The All Important Final Clause

By John Gilstrap

As an author, I believe that I make a silent contract with my readers to provide them with a complete entertainment experience. The suspense is a given (I hope) but there are also the light moments, the warm moments, and even the occasional tear-jerking moment. If I do my job right, I’ll hook ’em with the first line, run them through a roller coaster through all the middle chapters, and then, at the end, leave them feeling . . .

Well, it depends. More times than not, I want that last moment we have together to be one of those where you gently close the book, maybe squeezer it a little, and then say, “Jeeze, I wish it wasn’t over already.”

Think about all the ink we’ve spilled here in the Killzone talking about kick-ass beginnings. I think that endings are even more important. It’s not just about tying up loose ends, either, although obviously that’s important. I’m talking about that final note in the literary symphony. Is it a cymbal crash or a sweet pianissimo? Maybe we want them to have trouble reading through their tears.

Whatever our plan, it’s up to us and us alone to make it happen. That last scene—the last moment my readers and I have together—mean a lot to me. I agonize over it. I look at those last sentences as the final clause in the contract that I make with the people who choose to read my work.

I’m a student of last lines. Here are some of my favorites:

“And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.” — William Golding, Lord of the Flies

“He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” – Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

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

“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.” –A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

“. . . together they cried like babies on national television.” – John Gilstrap, Nathan’s Run

Come on, you must have a favorite finale to share. Let’s have it.

11 thoughts on “The All Important Final Clause

  1. This is an interesting topic, John. Few discussions address the ending. Like you said, it’s always the importance of the beginning grab and supporting the sagging middle. For Lynn Sholes and I, the endings to each book in our Cotten Stone series had to wrap things up while giving the reader a sense of wanting more (hopefully). That is until THE 731 LEGACY, which is the last in the series. It literally came down to the last word at the end of the last sentence that would make the determination of final end or future installment. We chose final because that one word fulfilled a request we had received on a consistent basis from our fans. They wanted a certain relationship to be completed, and it was. Not using that one word would have changed everything. The result generated a great deal of comments from fans and reviewers, both pro and con. It was a roll of the dice, but one that was based solely on the input from our readers.

    I won’t quote the final sentence of 731 for those that might not have read it yet. But one of my favorites is the last sentence from the great Tom Clancy’s THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. “For the first time in his life, Jack Ryan fell asleep on an airplane.”

  2. I think endings can be much tougher to write than beginnings. Too much emphasis is placed on the beginning hook; I like to read a book that has all the loose ends tied up and that makes me want to read a sequel.

    “The House at Pooh Corner”‘s ending is wonderful. That’s my all-time favorite.
    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Great post, John. Trying to achieve that “resonance” at the end is extremely difficult, but ultimately satisfying when it happens. Here are two that immediately came to mind. Of course, as with all the examples, the power in each comes from what happens in the book. But I love the style of the following:

    Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you just start missing everybody. – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

    She sat close to him as they drove across the city, through the neon wasteland, through the stone jungle, holding close this small warm time of luck and faith. – John D. MacDonald, The Neon Jungle

  4. My two favorite last lines are from widely disparate sources.

    Number One, from John Irving’s A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR:
    “Don’t cry, honey, “Marion told her only daughter. “It’s just Eddie and me.”

    Number Two, from Mickey Spillane’s I, THE JURY:
    I had only a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in. “It was easy,” I said.

    Honorable mention: Spillane’s MT GUN IS QUICK:
    He was still screaming when I pulled the trigger.

    It’s been years since I read the Spillane books, but i remember those lines. I’m going to have to read them again.

  5. Dana, your mention of Spillane reminds me of his great quote, which applies to the subject we’re discussing: “Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.”

  6. I’ll go with a classic from Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

    “Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.”

  7. Geez, I never read Gone with the Wind. That’s a great last line, if you include the first part of it, which I had never heard…“Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back.”

    I like that.

  8. One of my favorites is Wuthering Heights, as the narrator visited the three headstones, and “listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

  9. Last lines can and do leave lasting impressions. And of course are great cliff-hanger-ony tools.

    But then so are last images or thoughts. I cannot remember the actual last lines, but Douglas Adams books (Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul) always left me with a sense of “wha…huh?”

    Such a sensation made me want to read more of his stuff because the ending, being rather absurd, always drove me towards the next just for closure.

    Likewise with serious series novels. I remember as a child reading Louis L’Amour’s Sackett series and absolutely needing to carry on to the next, just because there was a next. Upon reaching the end, if it’s all well done and the closure is right we can feel pretty good about it all, and satisfied with the impressions left behind.

  10. I’ve alway heard, “The first line gets them to read this book, the last line get them to read your next one.”

    “Oh my God, that stinks…”

  11. One of most moving last lines I’ve read in recent fiction is from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time:

    “And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.”

    In the context of the book, it’s quite resonant.

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