Make no mistake: closing lines are important in novels.
True, they are not as crucial as a strong opening line. But a great closing sentence comes a very close second.
No matter how great a novel might be, if the opening line fails to hook the reader they will close the book there and then and search for a more inviting one.
Closing lines are important for a totally different reason.
Your job as a writer is not to “keep the reader reading” at this point, because they’ve already made it to the end. Your job is to end the novel on a pitch-perfect note and not spoil everything that came before with a clunky final sentence.
Imagine watching a fireworks’ display in which the final firework merely fizzles and pops. That is the firework you will remember.
Imagine listening to a great symphony but the final note is out of tune, or it’s in-tune but somehow wrong. That one bad note ruins everything.
And it’s precisely the same with a novel. End it poorly and you’ll spoil the whole book; end it well and you will leave the reader satisfied, perhaps even moved.
Just as importantly, the reader will recommend you to their fiction-loving friends and track down other novels you might have written.
How to Write Great Closing Lines
There are no rules on how to write final sentences, except for this: you will know when you have written one.
Opening sentences come with rules, or at least suggestions…
- Opening sentences should raise questions in a reader’s mind.
- Ideally, they should be a line of prose, not a line of dialogue.
- They should be about the central character, not one of the bit-players.
And endings as a whole (that is, the final chapter or two) come with rules, too…
- Like opening scenes, closing scenes should focus on the most important character in the story.
- Endings as a whole should not outstay their welcome. Much better to leave the reader wanting more than to tie up every loose end and leave nothing to the imagination.
- Endings are generally more satisfying if they are uplifting, or at least hopeful.
But the actual closing line? There simply are no rules about what they should or should not contain, or about how to write them.
All I can offer you are two very general guidelines…
1. Ensure the Words are Perfect
Ideally, of course, every single word in your novel will be perfect. You will revise each and every sentence over and over, until every word is exactly right and there isn’t so much as a comma out of place.
Meantime in the real world, though, you are a prose writer, not a poet, and it simply isn’t feasible for a novelist to devote the same degree of attention to an 80,000 word manuscript that a poet would devote to a 14 line sonnet.
That being said, novelists can still devote a disproportionate amount of time and effort to their most important sentences – chiefly, the opening and closing lines – and keep tinkering with them until they are “just right”.
2. Rise Above the Prosaic
Speaking of prose and poetry, the final sentence in a piece of fiction is not a bad place for the novelist to let loose his or her inner poet.
For a closing line to do its job well, the overall effect of that line should be much, much greater than the sum of the individual words.
I am not talking about pretentious endings full of words you have to look up in a dictionary and too many fancy adjectives. Simplicity is generally preferable in good writing.
But simple words can still rise above the prosaic and take on a poetic, symbolic quality.
Not precisely sure what I mean by that? It’s like I said earlier: great closing lines are difficult to define… but you will know one when you see it.
Oh, and I am not just talking about literary fiction here. Whatever type of novel you write, you should aspire to greatness.
So whether you are writing a romantic novel, hard-boiled crime fiction, or a literary novel that you think might win you a Nobel Prize, always strive to move your readers with the closing line.
Make them pause for a while before closing the book. Make your story linger in their minds as they resume their everyday lives.
Examples of Closing Lines
In the absence of any rules for writing closing sentences, all I can do is present you with a selection of my personal favorites. I cannot precisely say why they are my favorites. They just are!
After you’ve read them, go to your own bookshelves and read all the endings. Which ones, in your opinion, are good and which are not? Which ones move you and which don’t? Why?
Here are some closing lines which move me…
“Every choice is a world made new for the chosen.”
– Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer
“All the same, she rang the bell, and then she waited for whatever would happen next.”
– Alice Hoffman, Skylight Confessions
“It’s taken this long, but I love her.”
– Alexander Stuart, The War Zone
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“Everything he looked at seemed luminous and beautiful, and rich with possibilities.”
– Anne Tyler, Morgan’s Passing