The most important sentence in your book

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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?

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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18 Comments

  1. I’ve not heard of “The Book Thief”, but I already feel greatly intrigued to read it!

    On a side note, a weird thing I’ve noticed about last sentences is their placement on the page. There’s nothing I hate more then flipping a page and finding it blank; you flip back and realise that the last sentence was toward the bottom of the page, and so it cruelly convinced you that there was more to come.

    For me, it won’t matter how great the final sentence is. If it looks like the book continues on the next page, I’ll stupidly flip over looking for more. 😉

    • Oh, you MUST read The Book Thief. One of my all-time favorites. It’s about a foster child in Nazi Germany who steals books from bonfires.

      That blank page flipping thing – that’s happened to me, with the last book in Avi’s Crispin trilogy. It didn’t help that nothing was resolved, either. I wrote a blog rant about it awhile back, though I didn’t specifically mention the placement of the last sentence. They really ought to look at the pages after they lay them out, before printing, to make sure that doesn’t happen. Edit a little more to make it shorter, or change the part of the page the chapters start on to move everything up or down.

  2. My favourite last sentence is a lot like The Outsiders example (though I’ve never read that book). Technically, it’s not the last sentence of a book, but a whole series. The Mortal Engines Quartet ends with the very same sentence it begins with, when you learn a character has narrated the whole thing. The firste sentence is: ‘It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.’ The final sentence is: ‘”It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring,” he said, “and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”‘

  3. I wrote a blog post recently (My Ideal Bookcase – http://chriswhitewrites.com/2012/11/11/my-ideal-bookshelf/) where I mentioned a few great opening lines, like from Kafka’s The Trial – “Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.”

    And some great endings, like Lord of the Flies – “And in the middle of them [the sailors], with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

    The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.”

    What books would make your list if you could only choose 12? I made it to the last one before realising that I had left off dozens of writers glaring at me from my bookshelf…

  4. One of my favorite books is Till We Have Faces. The last sentence, the last paragraph, even, makes sense, but I think it is unnecessary.
    The last line from the narrator of the novel is this: “Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might…”

    I feel that it is perfect for the book. But then there is a brief epilogue where another character explains that the original narrator has died. And therefore the actual last line of the book is “The Priest who comes after me has it in charge to give up the book to any stranger who will take an oath to bring it into Greece.”

    Hmm.

    • It cut off mid sentence? I’d forgotten that. I need to read it again; I don’t remember how I felt about the ending the first time. But maybe Lewis was trying the same thing he did in the final chapter of Out of the Silent Planet – discussing the purpose of the book and why they decided to publish it as fiction and so on. It lends a sense of reality to the story, as if it’s a piece of ancient history instead of the invention of a 20th century novelist. I’m not sure how I feel about it. At least it refers back to Orual’s wishes in the beginning for the book to be brought to Greece. Gahhhh I need to read this again!!!

      • It’s one of those books. It needs many readings. 😉
        Yes, it cuts off mid-sentence, and I think that works. I don’t know that finishing the sentence in any way could have given it more impact (or left it more open to interpretation).

        It does refer back to her wishes, and it makes sense, but it’s such a change of gears that I find it jarring.

        • Understandable. I think you’re probably right that it should’ve simply ended with Orual. Though I’m sure some people would have objected to a cutoff without an explanation (despite the fact that she SAYS she’s dying and that should clue us in). I wonder if Lewis WANTED to leave it at that, but got talked out of it by an editor???

  5. Pingback: Holiday Archives: Your most important sentence | bekindrewrite

  6. I agonised over the final sentence while writing my book … and in the end, my editor – quite brilliant! – pushed me gently in a direction that I didn’t really want to go. It was her sole failure, in my eyes. I look at the book now and know EXACTLY what I should have had there …

    • I hate it when that happens! Hindsight is 20/20 and all that. It’s one of those things that makes you wonder if you should wait until the “Right One” comes along, or if you’ll never feel right about any choice and you just have to settle on something and move along. Ah, well. Perhaps you can change it in a second edition?

      • If only. I can’t get the book reviewed on-line. Buggered if I know why not.
        Oh well.

        • Hmmm. Maybe look into some ways to promote your book online? Possibly look up some prominent bloggers who focus on book reviews and send a few of them a free copy. I really need to research this more.

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