|And they lived happily ever after.|
There's a lot of focus on beginnings in the writing community, and for good reason. Your beginning is going to make or break you -- it'll either hook an agent, editor, or reader, or it won't. For a good analysis of first lines, see agent Mary Kole's ongoing discussion here.
But endings are just as vital. A good one will lift your reader, make her cry, satisfy her soul. Your ending should set us down (gently or not) at exactly the right place and time. If you've done your job, we'll also be a little sad to leave the book.
So how, exactly, do you accomplish this?
I opened two novels at random this morning and read the last lines. Here's what I found (I swear I did not rig this):
1) We lived happily ever after.
2) Over in England they married and lived happily ever after.
"Oh. My. Gawd!" I can hear you saying. "These are terrible endings!" Not so fast.
Ending #1 is from the Newberry Award-winning A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck. It's an upper middle grade/YA novel about Mary Alice, who has to leave Chicago and go spend the summer with her Grandma Dowdel. The year is 1937. Grandma Dowdel is an insanely funny and truly scary force of nature. Mary Alice is fifteen.
This synopsis should tell you why the last line of the book: "We lived happily ever after," has escaped cloying cliche. A Year Down Yonder has nothing whatsoever to do with Mary Alice's romance with her husband; the poor guy is mentioned almost as an aside, in a flash forward, in the book's last two pages. What Peck does do with his ending is take a giant leap in time, letting us understand that Mary Alice's relationship with Grandma Dowdel goes on and on and on. Peck's happily ever after is a little bit tongue-in-cheek (who could write the line straight?). But it tells us that relationships last, that family is enduring, and that it's just as possible to fall in love with irascible old lady relatives as it is with handsome Royce McNab.
So what makes this a great last line? When the book opens, Mary Alice can't imagine that she can live "happily," even for a single summer, with awful Grandma Dowdel, who says things like: "Them Burdicks isn't worth the powder and shot to blow them up. . .They'd steal a hot stove and come back for the smoke." By the time we get to the end, at page 130, we've learned a great deal about love, and Mary Alice has revised her definition of happiness.
Ending #2 Is from Loving, by Henry Green. A classic piece of literature, published in 1945. And because I promised myself I'm going to keep these posts short, I'll get to a discussion of that last line tomorrow. In the meantime, feel free to post your favorite fictional last lines in comments -- or, if you're really brave, the last line of your own work-in-progress.