By David Flin
If the most important paragraph in a story is the first, because it is what gets the reader hooked, the second most important paragraph is the last, because that is what the reader leaves with. It’s the sign-off to the tale.
Perhaps it might be worth starting with a few examples. Spoiler alert: some of these give away the ending of the book. Well, they would. That’s what they are. Congratulations if you recognise all six of the books these come from.
But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally, she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
He died to buy time, he died for what he believed in, Justice and Freedom. Let him stay dead, with honour.
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.
But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.
I never saw any of them again – except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.
He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.
The last one is interesting. I would have ended it after the first sentence. That feels to me a more natural and more effective ending, and the extra doesn’t seem to add anything. That said, Remarque was a better writer than I am, and thought that it worked. This demonstrates that you can’t please everyone, and nor should you try to please everyone.
The closing paragraph is the sign-off. It’s the summary of the entire book, encapsulated in one phrase. There’s no point in trying to show-off an extensive vocabulary. None of the quoted passages uses anything complicated in terms of vocabulary or sentence structure or imagery. They’re actually quite simple phrases.
That’s the point. You’re trying to deliver a memorable closure to the story, and that means the reader is going to need to be able to remember the sentiment, and not struggle with the complexities of the language. You need to know what the theme of the book is. Even straight tales of a history have a theme about them.
The last paragraph needs to reflect the emotion you want the reader to go away with when they finish the tale. It’s not a summary, rather what you’ve been building towards. All you need to do is find a simple, memorable phrase that encapsulates the essence of your work.
The first piece of advice I have is to avoid words like encapsulate. It might be fine for the main body of the story, when you’re quite happy to make the reader do a bit of work.
Take time to get the last paragraph right. In some ways, it is easier than the first paragraph. The first paragraph has to combine a hook with setting out the first step. The final paragraph pulls together everything that has gone before, and it has to be satisfying for the intended readership. That is easier said than done.
Still, practise makes perfect, so they say, and this is one exercise I used to set back in the days when I taught creative writing. Write the final paragraph to a well-known piece of work. It could be a book, a film, a play, anything of that nature. Take everything right up until that final paragraph, and provide that sign-off.
The difficulty is that in a lot of cases, the ending that was originally planned is pretty much perfect. There is no way to improve on: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” or on: “Hang on lads, I’ve got a great idea.”
There are many different types of final paragraph one can come up with. If we take the six examples I quoted, the first is indicating that Huck is avoiding the transformation, and values whatever might be over the frontier above becoming civilised. In some ways, it’s a very sad end, he’s spurning all that is being offered so that he can remain unattached, while the book has shown him getting used to being attached, to having Aunt Sally.
The second is a simple statement; it basically says that redemption comes with a price, and if the price isn’t paid, the redemption is devalued. Scott died to win Justice and Freedom, and if he didn’t die, then maybe the Justice and Freedom hadn’t been fully earned.
The third is a simple pay-off; the transformation is complete, and all that the animals had sacrificed for their vision has been for nothing.
And so on. However, let’s try a worked example. Let’s say we need a closing line for an autobiography of Michael Caine that you’re ghostwriting. You’ve written it in a chatty, first person style, and you’ve included some of the few anecdotes that he’s not already told. You’ve tried to capture his style of speaking. Now you need the sign-off, to send the reader away with a smile. One thing that Michael Caine is known for is his catch-phrases, so working one in as a sign-off might work.
“I am Michael Caine. This was the story of my life. Not many people knew that.”
That’s pretty much all that you need to know. In summary:
Keep it simple. The point is to make it memorable, so make it easy to remember.Try to capture the emotion you want the reader to leave with.Use key words. Quite often, the words of the title work well.Don’t try to explain the sign-off. It will either speak for itself, or it won’t. If you explain, you destroy the mood.And practise, practise, practise. Normally, I advise writers to work through difficulties, and that perfection is the enemy of good. Quite often, authors will take a sentence from the middle of a story, and constantly polish it, working it slowly towards perfection. Usually, ten years later, they are still doing this, and it’s a waste. The final paragraph needs some care. You should have it in mind from the moment you start, because that is what you’re building towards. Polish away, and practise, and see how the greats end their work.