325 – Ending Lines
Last week, we discussed the line that opens your story. Now, we’re talking about the line that ends it. Even the best story must reach its final page eventually, and it’s important to know what that last line is even for. Should it wrap up the story’s throughline? Should it be a hook for next time? Naturally, we have a fine selection of ending lines to share and dissect, plus we finally reveal the name of our all-editors rock band.
Generously transcribed by Anna. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. With your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is Oren and Wes. And of course I came up with a cool opening bit, but you’re not going to be able to listen to it until the end.
Wes: Haha, nice!
Oren: I have some concerns about where we’re putting the opening bit. I feel like maybe the end of the podcast isn’t the best place for it.
Chris: So this time we’re talking about closing lines as opposed to opening lines.
Oren: Are we going to do middle lines next week?
Wes: If everybody’s so lucky. [laughs]
Chris: Cause those are very distinctive. They’re definitely different from every other line!
Oren: The line in the exact middle of the book. That’ll do it.
Chris: So the first question is, what is the purpose of a closing line? Right? Cause we all know what the purpose of an opening line is, it’s to draw people into the story. So…what about your last lines? Generally, it’s first setting the mood you want your readers to walk away with. We can talk about what that mood should be.
For one thing, you can emphasize the atmosphere and concept of the story. For instance, if somebody read your story because it’s a humorous necromancy story, like Gideon the Ninth, one way would be to emphasize that it’s a humorous necromancy story and kind of remind them of that, you know, quintessential experience that they showed up for.
Another way to do it is to emphasize the resolution of the big problems with the story, which helps to leave them with a feeling of satisfaction, right? Remind them that, you know, the protagonist is out of danger or that their big goal has been accomplished. It can help dissipate tension and the reader can walk away feeling at ease. The one thing I will say is usually at the end of the book, if it’s a first in the series, there will be a hook for the next book, but usually that hook is not the last lines [laughs]. I think if you were to end your last lines with a “dun dun duuuun!”, usually when people end one book, they can’t immediately pick up the next book. So a lot of books that have hooks in them, they have the hook, but then the last lines aren’t actually devoted to the hook. The last lines are usually hopeful about the challenges that are happening, like “we’re going to weather these challenges together!” because that way, the reader has some relief in between books and isn’t just, you know, like a cliffhanger and on edge.
Wes: Although I have occasionally seen ending lines that feel a little weird. They feel like they have a completely different mood than the hook that’s been established for the next story. Okay, so this is from Legendborn, spoilers for Legendborn. This is the end line and I’m using like the last paragraph and then two more, really short lines after that:
“I surge forward, and the strength of armies sings through my muscles. Survive. Resist. Thrive. Each pound of my feet echoes in my joints like a blacksmith’s hammer, ringing loud into bones and ligament and sinew until the forest blurs past in a stream of moss greens and umber browns.
I sprint fast and faster.
And then I’m in the air, leaving the earth and trees far behind me.”
First of all, it seems to be implying that the main character can fly. She has not been able to fly in the book until now, nor is there any indication what ability would give her that, like, why she would be able to fly.
Chris: Somehow this writer managed to make her last lines disorienting. [laughter]
Oren: Yeah, and it’s just really confusing. And when I listened to it on audio, I was like, “I must have misheard, that can’t be what it is.” And it’s also just weird, cause this character just has a tendency of getting new powers, so ending the book with one is just like, “um, okay”. But I think more importantly, the stuff that happened right before this is that the main character has, you know, come into her own, like she’s mostly made peace with her powers and like knows how to use them now, which is okay, that’s good. But she’s also basically been put in charge of this war she didn’t want, like a two sided war because on the one side she has demons to fight, and on the other side, she has like racist mages. And then at the same time, her boyfriend, one of her boyfriends, has been captured by a particularly evil one of the racist mages.
So like, it ends with a pretty significant problem. And so this kind of upbeat, like “yeah, I’m going to thrive and do great!” ending just felt very out of place. It felt like this was supposed to be the last line of this book back when it was standalone, when it just ended with the protagonist coming into her power and learning how to use it and winning the day, and that was the end. Then I felt like this ending, this ending line, would’ve made sense, but it just feels weird that it sounds like it’s a celebration when the fight has only just begun.
Chris: I would say there’s a difference between hopeful and upbeat. I mean, a hopeful ending for that after, you know, Love Interest One gets kidnapped would be like, “Don’t worry, we’ll find him” or something like that. That’s hopeful. You’re taking comfort about the challenges that are ahead, as opposed to just like “Wheee, fly!” [laughter] But at the same time, if the book had just ended with like, you know, “Oh no, he’s captured!” and we just cough there, I think that would be a little rude because that way the readers walk away from the whole book on edge. So you’ve got this tension throughout the book, and we finally have some satisfaction that disperses that tension, and then you create a whole bunch more tension before they walk away between entire books.
Wes: Yeah, I was just thinking about the premise and like, I definitely think the type of this story, I’m thinking about how you would want, when you’d want to leave somebody feeling unsettled. And I have an example of one, The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
And so, the premise of this story is, to summarize appropriately what they’re not saying, the narrator has postpartum depression, which nobody’s acknowledging, and her husband is a jerk and a doctor and he’s prescribed a bedrest cure for her. And so she’s hanging out in this, you know, estate and she’s not to do any work for basically the entire summer. So you might imagine what happens to her as she just lays in bed all the time.
Oren: She puts up some really nice wallpaper?
Wes: [laughs] She starts staring at this wallpaper and starts seeing a woman trapped behind this wallpaper. So you might see, like, what’s kind of going on with her mental state, but the last three or four sentences as like the complete thought:
“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”
Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”
So the whole point is that the sentences that happened prior to that, her husband comes back into the room and she’s crawling around the wall, scratching at the wallpaper and ripping it down, and he just passes out, just faints right away. And she just kind of continues going around the room.
Oren: Yeah. Whatever.
Wes: [laughs] “Yeah. Whatever, like, I don’t care, get out of my way!” But it represents the culmination of this horrific situation she was put into. It’s really kind of funny because when this story was first published in the early 20th century, you know, of course all these men misread it as like, “Oh, that’s a good ghost story, and she gets like possessed or whatever. She trades places with the ghost in the wall.” And it’s like, no, this poor woman is suffering from postpartum depression, can’t do anything to entertain herself, and so becomes obsessed with this crappy wallpaper and then eventually just breaks down. And so the feeling you get at the end is just like, this kind of outright horror and disgust, and that’s the taste in your mouth at the end. And that’s intentional with that. And it’s good if you want it to feel that, you know, there’s no happy epilogue about like, “and then I got better, blah, blah, blah.” It just stops, as it should.
Chris: Well, short stories generally have endings that are more like that in comparison to novels. And I think we’ve talked before, about how long should your epilogue be? For instance, an epilogue is basically after you resolved the story, how long do you have to sort of wind down time. And with a novel where we’ve had lengthy experience with lots of tension and high emotional investment in the characters because we spent so long with them, usually need to be kind of eased out of the story. And you’ve been going and experiencing that tension for a long time. Whereas with a short story, you’ve got to work harder to make that impression. And so it’s pretty typical for a short story, and you don’t necessarily need that kind of wind down time either because you’ve just spent less time with the story.
Wes: The other key thing with the short story is, you’re kind of trying to convey one thing. I think Edgar Allen Poe thought that the whole point of a short story was to pick an emotion and try to just like, explore that fully, which you can see in obviously his stuff, but lots of other short stories do that well, and so the first line and the last lines kind of like, build on that. The first, what was the first line to The Yellow Wallpaper? I think I wrote it down. “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.” I like the understatement of that, paired with the last line of just like, her crawling over him all passed out on the floor, just some ordinary people hanging out in an ancestral hall.
Chris: But also the other thing I want to point out is, when you see a story that ends on a dark note like that, that satisfaction is not just happy satisfaction. Any conflict can end happily or tragically, and that still disperses tension. It’s like, okay, we were worried about, you know, her mental health and now she’s had a complete breakdown. So what we were worried about has happened. I saw that in your notes, you also had the ending lines for Annihilation.
Wes: Annihilation is, you know, she’s journaling. So it’s kind of, it’s an epistolary story. And I also had Dracula. And it’s, you know, they’re both wrapped up differently because in Annihilation, she just kind of drops it off as like, “I guess if anybody finds this, like, I’m outta here.” [laughs] That’s kind of what it says.
Oren: I’m off to become a whaaaale.
Wes: Yeah, super whale, spaaace whaaale!
Oren: No, just a regular whale, man. Not a space whale!
Wes: Okay, fine. [laughter]
Chris: In the case of Annihilation, we know that she’s just decided to just wander off into area X. And so from that perspective, we don’t exactly know what happens to her, but the ending lines emphasize the fact that she’s lost forever and she’s not returning home. Right, so from that perspective, we have sort of a resolution, a mystery that you know, that you’re never going to solve. Like this maybe doesn’t feel quite as resolved as if we solve the mystery, but it also brings some closure, right? Like we’re never going to know what happens. She’s gone forever.
Wes: The penultimate line is quite good at that. The final line is “I am not returning home.” The penultimate one is “I am the last casualty of both the eleventh and twelfth expeditions.”
And I think that is solid because the whole point is the mystery of like, what’s happening with these people? Some of them returned then died and were, you know, different and yeah, she tied it up really well with those, with that last line in particular, even if we just know that she wanders off into the marsh flats.
Oren: Oh, the marsh flats are back, my precious marsh flats! [laughter] Chris can’t take my marsh flats away now!
I would say that, uh, an ending line should on some level kind of feel like an ending. It should feel like a period at the end of the story, right? There are some ending lines I’ve seen that don’t do that. And if you want an example, may I present The Name of the Wind?
Wes: Oh, once again.
Oren: Yes, which is weird, cause it has two ending lines because The Name of the Wind has a framing device, which is completely unconnected from the actual story. The framing device is “old” Kvothe, he’s like 26. [Chris and Wes laugh] He talks like he’s 90. And then the actual story is like what young Kvothe was doing. The end of the actual story still has to work as an ending line, even though we technically keep going into the framing device because that’s a different story entirely. Well, here’s what we get. This is the end of the actual story in The Name of the Wind and what’s happened is that the protagonist has been brought down to like some underground ruins and seen some machines that may or may not be big or important and he says,
“I had only the vaguest of ideas as to what any of the machines might have done. I had no guess at all as to why they had lain here for uncounted centuries, deep underground. There didn’t seem—” And that’s the end.
Wes: No, boo!
Oren: Em dash. [laughter] And It’s like-
Oren: I see what you’re doing. What you’re doing is you are trying to create the impression that he just stopped telling the story because that’s the conceit. Kvothe is just telling the story to this other guy who’s writing it down and that’s what the framing device is. But what that means is that this ending just is nothing. It just stopped. It’s just a thing that happened. It has no satisfaction. It doesn’t even really feel like that part of the story is over, right? It’s just kind of like, “and then some things happen.” Your stories should not do that.
Wes: In college, I read Virgil’s Aeneid, which is like the Roman Odyssey.
Oren: Yeah, Roman Odyssey fanfic!
Wes: And I remember the end; the whole point is like Aeneas is leaving Troy and he’s going to found Rome and find the place where these Trojan exiles can live. And I remember getting to the last stanza and I’m not gonna read the whole thing, but it basically ends with him in mortal combat with this guy, Turnus, and then just, plunging his sword into Turnus’s chest. And the last full sentence says, “The streaming blood distain’d his arms around / And the disdainful soul came rushing thro’ the wound.”
And that’s it! I remember like, “Whoa, what happened?” Like, didn’t he set up a homeland for his people? Do I have to read a history book now, what’s going on? But at least we know that he killed the guy! Like, The Name of the Wind example is just Em dash to nothing.
Oren: Oh, the Em dash to nothing, that’s going to be my editor band! [laughter] I get a bunch of editors together to do a band. It’s like “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome ‘M dash to nothing!’” [all laugh]
Wes: That’s great.
Chris: I have a couple examples of atmospheric endings that are there to kind of emphasize what the book was about. The first one is from The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.
“Perhaps it was an afterimage, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk. ”
So the reason why that one works pretty well is because the whole book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it has a framing device. What touches people about this book is it has a very strong sort of mood that the framing device connects to because there is a guy who was middle aged and he’s like, “My life has been completely unremarkable” and he, somebody dies and he goes back to his parents’ house for the funeral. And then something just catches at his memory, this farmhouse at the end of the lane. And he goes there and sees this magical pond and then starts to remember what happened in his childhood. But it’s a very, just like, kind of a fleeting thing. And so this sort of ends that on that note, he had forgotten the story and then it was kind of gone again.
Oren: Yeah. That really brings home the whole, like, the whole tension of the story of how much of this is the child’s imagination?
Chris: Going back to endings that don’t quite fit, here’s one where it seems to be emphasizing what is attractive about the book, but it doesn’t actually work with the actual end. So this is the last line of Twilight. “And he leaned down to press his cold lips once more to my throat.” And you could see why that would be an attractive closing line. Cause it’s kind of like, sexy and dangerous. Again, if you have a romance novel about dating a dangerous vampire, that seems to perfectly fit. The problem is that, after the whole romance and the whole journey, by the time you get to the end, everywhere it’s not really cold and threatening anymore. And also the scene, the scene itself, Edward and Bella are at prom and it’s supposed to be kind of a heartwarming, casual moment, kind of a sweet moment between them? Then suddenly stating, you know, “he’s pressing his cold lips once more to my throat” is just, doesn’t feel like it fits anymore. [Wes laughs]
Oren: Yeah, that’s sort of like the issue with the Legendborn ending, which was that like, I can see how the author would think this would fit with the overall theme of the story, but not with what is actually happening right now. If you didn’t tell me what had happened, what was happening right before that, I would have been like, that sounds like a perfect ending line for Twilight, what’s the problem? And it’s like, oh, they’re supposed to be at a more lighthearted prom date. All right. Now it’s weird.
Wes: Ugh. Cold lips. Nope.
Oren: Surprisingly, I must actually praise the ending line of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Whaaat? Yeah, cause you may remember I was a bit harsh on its opening line and how it meant nothing.
Wes: That was the Talk-Talk one, right?
Oren: Yeah, the Talk-Talk. And also the council not looking at this tax bill to outlying star systems. [Chris laughs] Yeah. But no, the ending line is actually quite good. And I’ll read it first and then explain the context.
“Or not. Since Boom started quite a few young cobbers have gone out to Asteroids. Hear about some nice places out there, not too crowded.
My word, I’m not even a hundred yet.”
Now it’s still got that kind of, not-fantastic moon dialect going on, but the context of this is that they’ve won the revolution, but now there’s not really any place for the protagonist who was a soldier in the revolution? His fighting is done and he’s not a politician. So what’s he going to do now? And it’s like, well, I guess I’ll move on. I guess that’s it. That’s the end. It also really communicates how fast this all happens. Now, he says I’m not even a hundred yet; now in real life, not even a hundred yet wouldn’t mean anything, but this is the future, right, people live a long time. And so it just kind of brings home that he’s actually very young to have done all of these things cause events happen very quickly. Overall, yeah, I thought that was a very strong ending line.
Chris: Yeah, sort of hopeful looking to the future. I’ve been surprised by how many closing lines have characters walking in them, [Wes laughs] because it’s just very symbolic, right? If we’re talking about transitions and looking towards what the character is doing next from the future, the whole like “walking into the future”. When you start comparing lots of closing lines, it does start to look like a bit much! Like here’s some characters walking again!
Oren: Yeah. Not in Lord of the Rings though, because one does not simply walk into Mordor. [Wes laughs]
Wes: Something else that you’ll see in closing lines is just what happened? You know, they’ll kind of tidy up and maybe just like have a recap. But I was curious when we were looking at this, I was like, how does Dracula end? So I looked and, you know, the final chapter, I think chapter 27, you know, it’s epistolary. And so there’s Mina Harker’s notes, which recounts the slaying of Dracula and the death of Mr. Morris. But then there’s, just called “Note” by Jonathan Harker at the very end of it, which kind of serves as an epilogue of sorts. But I really liked the last passage because there’s only three paragraphs, I think. And it’s kind of Harker talking about like, everybody’s put their letters together and they just think it’s like, no one’s going to believe anything that all of them have written down from this whole experience. Mina and Jonathan Harker have their baby boy and Van Helsing is there. And this last paragraph, Harker is basically like, “Hey, what do we do?” And then it goes,
“Van Helsing summed it all up as he said, with our boy on his knee:—
‘We want no proofs; we ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.’”
And I thought that was just really well done, with Dracula preying on Mina and all the, everybody to like “Go get her back”, you know, it’s just like, of course Van Helsing provides the perfect summary to that story at the end, right? And he’s like, “I don’t care if anybody believes us or not!”
Oren: I appreciate that Dracula is able to give some qualities to Mina as a mother character other than beautiful and kind.
Wes: Yeah, brave and gallant are some good choices there.
Oren: I’m presuming that that cliche didn’t exist yet when he was writing that book, but man, it’s always beautiful and kind with the mothers. So it’s just kind of nice that someone changed that.
Chris: Another interesting end, the Dark Angel trilogy has a poetic prophecy in it and it just chooses to end by basically going over the last two verses of the prophecy. It works really well, partly because again, the atmosphere of the book and the poem match, but also because of course with the prophecy, it’s so cryptic. So when readers first get it, they don’t know what it means. And then they find out what it means. And so then repeating it another time allows them to get a new experience with the same poem by reading it and understanding what all of the cryptic references are.
Wes: I was just thinking about, have you guys ever encountered a story where you’re like, “Man, that should have just ended sooner”? Like somebody should have chopped off the last several, I dunno, sentences, words, paragraphs, pages?
Chris: Actually, with Twilight, there were some earlier lines that would have made a good, much more appropriate end. “It’s not the end, it’s the beginning” or something like, Bella says that. And it’s like, why didn’t you just end with that? Because that’s a great way to advertise that there are more books in the series, it sounds kind of hopeful, but no, we decided to go with the cold lips. [laughs] Like we could have just trimmed some of those sentences off and it would’ve been great.
Wes: She clearly had that in her mind, like, no, that is the last sentence. Like, nothing will stop me.
Chris: I do think It really benefits a writer when you’re doing your end to actually play around with that. And just like, okay, here’s my ending section. Now, what happens if I end here? What does it feel like if I end here? Test that out a little bit, because you might discover there’s a sentence that works much better.
Oren: When I think of stories that feel like they should have ended earlier, movies are typically the one that comes to mind rather than books. And I think that might just be because with a movie, I really feel it if it’s dragging, right? Like if it’s overstayed its welcome, you know, I’ve been watching this thing for two hours, I gotta use the bathroom, I’m out of snacks, [Wes laughs] just like, please end the story. So if it goes on longer than it needs to, I really notice it. Whereas with books, it’s like, you know, I’ve been listening to this thing for 15 hours, nonconsecutively. So, if it goes on for a little longer, I don’t notice it as much. Were there any books you were thinking of, Wes, that felt like they should have just ended a little earlier?
Wes: The example that I can choose is from kind of an obscure-er HP Lovecraft story. Basically the premise is, Random Researcher Guy is hanging out in the Northeast and it’s a torrential downpour, so he goes into this house and the whole house looks like it’s several hundred years old. Like all the furniture and stuff looks like it’s colonial, like that kind of stuff. Old man comes down, offers him a seat and they just kind of get to chatting, and old man has a really old dialect and then they start looking in book and obviously book has some racist components because HPL, but the whole point is that there’s this moment where you realize as the reader and the narrator is getting the slowly dawning horror that this old man is a cannibal and he’s somehow extended his life by eating humans. I’m going to read the last bit, and I’m going to stop it where I think it should stop. And then I’ll read you what’s left after that.
“The open book lay flat between us, with the picture staring repulsively upward. As the old man whispered the words “more the same” a tiny spattering impact was heard, and something shewed on the yellowed paper of the upturned volume. I thought of the rain and of a leaky roof, but rain is not red.”
Hold on. I’ll skip ahead.
“The old man saw it, and stopped whispering even before my expression of horror made it necessary; saw it and glanced quickly toward the floor of the room he had left an hour before. I followed his glance, and beheld just above us on the loose plaster of the ancient ceiling a large irregular spot of wet crimson which seemed to spread even as I viewed it. I did not shriek or move, but merely shut my eyes.”
And I think it should stop there. But the last sentence is:
“A moment later came the titanic thunderbolt of thunderbolts; blasting that accursed house of unutterable secrets and bringing the oblivion which alone saved my mind.”
Chris: It’s like he was forced to add a happy ending to it, after he’d written it.
Wes: I know!
Chris: Somebody was like, “I’m not publishing that unless you, like, make him live somehow.”
Oren: That’s like in the DS9 episode, Far Beyond the Stars, when Sisko’s writer character writes a story that they won’t publish because it’s got a black dude in it. It’s like, “Okay, would you publish it if I added ‘And it was all a dream’ to the end?” [Wes laughs] and they’re like, “Yeah, alright, we’ll publish it if you say it was all a dream.”
Wes: There’s something there, right? Like there’s something to this desire to try to tidy it up. But there can be much better stuff to just try to leave with what you showed and not just like, “Carry on”, but that can be really hard. I mean, you stare at that all the time and try to think through everything, but it’s kind of a fun exercise because honestly, when we were talking about prepping for this podcast, I was thinking, I don’t really pay that much attention to the endings. I think I’m, like, checked out by the last chapter. The whole book is in my mind, so the weight of the last few paragraphs or sentences, they’re not really there. But I liked going and looking at books for this particular reason. Cause there’s stuff there to enjoy when I’m not, I guess, tired and ready for the book to be over.
Oren: Yeah, If I was enjoying a book then like, usually by the end, I’m at such a flow for lack of a better word, because I’m just enjoying the book so much that by the end, I might not even be paying that much attention. Just like, yeah, that was a great book. And if I don’t like the book, then it’s like “uuugh, when will this book be over?”
Wes: (agreeing) Please stop!
Oren: And so it’s hard to focus on the individual qualities of the words, because I’m just like, I just want the book to stop, please.
Chris: That sounds sad. I mean, for me, depends on how much attachment I have to that book because books can become very addicting. If they get me attached enough to the characters and their journeys, I would really want that epilogue content, right, cause it’s like, I go through withdrawal when I’m done with the book [laughs]. So hanging on those last words can be important.
Oren: And if I enjoy a book, then I also like the epilogue. I’m just, you know, I’m not paying critical attention to it as much as I would have earlier.
Chris: “And with that, Oren, Wes and Chris looked into the sun and walk,” [Oren and Wes laugh]
Oren/Wes: Dun dun dunnnn!
Wes: Did we walk into the sun?
Oren: Or maybe we flew! [laughter]
Oren: Alright, well that will be it for this episode; for those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons.
First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.