April 21st, 2017

How to Write a Great Last Line

Don't you just love it when a line in a book so good, that you just have to stop reading to appreciate it for a few minutes? Me too.  I think that's part of the reason I began writing - to, just once - write one of those sentences. 

You can find them scattered throughout books, of course (Jodi Picoult...sigh) But I think they're most often at the very beginning, or the very end of a book. (I wrote a blog on first sentences. You can read it here.) Why? Well, I have to admit, as an author, I spend more time thinking/editing/writing/crafting those words than any other in the book. Are you the same?

Before we talk about how to do that - lets indulge ourselves (okay, we'll wallow) in some amazing last lines, shall we?

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.” Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me. “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

*     *     *     

“Then starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.”
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

*    *    * 

 “Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

*     *     *  

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Animal Farm, George Orwell

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36 responses to “How to Write a Great Last Line”

  1. Noelene says:

    Enjoyed reading this blog! Thank you for the advice.

  2. Holly Robinson says:

    Wow, Laura, you picked two of my favorite last lines here--from In Cold Blood and Brokeback Mountain. Love those. Thanks for reminding me. I love last lines that offer a visual representation of what the book's theme is, like Capote's does here. Another of my favorite's is Fitzgerald's in The Great Gatsby: "And so we beat on, boats against the current,borne back ceaselessly into the past." I also adore the last line of James Joyce's Ulysses, but it's way too long to type here 🙂

  3. I love last lines that hit me hard. Love your examples. Here is one of my favorites. “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

  4. jamesr403 says:

    Excellent essay, Laura! One of my favorites -- there are so many -- is "No," I said, "this one's on the house." I threw it in his face. Robert A. Heinlein, Have Space Suit -- Will Travel. It ties the book together, demonstrates how Kip (the milkshake thrower) has grown, and it's just right. Thanks!

  5. Debbie Willette says:

    I especially like Hemingway's last line as a question. Are questions as last lines still considered okay to do? If so, I just thought of a great one for my current WIP.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Absolutely okay, Debbie- share it with us!

      • Debbie Willette says:

        Oh, wow, Laura, thanks for the interest! Two young men have been estranged from their father. One of the boys is getting married and one is best man. Here are the last lines: Denny hadn’t seen Ernie come into the church, but he hoped he was there. Wasn’t a wedding the perfect time to mend broken connections?

        The reader knows I killed off the father, Ernie, as he was traveling to the wedding. Btw, I again read your article about first lines, and it was also a huge help. Love what you come up with!

        • Laura Drake says:

          Sounds like a great last line, Debbie, thanks for sharing! You wander in our archives, you'll find a plethora (always wanted to use that word in a sentence) of amazing info!

  6. colleen says:

    Nice tips, Laura. Especially like the one about questions and answers. I'll use that. I just finished Margaret Atwood's latest, "The Heart Goes Last," and loved the last line. You have to read the story, so I'll include a bit more, but it was so perfect:
    "Take it or leave it," says Jocelyn. "I'm only the messenger. As they say in court, you're free to go. The world is all before you, where to choose."
    "How do you mean?" says Charmaine.

  7. Alice Fleury says:

    Great Post. I think last lines are more important than first. A last line can make me sigh and turn back a page to read the last paragraph over.
    "This little girl's grown up by now," she said.
    Almost.
    Not quite.
    I wish you a long and happy life.
    The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

  8. crbwriter says:

    Perfect timing! I'm working on my current WIP's last line. I picked a dozen of my favorite books off the shelf, and discovered that without the rest of the book, the last lines didn't say much to me. But here's a good one, from Nick Hornby's SLAM: "I think that's what Tony Hawk was trying to tell me all along."

  9. Nadia Greasley says:

    Thank you Laura. There are plenty of blogs/articles about the "first line" but very few address the "last line." I especially like how you give concrete tips, making visible what is invisible.

  10. Fae Rowen says:

    Well, since I can't write, "And they all lived happily ever after," I like my last lines to show my readers that, without a doubt, my characters will be together forever. Linnea Sinclair's SHADES OF DARK: is about two people, with major trust issues, fighting across space.

    "It didn't matter. All that was mine, was his. And all that he was, was mine.
    And that was something worth fighting for."

  11. littlemissw says:

    'Write the last sentence first.' You made me shudder. That is horror movie stuff, right there.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Me TOO, littlemissw! James Scott Bell wrote a craft book about starting in the middle and working out from there. It should be shelved in the horror section.

  12. Great tips here - I love the idea of asking the MC a question. Thanks, Laura!

  13. Laura Drake says:

    Thanks, Deb - so sorry I'm not going to be at RWA for the RITA's, but know that I'll be watching from home!

    RITA finalist right there, people!

  14. Julie McCullough says:

    Great article, Laura. In my last novel, a rural family saga (The Fire In Blue), based on my family in the 50's and 60's - "We may not have travelled far, but we sure have come a long way".
    In my latest WIP, a fictional romantic suspense (Saving Grace), " With a smile fit to burst, Grace grabbed his hand, looked deep into those baby blues and uttered one word. 'Daddy'. "


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