Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Last of It

We writers love the first lines. We work them, revise them, make them punchy. Readers often use them to judge the book to come. But I must confess a special fondness for last lines. 

This is true for me as a reader, but it is especially true for me as a writer. In fact, when I begin a novel, the very first thing I write is the last line. The beginning and middle and climax and resolution are the territory, with lots of signposts, maybe a few detours and dead ends along the way. They are hard driving. But the last line in the book is a destination, an exhale, a neat lover's knot.

Or it should be anyway.

The final line in my very first book, The Dangerous Edge of Things, is one of my favorite things I have ever written: "I swung into the left lane and made a U-turn." Not only does that bring the story line to a conclusion, it gives the reader a very good idea of what's next for Tai. And even though a whole lot of stuff happens five minutes after this line, I wanted to conclude on words that both looked back and looked forward at the same time. I owe my editor that one – she's the one who made the suggestion that I let the book end right there.

I have lots of favorite last lines, most of them from short stories. Oh, I know novels routinely get noticed for their exquisite codas, many of them well-deserved. Who can forget that great final line from George Orwell's Animal Farm?: "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." That sentence could serve as a thesis statement for the entire book. But the best short stories do something even more miraculous they manage to pull off a singular final line that is both twist and resolution. The thing you never saw coming that you now know was always inevitable. The last line as wallop.

In that light, I share with you my ten favorite short story closing lines. Not all would be considered crime fiction, but each one does revolve around a killing (although in one case, it's entirely imaginary). Some will be familiar; others are rarer treasures. Take "The Premonition" by Joyce Carol Oates, which is from her collection Haunted. "The Premonition" is one of the finest mystery stories ever written, with every clue perfectly placed, assimilated, and orchestrated. Its final line is a chilling summation that everything you thought had gone wrong has indeed gone wrong, more wrong than its na├»ve narrator could possibly imagine. And if you don't know "Manly Conclusions" by Mary Hood, a short story from her collection How Far She Went, seek it out as soon as possible – its final line is as stunning and complete as a thunderclap.

So now I present, in no particular order, my top ten favorite closing lines from short fiction. Share any of your favorite lines in the comments! 

*    *     *
One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.
"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner.

He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.
– "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell

Romance at short notice was her specialty.
–  "The Open Window" by H.H. Monro (Saki)

"Answer it," he said into the dark, avoiding her eyes.
  "Manly Conclusions" by Mary Hood

Mrs. Hale's hand was against the pocket of her coat. 'We call itknot it, Mr. Henderson."
– "A Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell

"It isn’t fair, it isn’t right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

How characteristic of women, how sweet, that they trust us as they do, Whitney was thinking; and that, at times at least, their trust is not misplaced.
–  "The Premonition" by Joyce Carol Oates

And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.
–  "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl

In pace requiescat!
 – "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe

"'That's fine, Daddy," I said, forcing some cheer into my voice. "Why don't you invite her over next Sunday? We can have her for dinner."
 – "Necessary Women" by Karin Slaughter


  1. At the end of the first Seamus McCree novel, Ant Farm, the antagonist has the last line, “Strike one, Seamus.” The fruition of that promise does not arrive until book six, False Bottom, which I am in the midst of writing the first draft.

    Bad Policy ends with “I used to love my home, but now I know it’s time to move on.”

    Cabin Fever ends with “Your grandmother wants to talk.”

    Doubtful Relations – oh, well, you’ll have to wait a couple of months for that one. :)

    ~ Jim

  2. Great examples of exit lines that sum up the stories and leave the reader thinking.

  3. I've always focused on winding things up and leaving the reader with a visual image that evokes a sense of resolution. I'll remember to include a whiff of what's to come as well. Great post!

  4. I can't wait, Jim! But I suppose I'll have to.

    What a succinct piece of advice, KM -- sum up and leave the reader thinking. I could have just said that instead of all my explaining. :)

    And I very much like your phrasing, Margaret -- a whiff of what's to come. Like a bloodhound scenting the trail. Nice!

    Thank you all for reading!

  5. Absolutely fabulous, and humbling, examples, Tina. When someone says the pen is mightier than the sword, I think of the power of these words that stay with us, and haunt us, for years. I still shudder when thinking of "The Lottery" and that last line of "A Rose for Emily" - yikes!

  6. You know it! I doublechecked all these for accuracy, but really, I could quote most by heart. A high standard, yes. But certainly worth aiming for.

  7. How wonderful! I'm going to have to read and/or re-read some of these books based on the last lines alone!

  8. Tina, nice examples. I think I wind up my books well, but maybe I should think more about it when I do. Now I'm going to pay special attention to those last lines.In THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah, about France during World War II, the last line is simply "We remain." And
    for this book simple as that line is it's perfect.

  9. I highly recommend all the stories the last lines came from -- all of them are fantastic and earn their endings absolutely. "We remain" is also kinda perfect.