Only when you strip your story of ego can your genius really shine
There’s nothing worse than a rushed last line.
Yet this happens all too often. Wrapped up in their own perspective, stamping their baggage — this is mine! — , writers cut off possibilities for their story to live on. Instead of trusting that their audience has been with them the entire way, some writers feel the need to drive home the point. To project a certain finality onto their ending. “Do you understand what I’m trying to say?” is how their last line reads. They poison otherwise good writing with forced heaviness or purpose. Isn’t that ego? Wanting the world to die when we do? Wanting our story to end with a final flourish of our pen?
The truth is that once we put a good story into the world, it doesn’t need us anymore. It’s our baby, sure — but it’s grown up now, forming new relationships. I can see it now, my light-haired child that looks nothing like me, kicking my shins with soot on his face, You’re embarrassing me, Ma!
The last line is the last line, yes; but it shouldn’t be the end. We outgrow a story by writing it, and then it goes on to mingle with the thoughts of each of our readers. An invisible transference, a fluid dance. Isn’t that a beautiful thing?
Delete your ego by leaving an open space in which readers can respond
The ill-fitting last line isn’t just relegated for the last page. Often those same writers will pepper it throughout, almost as if they were summarizing each chapter, almost as if they got tired. When writers lay it all out for their readers, they cheapen their work. And not surprisingly, readers aren’t too pleased when they find themselves in a story that wants nothing to do with them. A story is a living thing. It responds to each touch, is translated into something new by each pair of eyes. When writers flatly “tell” a reader what to think, they disregard the reader. They ignore everything the reader has to bring to the experience. This way of writing leaves no space in which the reader can respond; and when readers have nothing invested in a story, nothing is keeping them from leaving.
But deleting your ego doesn’t necessarily mean cutting down your word count. Take it from Ian McEwan, the best-selling author. Heralded as one of the greatest British writers since 1945, McEwan is master of the slow reveal and of quick devastation. Watch as he sets us up for heartbreak:
There was really no point trying to arrange wildflowers. They had tumbled into their own symmetry, and it was certainly true that too even a distribution between the irises and the rosebay willow herb ruined the effect. She spent some minutes making adjustments in order to achieve a natural chaotic look. While she did so she wondered about going to Robbie. It would save her from running upstairs. But she felt uncomfortable and hot, and would have liked to check her appearance in the large gilt mirror above the fireplace. But if he turned around — he was standing with his back to the house, smoking — he would see right into the room. At last she was finished and stood back again. Now her brother’s friend, Paul Marshall, might believe that the flowers had simply been dropped in the vase in the same carefree spirit with which they had been picked. It made no sense, she knew, arranging flowers before the water was in — but there it was; she couldn’t resist moving them around, and not everything people did could be in a correct, logical order, especially when they were alone.
If you haven’t realized yet, it’s not about the wildflowers. It’s never about the wildflowers. And he’s not finished yet; it goes on. But watch what McEwan does here. He walks around the room. He sighs, he looks back at you. You, the reader. Slowly. And at each period, it’s almost as if…get this…he’s waiting for you. He’s waiting for you to get there. But this thing about the wildflowers — reading it, we know it’s not about the flowers. Or maybe we’re like, God, forget the flowers already! We don’t actually know what it’s about, what it’s leading to, or do we? McEwan has created a familiar feeling. Despair, anxiety, irritation. Sexual tension. We can feel the humidity pressing in on Cecelia’s light cotton dress, the brown tendrils stuck to the back of her neck. Those last details, did he say that? No, not exactly. Not explicitly. But by not rushing, McEwan puts the reader there in real-time. By leaving blank spaces, McEwan invites us into the scene. He lets us fill it with our own insecurities and desires. And then he leaves us there. Wanting. Sure, it’s wordy. He’s the master of too many words. “Isn’t that the opposite of your deleting your ego?” you ask. Yes, McEwan is wordy. But in all those words about flowers, he conjures reality for his readers by forgetting himself.
McEwan is not the narrator, saying, “Here is the vase. Here is Cecelia. She is upset, maybe even in love.” McEwan is not the narrator — he’s in the room, touching a flower. He’s a soft tendril of hair on the nape of her neck. By removing subjective details, McEwan interacts with the reader, not as the narrator telling, but as a familiar feeling. Once the writer is confident enough to remove their own judgments from the equation, the reader is allowed to fill the space with their own intimacies. Love is a universal disease, after all.
Ian McEwan’s best-seller and heartbreaker “Atonement” is filled with sexual tension, revealed through a fussy flower arrangement, a broken vase, a terse dinner conversation. And yet — spoiler alert — there is no sex involved. It’s not even about sex.
By removing subjective details, McEwan interacts with the reader, not as the narrator telling, but as a familiar feeling.
In a recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, McEwan was asked if he purposefully tries to devastate his readers in his novels. He replied, “I just want my reader to feel that he or she cannot so easily walk away without coming back.” Make your story hard to walk away from by taking your own judgments out of the story. Your job is to set the stage with familiar feelings — and then step back.
Delete your ego by losing your last line
By writing something, by writing anything, the writer has engaged in a dialogue. In a relationship, if you will. The sacred relationship between writer and reader. The writer brings a problem, a hole, a space to fill. The reader brings to this space the cumulative experience of their lives, and thus they enter into the sacred relationship between writer and reader. The two are now eternally connected; they establish a rapport, the reader feels that they know the writer. They trust the writer. Their lives are in the writer’s hands. And then the writer breaks their heart! And not in the style of Ian McEwan either. Why did the writer have to go and slap on some cheesy last line? The tragedy of the ages. I don’t know how many good love stories are ruined by a lazy promise of marriage slapped onto the tail. Who says that’s happily ever after?
Don’t have the time or proficiency of Ian McEwan? Not sure how to “delete your ego” out of your old stories? Delete the last line.
I’m not going to pretend I’m a great writer, or that I know everything. I’m not going to disrespect any books I love by using them as an example here. I’m sure as hell not going to embarrass myself by putting my work as an example here. But I can tell you that since someone mentioned this trick to me, it’s transformed my writing. Yes, it’s a minimal edit — don’t you love it? It’s almost too easy. Now when I’m stuck or unsatisfied, I re-evaluate. What can I stand to lose?
If my last line feels forced, I go back and take it out. Taking out my last line lets the story breathe, lets it grow. It opens the story to so many more interpretations than just my own narrow perspective. I’ve been able to reinvigorate countless drafts by going through and snipping off the ends. If cutting the last line doesn’t put the cherry on top, at least it opens your story up to a new direction.
If one of my older articles isn’t doing well, I check my ego. I mean, I literally check my ego. Sometimes all it takes it deleting that last line and it’s a better story. Ouch. I’m reminded of the 2019 movie “Lucky Day,” when Nina Dobrev’s art gallery owner says to her snidely, “Your narrative is showing.”
How can we improve our story by taking away from it? By stripping our story of our ending and our ego, we make it universal, relative, familiar. An invitation to collaborate, to commiserate, to see if anyone has felt the same way. “But I can’t keep deleting the end! Where does this madness end?” you ask.
If you’re having a hard time finding a place to end, NY Book Editors suggests reading your story or last chapter of your novel out loud.
“It’s likely that you have already written your last sentence, but it may be lost amidst other writing. Reading aloud helps identify natural ending spots. Mark anything that sounds like a strong closing, and then work with those sentences and paragraphs for a while, seeing where you can move or revise to strike the right end.
You know best if your story needs an abrupt ending or a slow descent to its close. The key to ending is to close as soon as possible without leaving your reader dissatisfied. You can leave them unsettled, but you can’t leave them unfulfilled. Last lines teach us lessons, give us memorable images, and provide the note that carries the reader away from the story and back into his or her world. If ever there were a place to make every word count, your last line is it.”
Chances are you’ve already written the perfect last line. It’s just lost in the muck. Once you clean up your story, the last line may be right there, beaming up at you.
Trust your reader with the value of the story. When the story is stripped of the writer’s human failures and human ego — sometimes wrapped up in the anticipated last line — it is no longer subject to human limitations. The story is then only subject to the experience of the reader. Timeless, universal.