It is quite well enough to write (or read) through a novel, absorbing all of the plot points, enjoying the characters and their foibles, and riding Freytag’s pyramid to a believable yet strangely unexpected climax. The denouement brings us down rather gently as we finally understand everything that has transpired. Done. What more is there to write/read? THE END usually works well.
But wait! Back up. What about the final sentence? How about the final paragraph?
In my reading experience, I find the novel actually ends about a page or so before that last paragraph. All the threads are wrapped up, the action is done, everybody is happy – except the butler who did it and was found out. Then the writer has an incredible urge to explain it all. The usual method is to try to put a hashtag on the theme of the novel, accentuating how the plot points supported that theme. Or, the writer might elect to go big time and shoot for universal truth between the end of the action and the The End.
Secret: When I browse for books, I check the back blurb, then the first page, then the last page. It’s not that I want to see how it ends (what the action is). Rather, I want to see how the writer ends the novel. Does he/she simply cut off the action and leave characters and readers with a shock? Does he/she suggest what will happen next, after you close the book? Is there a pretense to universal truth?
Universal truth endings are the ones we tend to remember years later, of course, but they are so difficult to pull off well. It’s worth trying, of course. The thing to remember is that last sentences, indeed the final paragraphs, depend on everything that has come before; they do not carry much meaning as solitary sentences.
Here’s a short list from a “top 10” best last sentences list:
Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
One of the most famous last sentences, this definitely ventures into universal truth status. The novel itself becomes, in hindsight, a long illustration of this single idea. It’s almost as though Scott thought of the universal truth first and sought to create a story that would illustrate how we strive so hard to return to the pleasantries of the past and fool ourselves that we can…and so on. (If I knew nothing of the author or novel, reading that last sentence would compel me to buy the book.)
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
He loved Big Brother.
By this point in the novel, I have no doubt that Winston Smith did love Big Brother. It is a summary statement, which acts as punctuation for the idea. The implication is that everyone will love Big Brother; it’s only a matter of time. Universal truth? Given our society today, it may be considered such. (If I knew nothing about this novel, that final line would have me wondering ‘Who is Big Brother?’ – which would push me to buy the book.)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.
Quite a plain sentence, and one that makes little impression without having read everything that came before. The effect, however, is a trailing off into “whatever” the next scene would be. Considering that the novel revolves around a group of friends whose lives are destined to end as organ donors and, thus, death, the lovely protagonist can only ponder when her time will come. (Again, if I knew nothing of the novel, that final sentence would not likely cause me to buy the book; I did buy the book, but only after seeing the film version – in which that final scene was so evocatively portrayed.)
(If you crave more, check out this list from the American Book Review. Beware, there is a Swedish film by the name The Last Sentence, too. Plenty of examples also in your nearest bookstore or library.)
A lot of books end with a sentence that makes me go “Hmmph! That’s it?” Others, however, leave me contemplating the idea for a long time after. As a writer, I work hard to create the perfect last sentence – or paragraph. I want to strive for universal truth but often settle for a “story” truth: the grand vision that we arrive at by the end of the novel.
The universal truth ending seems more appropriate, and therefore more often used, in literary fiction. Those of us who write science-fiction or other genre would beg to differ as we believe there are universal truths to be found in everything we do: even in the more comedic writing.
For example, in my literary anti-romance, A BEAUTIFUL CHILL – a kind of guy-meets-girl campus romp – the two protagonists try to make it work. Then it becomes a girl leaves guy story, so the last sentence is meant to be ironic, to suggest how the guy will perceive of this adventure long after the girl has gone and the novel has ended:
Her image was already branded into his brain. Like a tattoo, he decided. Like a tattoo that would never be finished.
In my contemporary romantic adventure novel, AFTER ILIUM, which follows the misadventures of a young man obsessed with the Trojan War, the ending comes from the work of Homer – which I thought a clever method for concluding the tale:
Alex stood on the balcony, leaning against the railing, just like he once had done on the cruise ship crossing the Aegean Sea. This time, instead of a wine-dark sea, he surveyed the dry California chaparral on the distant yellow slopes. He held his jaw steady, as tears crept down his cheek, recalling the torn hills of Ilium, and all of the days that fell after—remembering, whispering: Sing to me of the man, O Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy….
There are two exceptions to the last sentence pattern:
1. When a book ends with an epilogue, the final sentence/paragraph “rules” don’t apply. Instead, the whole epilogue, often chapter-length, acts as an extended last sentence. However, given its length, it usually falls short of being a great ending. (I am guilty of using epilogues in THE DREAM LAND Trilogy, but mostly because I am setting up the subsequent book.)
2. When a book is part of a series, the final sentence/paragraph lends itself less to leaving a reader with a greater sense of truth than setting up the next book (see #1 above). As such, that last sentence/paragraph becomes a bridge, and serves as a bridge rather than a ‘full stop, here we are at last, now what do you think?’ kind of ending.
Here are the last sentences for each book in THE DREAM LAND Trilogy, just for your amusement and in the interest of full disclosure:
THE DREAM LAND Book I: Long Distance Voyager (in the epilogue)
After that restful pause he would realize that living in a gilded cage was better than having no cage at all.
THE DREAM LAND Book II: Dreams of Future’s Past (in the epilogue)
Then she smiled warmly and said in perfect, beautiful English: “You should never have killed me.”
THE DREAM LAND Book III: Diaspora (not a true epilogue but an “addendum”)
[9.9] Someone will hear this. Maybe someday. Until then, let me say I love you. I love you all. Be good to each other. It’s a long journey we have to take. [end of transmission]
Of course, we cannot always offer a final sentence. My just-released arctic adventure book, A GIRL CALLED WOLF, ends with a last sentence which literally sums up the entire book. It would be a spoiler to share it! (Sorry.)
And my current work-in-progress, EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS, is still too new for me to even consider a last sentence. However, in the interest of your interest, I have decided to go ahead and compose a last sentence! Here it will likely be:
And with a long sigh full of the mutterings of memories vouchsafed in the history book pages, he closed his eyes and slept, comforted by the certainty that no dragons would ever again rise.
So how will you end your book? What universal truth will you share? How does your story illustrate that universal truth? Or is it simply the end of the action and that’s that? Give readers a little more: a hint of what lies beyond; a smudge of delight; a slow burn that creeps us out for the next few weeks; a clever or humorous remark that leaves us laughing (not good for tragedies, of course); or a preponderance of pontification that pounds us into a proper pose…and probably will produce a pestilence upon thy posterior.
Ok, that last sentence is not a good example of how to end a novel. But this is a blog post, so I can end it however I wish. There are no rules. So I shall end this post by wishing you a marvelous week!