Is the Last Line as Important as the First?

A study of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Gordon Bryan...
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A couple of weeks ago, I finished the full draft of my new novel, THE ROSE OF GALILEE. As I got to the end, I began the ending line.

For HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, I didn’t really consider it. It just ended where it ended, and I was happy. Of course, back then I didn’t think about technique too much, which might possibly be why it took so darn long to write it.

The last line of that book is, “I laughed.”

These days, however, I think more about technical stuff while I write.

So who cares about the final sentence? The last line gives you a moment that makes you catch your breath. It should be satisfying, a summing up of the novel’s themes.

There’s a discussion about last lines on the BBC . Listen if you get a chance. They theorize that a) people don’t remember last lines very well and b) you only have to grab the audience with the first line, so authors tend to get lazy by the end.

I think this is true. I certainly don’t remember very many last lines. The only one that I sort of remember is this:

“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 (1859)

And I think that’s only because it was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon or something.

However. This doesn’t mean that authors shouldn’t pay attention to last lines. There’s a lot of stuff we have to pay attention to as authors that readers don’t, or shouldn’t notice, right? It’s like a well-made garment, with even stitches and reinforced buttonholes that no one except the seamstress sees, unless you look for it.

While the first line might get you to read a book, maybe the last line will get you to read the next book. Or at least walk away thinking, Hey, that was a good read. Glad I spent my money on that.

I looked up Best Last Lines and found that American Book Review had compiled a list of the best 100. Here are a few of my favorites from that list:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

“He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.” –Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” –J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

“It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by.” –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye (1988)

“We shall never be again as we were!” –Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902)

“She sat staring with her eyes shut, into his eyes, and felt as if she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldn’t begin, and she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light.”–Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)

And I’m not telling you the last line of my new novel yet.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

3 thoughts on “Is the Last Line as Important as the First?

  1. Good point-I rarely notice last lines, except when they’re really bad. And some books seem to end abruptly, as though the author got tired of writing and said “that’s it, I’m done!”. I look forward to seeing the last line of The Rose of Galilee, so your last line better be good! 😉

  2. This is a great post. I never thought about the last lines of books until just now. But I can recite many first lines. Interestingly though, when I write, I really do think about the line since I see that as wrapping the entire piece together.

  3. Can you share with us what the new book is about? You may have already done that, but I may have missed it.

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