warming to know that my fellow writers have, perhaps, gotten just a little bit of inspiration and insight from the words I've written here over the years. I hope these columns, along with your inner muses, have compelled you to keep writing - and that you will continue to do so into the future.
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist); The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles; and The Heart's Longing—Book Three of The Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write (JAW) and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.

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