09/19/2012 02:35 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

Opening Lines, Last Lines: A Delicate Balance

The perfect first line. How we chase it, scrambling phrases and our brains, seeking magic words to pop open our stories like magic keys. (Sometimes I want to create an entire book because a great beginning sentence pops into my head.) Tougher, can be that last line; tougher because it's culminating an entire world.

The last line is a writer's goodbye to her characters and readers, wrapping up their thoughts without staying too long at the party; it should leave the reader with a lingering taste of the characters -- enough to let the reader feel that the men, women, and children with whom they've just spent hours, will continue on their journey.

And we want to believe that. When we love a book, we need to think that we may someday meet the characters again.

Last lines should have impact, but not shout. And then there's another question, should and do last lines ring to the first line of the book?

Below, lines from some of my favorite books -- some fiction, some not. Lines where I can see the thrust of the book, the intent, and the way the last lines ring back to the beginning. A fine balance.

Half a Life by Darin Strauss (a memoir):

First: Half my life ago, I killed a girl. I had just turned eighteen, and when you drive in new post-adolescence, you drive with friends.

and last: But we keep making our way, as we have to. We're all pretty much able to deal even with the worst life can fire at us, if we simply admit that it is very difficult. I think that's the whole of the answer. We make our way, and effort and time give us cushion and dignity. And as we age, we're riding higher in the saddle, seeing more terrain.

So it's an epiphany after all. You have it in your hand the whole time.

Causasia by Danzy Senna (a novel):

First: A long time ago I disappeared. One day I was here, the next I was gone.

and last: For a second I thought I was somewhere familiar and she was a girl I already knew. I began to lift my hand, but stopped, remembering where I was and what I had already found. Then the bus lurched forward, and the face was gone with it, just a blur of yellow and black in motion.

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner (an instructional memoir):

First: I never dreamed of becoming an editor.

and last: No matter how often or how vociferously writers are attacked, no matter how many hearts are broken in pursuit of publication or how many authors discouraged in their lonely work, there will always be a brilliant conspiracy between author and reader.

Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux (a novel):

First: We drove past Tiny Polski's mansion house to the main road, and then the five miles into Northampton, Father talking all the way about savages and the awfulness of America -- how it got turned into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger zone of rabid scavengers and moral sneaks.

and last: Beyond the plams was a paved road, a parked jalopy, a driver. Soon we were inside, on our way back to La Ceiba and home. The world was all right, no better or worse than we had left it -- though after what Father had told us, what we saw was like splendor. It was glorious even here, in this old taxicab with the radio playing.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith (a novel):

First: Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912.

and last: "Goodbye, Francie," she whispered. She closed the window.

Knowing Jesse by Marianne Leone (a memoir):

First: All summer and fall I had been troubled by a dream I couldn't interprete. My mother, who had died that spring, appeared as a silent sentinel dressed in while, seated next to a café table covered by snowy linen on which one small candle burned.

and last: I am hurtled back into a moment in time when I am rubbing Jesse's shoulders and I can feel his honeyed skin and hear his languid click, his yesssss, and I can see his long-lashed lids quivering fighting sleep. Jesse is present, found, invoked by giving. To be present in the world, the world without Jess, that's the hardest thing. But it's the only way to find him.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones ( a novel):

First: My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother.

and last: People say, That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger. But they are wrong. What doesn't kill you, doesn't kill you. That's all you get. That's all you get. Sometimes, you just have to hope that's enough.

Looking back at these firsts and lasts, I see the connective tissue in all of them and I wonder how many authors did this consciously, and how many worked this circle in a sub-conscious manner (like I did in my novels -- surprising myself at how the undermind can do the the work.)

Writing requires a delicate balance of hard work and catching the alchemy.

When the keys align,

Writers wave the wand,

Readers feel the magic.

And it works.