Famous Last Words

For me, the single most interesting part of a book is the very last sentence or two. The end of any unit of writing — be it a phrase, a sentence, a chapter, or an entire book — is said to be the “power position.” It’s what the reader is left with, the last word echoing in the reader’s ears as s/he walks away. I absolutely love last lines. I love to study them, to savor them, to collect them in my memory.

Much, much, much is said in discussions of writing technique about first lines and first chapters. We’ve heard again and again how we must grab the reader by the throat; we must yank the reader into our fictional world from page one. That’s all too true, and getting truer by the minute in the world of modern publishing. Gone are the leisurely eras when the public had an attention span for the printed word.

But in my experience, first lines are not that big a deal. I can’t think of any book I’ve ever read of which the first sentence was what sucked me in. Sometimes it’s the book’s cover (Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night and a lot of the Lovecraft covers when I was a kid); sometimes it’s the back cover’s blurb; sometimes it’s something I’ve heard or read about the book or some combination thereof. (I first picked up The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings partly because of the covers [illustrations by Tolkien himself], partly because of their perennial prominence in the small bookstore my parents owned, and partly because of what my dad told me about the stories — although he told me Tolkien was German; I think he had this “ring” story mixed up with the one Wagner wrote his opera about. But that’s fine –whatever he said, it got me to read the books, although Dad hadn’t read them himself.) But anyway, first sentences rarely do anything to lure me in. They can’t lessen the weight of the enormous number of sentences that are coming after, numerous as the grains of sand on the beach, that must all be read if I’m ever to get through the book.

The pressure on a first sentence is too great, isn’t it? Some are memorable, to be sure: “Call me Ishmael.” “I am a cat.” “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, . . . .” “The night Max wore his wolf suit, . . . .” But a first sentence has nothing to build on. It might introduce a character, but we don’t know that character yet. It might introduce a place, but it’s not familiar yet. It might show us some action, but we’re not going to figure out what’s happening until we’ve read further. If they’re done right, first sentences become transparent, right? Their purpose is to make us get past them. They’re doorways.

But last sentences . . . last sentences are the inscriptions cut in marble. They’re what all the book has been leading us toward. Final sentences aren’t transparent. They’re the prima donnas. They’re the spoils of war, the souvenirs, the battle scars. They wuv us very much and cling to our leg as we go out to the car.

We’ve all got our favorites, right? Who can forget the way Watership Down ends? . . . or The Lord of the Rings, so humble and homely after all the grand adventures in far, perilous lands? . . . or The Great Gatsby? I think the last few sentences of A River Runs Through It are brilliant, but the author goes one sentence too far; if that very last sentence were lopped off, the ending would redouble in power. And there’s Charlotte’s Web, which not only makes us cry, but manages to salute writers everywhere.

I won’t ask anyone to pick one favorite last line — it’s likely impossible to choose just one. I’m going to offer an example here, because I think it does its job so well. (It’s not my #1 favorite; it’s just one I respect a great deal.) Then I’ll open this up to anyone who cares to quote other concluding lines. I’m anxious to hear which are the ones that resonate with you, that echo on through the decades of your life, compelling and unforgettable, perhaps taking on new shades of meaning as you gain experience.

The only rule is this: please don’t quote something that will spoil a plot for anyone. Let’s not have anything like, “And so, though none of us would have guessed it in a million years, the murderer was really his brother Hal.” And yes, you’re not limited to one single sentence. Sometimes we need the last two or even three. My example uses two. And multiple submissions are okay if you really can’t decide among your four favorites.

Okay, here’s my example to prime the pump:

“But now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.” — Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha



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4 Responses to “Famous Last Words”

  1. Daylily Says:

    Here’s one of my favorites: the last sentence of _The Last Battle_, which is Book 7 in the _Chronicles of Narnia_ by C.S. 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 for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

  2. Twigliot Says:

    “I ran. A grown man running with a swarm of screaming children. But I didn’t care. I ran with the wind blowing on my face, and a smile as wide as the Valley of Panjsher on my lips.
    I ran.” The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

  3. I loved Book Center Pepsi's Says:

    Ditto the LOTR and Waterhsip Down mentions. I will probably get this wrong, but:

    “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee” (great way to start an epilogue!)
    “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.” — Moby Dick

    “They said the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone.” — The Godfather

    “When he rose, I could see that the stone read ‘Dawnbreaker’ in runes such as those once used by men in the North, and at last I understood.” — The Chronicles of Finarfin and Co., No. 6.

  4. Tandemcat Says:

    I couldn’t think of any when this thread started, but I sure came across one now, the last sentence of _The Outsiders_, by S. E. Hinton: “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…” I won’t spoil it by telling you why this is special, but if you get a copy of the book you should be able to figure it out pretty fast! 🙂

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