Writing a great last line; what is exposition?
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: November 10, 2009
|Q: I know all about closure when it comes to endings, but I never know how to finalize a story. What makes for a great last line?|
Many stories incorporate a strong image in the end line, giving readers a concrete and memorable detail as they exit. Claire Davis' "Labors of the Heart" follows an overweight man who has given up on love only to fall for a woman he meets in the grocery store. It ends like this: Brandi Reissenweber
Instead, he leads them arm in arm, their bodies swaying each its own way, beneath the steepled canopy of sycamore where the first flush of moonrise swims the wavering shadows in a school of light.
John Cheever's "The Swimmer" tells the story of Neddy Merrill as he swims home via his friends' and neighbors' backyard pools. This journey parallels a much longer one-his downfall in life. The story ends as he arrives at his own house, where the doors are locked:
He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.
This image comes with a realization. When Neddy arrives, he must face the truth of his situation. This house is no longer his home; his family is not there to greet him.
Some final lines forgo image and focus on idea. Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Third and Final Continent" follows a young man from Calcutta as he adjusts to life in Boston. Years later, when he is no longer new to the country and has settled into his work and family life, he drives past the house where he rented a room as a young man. The final two lines show the narrator's wonder at his experience:
Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.
Dorothy Parker's "Here We Are" ends with dialogue. It tells the story of newlyweds on the train to their honeymoon destination. Early in the story, after they settle their bags for the trip, the groom says: "Well, here we are." It's a line full of promise and excitement. However, the bride and groom spend the entire trip bickering. The story's end line echoes the earlier one: "'Yes, here we are,' she said. 'Aren't we?'" Yet, the reader has come to understand those words are weighted with a more somber outlook.
A final line's success depends on how well it grows out of what has come before it. So, always take into consideration the kind of story you've written and how to best usher the reader out of that particular world. Regardless of the approach, an end line should have a spark-something that stays in readers' minds as they re-enter their own lives.
(The short stories noted above, "Labors of the Heart," "The Swimmer," "The Third and Final Continent," and "Here We Are," can be found in Gotham Writers' Workshop's Fiction Gallery.)
Q: What is exposition?
Put simply, exposition is writing that explains. Writers use it to quickly fill in background information about characters or circumstances. By its very nature, exposition isn't exciting. A lot of it all at once can make a reader tune out. And it's not always an effective choice. A page of exposition about a character won't do nearly as much to fix the character in a reader's mind as a well-chosen action or gesture.
Still, exposition can create tension and meaning if you use it well. Include only to what is absolutely necessary to help the reader understand the action of the story. The details of Lucy's arrests for shoplifting, for example, may not be important in a story about her lost dog.
But what about background information that is important? Consider just how much detail is necessary. Let's say Lucy feels like losing her dog is some sort of payback from the universe for her past indiscretions. In this case, the reader does need to know about her arrests, but not the catalogue of what she's stolen, descriptions of jail, or a summary of her last spree. Simply letting the reader know the shoplifting arrests are part of her past will inform the action of the story and keep the reader focused on what's important now-Lucy's experience of losing her dog.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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--Posted Nov. 10, 2009