In my last Writer Unboxed post, I wrote about great first lines in fiction. Today I want to jump forward to the opposite end of a novel, and great last lines.
Last lines are important not only because they are the final words a reader will see in a book, but because they help to fix it in the reader’s mind. Great last lines can have the effect of sending chills down your spine, or making you breathe a sigh of satisfaction, or intriguing you with possibilities to come. They may make you want to go right back to the beginning to start again on what has been an exciting journey. Or they may simply make you feel pleasure at the thought you have been so skilfully guided by the author through that journey. Great last lines work because whatever feeling they evoke in you, they are both suited to the particular kind of story they’ve been telling, and they’re memorable. And generally short, like those effective first lines I mentioned in my previous post–though that isn’t always the case, especially with 19th century novels. Finally, they come in two main types: the kind that closes the story off completely, having tied up all loose ends; and the type that whilst not being completely open-ended, leaves the story door slightly ajar, as it were, allowing for the reader to continue wondering about the characters and their futures. I’m not talking about books that have sequels here—those obviously will have last lines that are open-ended in one way or the other—but standalone novels.
Let’s look at some favourite examples of both types of last lines, and why they work.
First, the ‘closed’ kind:
He loved Big Brother. (from Nineteen Eighty Four)
We know from this chilling last line of George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel that nothing will be right for Winston, the main character, ever again; his spirit has been utterly broken.
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one! (from A Christmas Carol)
In contrast, this line expresses joy that everything worked out for everyone, the perfect ending to Charles Dickens’ short novel that blends ghost, fairy tale and morality tale elements.
Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them. (from Pride and Prejudice)
This last line from Jane Austen’s celebrated novel underlines both the happiness of Darcy and Elizabeth and their thoughtfulness regarding other people. You know they are set for a good future!
But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing. (from The House at Pooh Corner)
With this nostalgically beautiful line, AA Milne both points to the end of childhood and the putting away of favourite toys: yet the enduring power of memory and imagination.
There are many more examples, of course, that we could find—but now let’s look at the ‘slightly ajar’ kind:
And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea. (from Rebecca)
This atmospheric last line from Daphne du Maurier’s novel, which leaves readers with the image of the unnamed narrator and her husband Max de Winter watching the burning down of Manderley, also leaves us wondering about the de Winters’ future life, and whether they can ever be free of the ghosts from the past.
What will be the next adventure of the Moonstone? Who can tell? (from The Moonstone)
With these teasing last lines, author Wilkie Collins stimulates the reader to imagine what next could happen in the twisty tale of the famous jewel. But he never actually wrote a sequel! (An opportunity for someone perhaps? 😊)
After all, tomorrow is another day. (from Gone with the Wind)
In this ‘never give up’ last line, Margaret Mitchell pretty much encapsulates a central aspect of Scarlett O’Hara’s character: and leaves us wondering where she might fetch up next.
‘I know what you mean,’ said Harry Cat. (from The Cricket in Times Square)
This enigmatic last line in George Selden’s charming, magical children’s novel gives readers hope that Chester the cricket and his friends, the mouse Tucker and Harry the cat, might be one day reunited in the Connecticut countryside, where Chester has apparently gone, but also hints that things may be not quite what they seem.
Over to you: What are some of your favourite last lines in fiction? And why do you think they work?