You know the feeling. The book you’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading has become a dear friend. You must keep reading it, but the more you do, the closer you get to the end…and suddenly it’s over. It is no longer a companion, but a memory. You enter into mourning.
Sequels aside, only one thing can ease pain of the ending of a great book:
A great last sentence.
We already talked about the second most important sentence in the book – the first sentence. The first sentence gets them to read the book; but the last sentence makes them glad they did. It is the punchline to the joke. The splash at the end of a water slide. The cheers and kisses at the end of the New Year’s countdown.
The last sentence means the difference between the reader feeling the story was cut short, cheated with an early death – or feeling the story lived a good long life and made its imprint on the world.
Last words with a deathbed level of importance.
A great last sentence will do one or more of the following:
- Refer back to a theme present throughout the book. Bonus points if it mirrors the first sentence.
- Evoke a sense of victory and/or hope.
- Show the purpose of the story and/or the meaning behind the title
Here’s a poor last sentence from an otherwise great book, Pride & Prejudice (Austen):
With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.
Why it’s lame: The Gardiners were not a major theme in the story: this is more of an amusing side note than last words. The sentence (er, sentences) could fit anywhere else in the chapter – rather disappointing in a book with one of the most famous first sentences ever. Let’s compare to some great last sentences:
The Book of Lost Things (Connolly):
And in the darkness David closed his eyes, as all that was lost was found again.
Why it’s brilliant: In a book whose first sentence relates the loss of David’s mother, and whose successive chapters speak of many other losses, this sentence, capping an ending full of reunions, is poetry.
The Outsiders (Hinton):
[We learn in the final chapter the character is writing a school paper on a personal experience.]
And I finally began like this: When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home…
Why it’s brilliant: Everything after that first colon is a copy of the first line of the book. We suddenly realize the book we have been reading is that school paper – and that he is writing about his tragedy to tell the world to keep it from happening again.
A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens):
It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
Why it’s brilliant: The character speaking, who has till now lived a pointless life, has just done something heroic. We feel victory knowing he has risen above, and hope in the peace he will have.
The Book Thief (Zusak):
I am haunted by humans.
Why it’s brilliant: It’s ironic, as the book is narrated by Death, who is supposed to haunt us. It’s also a play on words: he doesn’t mean he fears humans, but that the stories of our lives touch him. And that’s the whole point of the book.
The Last Battle (Lewis):
All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Why it’s brilliant: It’s the last book in one of the best loved series of all time; that’s a hard thing to say goodbye to. Lewis does it by transforming a death into a birth – for both the series and our own souls.
What’s your favorite last sentence? Why is it brilliant?