So many last lines don't do anything at all. I suspect that many authors are afraid of being too obvious, or are trying to be artful. Or maybe writers just don't know when to quit.
~Donald Maass (who else? haha), The Fire In Fiction, p. 69
A good majority of writerly advice focuses on beginnings rather than endings. Which I find a bit misleading. Yes, beginnings are uber-important, but not disproportionately so to endings.
The way I see it, anyone can start a novel. Anyone can start a scene. But how many people can finish them? And not only finish them, but end them in a way that has impact on the reader.
The final words on a page are the ones that stick with the reader. Even more so than the words used to open a new scene, chapter, novel.
Take, for example, a scene I just randomly selected out of the novel Matched by Ally Condie. I opened the book and used whatever scene I'd opened to, and not surprisingly, since this is a very well-written novel, the scene I opened to proves my point.
Here is the first line:
"Someone said a girl your age came to the work site today," my father says.
This opening sets the stage for the scene that will unfold. It's a grounding point. Which is important, truly. But it isn't what the author wants you to really remember as you move forward through the story. She wants you to remember the final line:
I will try to forget that Ky said "home" when he looked into my eyes.
Does that not have more impact? Also noteworthy is that this line is clearly relevant to the novel's overall premise. This doesn't happen by accident. This author knows what she's doing. Her words don't just happen, they are created. Formed. They have purpose.
Final lines can make or break your story. They have the ability to change the reader's view, for better or worse, in as little time as it takes to read the sentence. I don't believe the same can be said of opening lines.
So in studying this, specifically, in a few of the novels I own, I then looked to my own work to see how I was doing in this particular area.
In a middle chapter of Social Graces I found this as the final line:
Or it might just be my stupidest idea yet.
The MC's whole life appears to be, to her, just a string of bad ideas and wrong choices. Ending on this thought entices the reader to keep going, to see if her idea this time will work or not. Will she fix anything, or just make it all worse? (for a middle scene, it should be the latter -- no real fixing of anything until the end)
Again from Social Graces:
I wish relationships were as easy to navigate as a map.
This finalizes the events of the scene (they are driving in the car, get in an argument, and get lost so they have to pull out the map), makes the point of the scene clear. It tells the reader, "This is why I included that scene, this is the point, this is why you should care." And it says all that without outright saying it. The sentence is just an observation made by the MC, a passing thought, yet it is relevant to both the individual scene and the overall premise of the novel. It reminds the reader why they started reading this story in the first place.
You can certainly end a scene or chapter on a life-or-death cliffhanger, but it is not always necessary to push a reader forward. In fact, to me, it feels gimmicky if a good percentage of the chapters end on a "scene cut." Don't overuse this technique. More effective (and less annoying) are subtle thrusters... little tugs that keep the reader turning pages without really knowing why.
Give your final lines more impact by keeping these points in mind:
1. Scenes and chapters have structure just like a full novel has structure. Create impact with circularity back to the opening lines.
2. Plant a seed of mystery. Plant a seed of doubt. Promise the reader something to discover by continuing on.
3. End on a new decision, a new viewpoint, a new conflict. In other words, end with a clear change in the MC's world, however subtle it may seem in the moment.
4. Connect the final words of a scene or chapter to the main premise in some way. This keeps the plot fluid and emphasizes your theme.
5. Less is more. A single sentence -- a succinct, direct observation -- can have worlds more impact than a full paragraph that details the same thought.
Can you think of any other ways to give final lines that extra oomph?