Last Lines

By John Gilstrap
Over the years, we’ve devoted a lot of space here at The Killzone to the importance of first lines, but in the grand scheme of things, I spend far more time in my own writing fretting over the last line.  I’ve lost track of the books that have held me solidly in their spell all the way till the last couple of pages, only to betray my devotion by short-changing me on the ending.  I vow never to do that.

As a writer of thrillers, I think it’s my job to give my readers a wild ride, filled with exciting twists.  I work hard to make my characters seem alive to readers, and I’m often harder on the good guys than I am on the bad guys–at least for a while.  I owe it to my readers to bring the story to a satisfying ending.  That doesn’t mean that I promise a “happy ending” necessarily, but I do guarantee a sense of peace when the journey is over.  It’s the kind of commitment that I think breeds trust between a writer and his readers.

Now that I’m writing a series, I face the additional challenge of leaving enough of a cliffhanger to compel readers to look forward to the next book without also incurring their wrath by making them feel baited and switched.  To pull all of that off within the time constraints of my contract, I have to know the point to which I am writing the story.

All too often these days, I read books by brand name authors who seem to end their books by running out of words.  The plot develops, climaxes and then . . . I’m at the back cover.  One of the most egregious examples in recent years is John Grisham’s A Painted House.  I actually wondered if I had picked up a defective book where the last chapter had been removed.  Don’t get me wrong: I think Grisham is a great story teller, and as I read it, I thought that House was one of his best.  And then . . . thud.

An even more famous example is Stephen King’s The Stand.  There I was plowing through hundreds of thousands of words, loving it, loving it, loving it, and . . . what are you kidding me??

Here’s the thing about this three-act structure most of us adopt in our writing: A story had a beginning, a middle and an end, and each part is equally important.  There’s no room for laziness.  Every component of every scene needs to pull the reader forward.  The last scene is most important of all, I think, because that’s what the reader will remember forever.

I haven’t always gotten it right, either–at least not if you read some of the letters I’ve gotten over the years.  Nathan’s Run in particular has generated a number of letters from fans who wanted one more chapter.  In fact, the chapter they craved was in my original draft.  I took it out and reinserted it four or five times before I decided to leave it in the drawer.  Without giving too much away, I thought–and I still think, but am less sure–that the story ended when the action ended, and that the final feel-good knot-tying chapter was a step too far.

Of course, I’m the curmudgeon who believes that JK Rowling’s biggest misstep in the largely-wonderful Harry Potter saga is the final chapter–the coda, really–of The Deathly Hallows.  I would rather have imagined the future instead of having it spelled out for me.  It didn’t ruin anything for me; it just felt like one too many bits of storytelling.

What do y’all think?  Any favorite endings out there?  Terrible ones?

For me, the best closing line ever written, bar none, comes from To Kill A Mockingbird: “And he’d be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”  It tells us everything we need to know, and let’s us just float on the satisfaction of time well spent.

8 thoughts on “Last Lines

  1. Good advice, John. When you combine your last line post with our posts on first lines, first pages, first chapters, the three-act structure, and propping up the middle, the message should be clear that every word counts.

    The best examples of first and last lines probably come from our childhood and bedtime stories. “Once upon a time” and “they all lived happily ever after” are hard to beat.

  2. Speaking of To Kill A Mockingbird, John, I spent yesterday exploring Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee grew up (The McPherson side of my family has strong roots there, and my mother the genealogist was showing me around). It was wonderful to wander around the charming, small town that gave us both Harper Lee and Truman Capote. I agree that Lee’s book, To Kill A Mockingbird, has one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever read. I wish she’d write some more books!

  3. deathly hallows had a great ending. it was just one instance of JK’s willingness to do something different and risky, something that most authors WOULDN’T do. It is those types of twists that made the whole series incredible

  4. I’m not sure which book of Harlan Coben’s books it was–it might have been his first standalone, Tell No One, but I’m not sure–that had a review that went something like this: A really fantastic 396-page story. Unfortunately, the novel was 397 pages long.

    If I recall correctly, there was this big twist on the last page and the reviewer thought it didn’t work. I remember thinking the same thing. Now, Harlan’s a terrific writer and those twists are part of the brand, he even refers to himself as a “twist slut,” and it’s hard to say based on his sales that it isn’t working for him, but sometimes you can overdo it.

  5. Yes, as Mickey Spillane put it, “Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.”

    I, too, spend a huge amount of time on my endings. I want just the right sound, the right resonance. The ending that knocks me out every time is from The Catcher in the Rye :

    It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

  6. I think for some there is a hunger for a happy ending, for things to tie up nicely as they ride off into the sunset. For me I like the stories I read to end realistically, as if there is a next part of the story even if I will never see it and it doesn’t always have to be happy.

  7. I read James Ellroy’s THE COLD SIX THOUSAND with a great deal of anticipation, since I had considered its predecessor in this trilogy, AMERICAN TABLOID, one of the greatest crime novels ever written. I got all the way through the 600+ page book up to a point about seven pages before the end. I knew exactly where it was going, the characters by now had all blended into one another, and I could take no more. So I put the book down. Seven pages before the end.

  8. Worst ending I read was from a thriller. It was set in Washington DC, with a murder in the Supreme Court. The author spent the whole book make the routine investigation of the suspects. Got to the end, it was like the author didn’t know what to do with the story. It ended up being a random killing.

    Favorite ending? That was from a book called Receive the Gift. It was the end of a three part series where the author stopped exactly in the right place. It left me wishing for more because it was great imagining what the future was like, and it gave me just enough to do that.

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