What Makes a Great Final Sentence?

"Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book."—Mickey Spillane (from Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell).
Photo credit: lynn.gardner on Flickr
I wrote a post a while back about what makes a great first sentence, but it occurred to me that I never followed it up with an equally important discussion on the second most important sentence in your novel—the final sentence.

I think what Mr. Spillane said about the first and last chapter of a book applies to the first and last sentence—while the first sentence is largely responsible for hooking the reader, the last sentence must resonate with your readers, or else you risk losing them to an unsatisfying ending. That's not to say that a terrible ending can be completely saved by a stellar last sentence, but the final sentence is like the final note in a composition—it should echo and leave the reader with a certain tone. If done correctly, the final sentence provides closure and often mirrors the beginning, creating a full circle.

But of course we can't talk about final sentences without examples, so I've provided some sentences that I thought were especially effective. The sentence(s) in brackets are the ones that come before the final sentence that I included to provide a little context:

"[I am no longer Tris, the selfless, or Tris, the brave.] I suppose that now, I must become more than either." –Divergent by Veronica Roth
"[It's like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.] But there are much worse games to play." –Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
"[The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years.] All was well." –Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
What I love about these examples is the way they echo overarching themes that repeated themselves throughout the book or series. For those who haven't read it, much of Divergent was about Tris (the protagonist) trying to choose her identity between two factions: the Abnegation girl her family raised her as, which values selflessness, versus the Dauntless girl she had chosen to be, which valued courage. Her acknowledgment that she must become more than either both confirms one of the great revelations of the novel (without spoiling anything—that Tris is different from most) and points to the future books where we know she will have to be strong to survive.

In two of the three examples I purposely included the final sentence of a series because they so effectively wrapped up not just their respective novels, but the series.

In the case of Mockingjay we all know what games Katniss is referring to when she says, "there are much worse games to play" and it leaves the reader nodding in agreement while thinking back to the events of all three books.

In the Harry Potter example, the throbbing of Harry's scar was a foreboding sign throughout the series that became more and more frequent throughout the course of seven books as Voldemort became more powerful. To say that Harry's scar hadn't hurt him for nineteen years really confirms the final sentence that all is (finally) well.

So in short, a great final sentence does two of three things:

  1. Reflects elements from the novel/series.
  2. Wraps up both the book and series OR wraps up the book while leading into the sequel.
Once your final sentence accomplishes both of those things, you know you have a great final note on your hands.

Now it's your turn: What else do you think a final sentence should do? What are your favorite final sentences and what made them so memorable?


Chihuahua Zero said...

I tweeted that quote on the top. It's fantastic writing advice on the practical reason why you need a great ending.
Hmm...maybe the last line of my first book will be something like, "We had some more opening up to do." or something like that, since the main theme got to do with emotions and expressing them.

Ava Jae said...

I agree that the quote is a great one. It stuck with me and I even went through my writing books to find it again when I was writing this post. As for final (and first) sentences, the great thing is that we can tweak (and completely rewrite) them as much as we need to until we get them right.

John Chapman said...

Of all our books the final sentences I like the most come in our second book 'Dark Secrets'.

“You won’t play around with my genes.” says the antagonist.Donna smiled. “How do you know I haven’t already…?”
It seems to be successful because we sell pretty much the same number of book 3 in the series as our second book does.

Ava Jae said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing, John! :)

Leslie Pugh said...

I have that book (Plot & Structure) but haven't had a chance to read it yet. I love the quote you shared and your thoughts. So true that a final sentence really does sell the next book. There's been so many times I've gotten to the end of the book and been so disappointed by that last paragraph or sentence. But so many more times that I'm dying to read more from the author if it's great!

Ava Jae said...

Plot & Structure is one of my favorite books on the craft--I've even re-read it so I could highlight especially important information, so I highly recommend it.

Like you, I've experienced both disappointing and wonderful final sentences--they really do leave quite an impact!

Ava Jae said...

Both sentences can be really tricky to get right, but they're definitely worth putting the time in to make them strong. Thankfully we don't have to write them perfectly the first time around!

Leslie Rose said...

Super post. Great examples. Important piece to think about since it's the last that sticks. New follower waving.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Leslie! Glad you enjoyed the post--it's definitely something important enough to merit discussing. Welcome to the Writability community! ^_^

Hildred Billings said...

I love reading great final lines, and I love writing them too. Although the first line is the "hook" I feel like the real talent and test is in the final line.

Although I will say that I thought the last chapter of HP (not the epilogue) had the more powerful last line than the epilogue. When I read that line I thought "Here. If the novel ends here then everything is awesome." Alas, the epilogue happened, and it ruined all the feelings of the last chapter for me.

Ava Jae said...

The epilogue was controversial, to say the least, and although it didn't bother me, I understand why some people would have preferred Rowling didn't include the epilogue at all.

That being said, I took a look at the last line before the epilogue and I can see why it resonated with you. It's definitely strong enough that it could have served as the last line for the series.

Julia Tomiak said...

Thanks for these thoughts and for the lead on a great writing book! I'm revising and know my closing sentences need work- your post has been very helpful.

Ava Jae said...

So glad you found the post helpful, Julia! Opening and closing sentences can be really tricky. I wish you the best with your writing!

Matthew Rowe said...

I have a confession to make. The more excited I am to read a book, the more likely I am to go and read the final sentence as soon as I pick it up and then spend the entire story speculating how we get to that point. I think you'll find final sentences are generally, incredibly unrevealing.

Ava Jae said...

That's really interesting. I always avoid reading ahead, but come to think of it I imagine final lines tend not to give much away except possibly hinting at characters that survive (or don't survive) the novel.

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