Tuesday, 6 March 2018


Along with a great many others I have spoken at length about opening lines. A good first line will take me through at least to the end of the first chapter, tempting me into the book. A poor one can put me off the entire story; unfair perhaps, but first impressions are powerful.

I don’t know why, but much less has been written about closing lines. Personally, I agonise over writing them as much as I do the opening. Just as a good opening line draws us into the story, a good closing line finishes the tale so neatly you feel you can go to sleep satisfied.

I am reminded of the story of the young musician who was lying in bed one evening listening to his sister playing the piano downstairs. His sister was distracted, and finished without playing the final note. The young musician could not sleep until he had climbed out of bed, trailed downstairs and finished the melody. Some closing lines can make me feel like that, as if the writer has just stopped for no apparent reason other than running out of anything else to say. Those endings leave me totally dissatisfied. Other closing lines are so neatly finished that the story line is completely and satisfactorily ended. This is why I could never write a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She has finished the story. There is nothing more to be said.

"With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them."

Other endings can leave the reader with a desire to carry the tale forward. It’s sad to think that a collision with a speeding car prevented Margaret Mitchell from writing a sequel to Gone With the Wind. Scarlet’s final words suggests there was so much more in her story.

"After all, tomorrow is another day."

Occasionally, a story can stir within you such strong emotions that the reader feels bereft as the final page is finished. These stories live in my heart for ever. This how I felt at the end of The Long Green Shore by John Hepworth. The book, in which I could smell as well as visualise the jungle, is both uncompromisingly brutal and unbearably tender. The final line is a heartfelt plea that all the pain and anguish had not been in vain.

“God, there must be meaning. Fiercely he was certain there must be a meaning.
Surely, while we live we are not lost.
Surely – we are not lost – while we live.”

A story that has a clear message needs an ending that underlines that meaning, that captures the essence of the story. To my mind, no one has done this better than George Orwell at the end of 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.”

I will leave you with Maurice Sendak’s Where the While Things Are. He intended his book to be read to children, but children or no children, I think every adult should do themselves a favour by reading his closing lines aloud. His choice of words flow rhythmically off the tongue in a way that I can only describe as beautiful.

"Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him—and it was still hot."

1 comment:

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

And the winner goes to Where the Wild Things Are. Being a children's writer I'm prejudiced. I'd be happy for ever after if I had written them as I'm sure thousands of other writers would be too. Thanks for a fascinating post Val. Ends are my worst!