We asked renowned writers to share their experience of crafting one of the most essential parts of any story: the last sentence.
The last sentence appears and suddenly I say to myself, “Right, that’s the last sentence.“ I knew it was coming, but it’s always a surprise when it does – and the end is the end is the end. In fourteen novels I don’t think I’ve ever gone past what I knew was the final sentence. It’s hard to imagine other people having different experiences, but I know they do. A fiction editor I work with says 2/3 of all novels don’t have a proper ending (let alone a final sentence) and that her editing energy is largely focussed on creating an ending.
What makes for a good ending? I don’t know. I always wanted to get one of those software Write-A-Novel kits and see where that takes me but… I don’t know… it’s hard to imagine it being very satisfying on a deep level, but I could be very wrong.
The end is purely organic and occurs in the moment of composition. For example, with the gesture that ends The Tortilla Curtain, I had thought that I needed to go on somewhat further but when the moment – and the line – occurred to me, I knew the book was finished. Other books, like The Road to Wellville, require a sort of ironic wrapping-up in the mode of a history. Those too find their exact phrasing and meaning in the moment.
I think the last line should feel natural and not heavy-handed. I like to hide real meaning in ordinary sentences and the last line of a story is no different. I usually don’t agonize over getting it right. If the last sentence feels off, it’s usually the entire paragraph or scene that needs to be re-written.
Rhythm is very important in fiction – more than most people realize – but it’s especially important in regard to endings. If we think of the the great endings in literature – the last paragraphs of Joyce’s The Dead, of John Cheever’s Goodbye, My Brother and of The Great Gatsby, what we notice is the cadence: we know, without quite knowing how – the stateliness, the poetry, the alliteration, and so forth – that we have reached the end. I rewrite last sentences over and over, and am never quite satisfied. Last sentences are almost as hard as titles.
Often the last line comes like the light at the end of the tunnel when I’m working on something. Usually it won’t arrive until I’m more than halfway through. And when it does, it’s a huge help, it becomes what I’m writing towards. This happened most forcefully when I was working on Torpor, describing the character’s escape from ‘history’ into 21st century LA, a pyrrhic victory at best, but it happened recently too, with a long chapter I’m writing about Kathy Acker’s novel Great Expectations, for a new book. Definitely there are things in my books to regret, but not the last lines – they’re like guideposts stuck in cement.
Laura Albert/JT LeRoy
I tend to want to repeat a line again, so I am grateful for editors who make it clear that I already said it and do not have to repeat it. In the JT LeRoy book Sarah I wanted to repeat the last line – I still hear it that way in my head. I know I hit a last line when I feel it, it feels like the top of a capital T.
I feel the stop of it, the wall or cap of it. It hits me emotionally – that is what I am going for. Sometimes it is an emotional dissonance with what came before but which just fits; it might be funny or striking in an unexpected way. And often it will just be an editor who says, “No, your ending is a paragraph or seven pages ago!” I love a trusted editor who knows when to take it away!
I try to have the ending be a surprise for me, at least in its emotional tone, if not also in its content. Often I think I know what ending I’m writing toward, and then I realize that what I thought of as the end is really the penultimate moment, or the middle (or occasionally, the beginning.) One thing I keep in mind is the ending to the Gospel of Mark; it’s such a strange and stark ending – the women find a man in Jesus’ tomb and the body gone, and they run away screaming in terror – that a more soft and tidy ending was appended to the gospel, and is still there, in some versions. I like that kind of ‘open’ ending, which isn’t about vagueness, but really quite the opposite, it’s about a surprising vividness, and irrefutable detail.
The protagonist of my short story Sasquatch is Chelsea, a 22/23-year-old woman who lives in Florida with her dad. She works at Denny’s. At the end of the story, she and her dad go to a bowling alley. In the bowling alley’s arcade, Chelsea’s dad plays against a teenager in a fighting game and wins. After winning, he gives Chelsea a high-five but misses because they’re standing too close. The story’s last sentence is:
“And he stepped back a little and tried again, but Chelsea, distracted now by something – maybe the plant in the far corner, standing and waiting like a person in a dream, or maybe the green shoe or some other thing that was out there and longing, to be looked at, and taken – wasn’t ready, and their hands, his then hers, passed through the air in a kind of wave, a little goodbye.”
Waiting is a theme of the story. The first sentence of the story relates that, in February, Chelsea’s dad found a toy poodle “sitting there, in the side yard, watchful and waiting as a person” and adopted it. Near the middle of the story Chelsea has a dream in which she holds hands with a boy who then appears “tall and shy and waiting” in the distance. Near the end of the story, in a parenthetical about a scene that occurs after the story’s last sentence, Chelsea waits in the car as, after leaving the bowling alley, her dad buys ice cream for her “as a sort of surprise, as he felt bad for not getting Chelsea a real present but just a card with money in it” on her 23rd birthday, which is in December. Sasquatch is the last story in Bed. I feel satisfied that Bed ends with the words “a little goodbye”.
The last sentence arises from all that is prior, from the grave of the prior. It must both succeed and fail at resolution. Imagine a circle about to close, but the two points miss by inches. A subtle lack of “closure”. That’s what I’m looking for. Sometimes I just stumble upon it in the act of composition. Sometimes it’s already behind me, and I have to dig back for it. Sometimes I see it gathering up before me, and it scares me, but I must approach, even as I know it will be a kind of death, the end of the writing, the beginning of an artifact.
This is the ending of Kinder Than Solitude, my latest novel:
He was wise not to fall in love with the girl, Ruyu said eventually. The girl deserved a better life, and he was right to leave her alone.
In the last scene a man brings a woman friend to see this young woman he almost fell in love with, and the woman friend (Ruyu) comments that because he’s had too much history, he should not bring his history to a young woman’s life. The last sentence, in my mind, should not be the end of the story but the beginning of a new chapter, as seen here: The woman who would begin a life with the man is not the young girl left alone, but Ruyu herself.