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Great Last Lines – How to End a Novel

26 July 2011

We’ve had a couple of posts about first lines in novels and everyone knows, for commercial purposes, they’re extremely important.

Last lines are a different story. PG doubts a last line ever sold a book. However, a true artist wants to finish and finish well for the reader, like a concert pianist who makes certain the last note is so good no one in the audience will move until it fades away.

Since first lines have had their moment, seeking balance in an unbalanced world, Passive Guy will propose some worthy last lines in novels.

Actually, regular visitor Julia Rachel Barrett proposed the first of the excellent last lines:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Here are a few additional last lines Passive Guy likes:

He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth


Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.

Don DeLillo, White Noise


But that is the beginning of a new story — the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his transition from one world into another, of his initiation into a new, unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is over. —

Fyodor Dostoyevsk, Crime and Punishment


I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye


It’s done. This may not be my final country. I can still taste the bear in the back of my throat, bitter with the blood of the innocent, and somewhere in my old heart I can still remember the taste of love. Perhaps this is just a resting place. A warm place to drink cold beer. But wherever my final country is, my ashes will go back to Montana when I die. Maybe I’ve stopped looking for love. Maybe not. Maybe I will go to Paris. Who knows? But I’ll sure as hell never go back to Texas again.

James Crumley, The Final Country

Feel free to suggest others.

Writing Advice

14 Comments to “Great Last Lines – How to End a Novel”

  1. Oh God! You picked examples that brought tears to my eyes! The end of a book is so much more important to me than the beginning. I know writers who can put out a killer hook, but the story fades to black once you get past it. It’s the end that counts.

  2. I think the closing line from Nineteen-Eighty-Four would be one of my favourites, if for no other reason, because it is a mere four words long, and still a perfect ending. Not a line you can read, though, without spoiling the last few chapters, so I’ll refrain from posting it, in case there’s anyone out there that hasn’t read it.

    I’m not sure if this one really qualifies as a “great” ending, but it got me giddy the first time I read it:

    “And on far-off Earth, Dr Carlisle Perera had as yet told no one how he had woken from a restless sleep with the message from his subconscious still echoing in his brain: The Ramans do everything in threes.”
    – Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke.

    • Shane – I almost included 1984 and it is superb.

      I’d forgotten about Ramans and their thing with threes. I like that one.

  3. Nothing beats the feeling of the gooseflesh on your arm when you finish a novel. I’m a fan of the simpler ones, and my favorite is from Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

    I been away a long time.

    • Paul – Love that one too.

      It’s too bad reading a novel is a solitary pursuit. If a couple thousand of us sat together in a concert hall and finished a great book at the same time, there would be a moment of silence, then a thunderous standing ovation.

  4. I try to end with laughter. I think you get better reviews that way. 😀

  5. Patricia Sierra

    One of the novels John Philpin and I wrote together (The God Wars) begins and ends with the same sentence: “I am not who I was then.” Know of other novels that go full circle?

    • Patricia – I do not know of other novels that go full circle. Nice technique if done well, which I’m sure you did. In fact, I just bought The God Wars on Amazon.

  6. Patricia Sierra

    Wow. Thanks. That’s a book that almost nobody buys. But that could be said of, well, all my books…

  7. Yeah, if some of these don’t get your throat chokey then nothing will.

    I’m Googling the last one too, because that guy might’ve stolen my life from 8 years ago.

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