How important are last sentences?

Truman Capote
Truman Capote

 

I’ve read a lot of blogs about the importance of first sentences, how a writer needs to grab a reader in her first breath.

I agree those first few words are important and may make the difference between a book that is read through to its conclusion and one the reader closes before the end of chapter one.

But what about last sentences?

I’ve never read a blog about those troublesome critters.

However, it is those last few words that leave a taste in the reader’s imagination, a desire to visit the author again, or never to return to her.

So I just pulled a few books off the shelf, opened them to the last page and read the finishing touches.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. “He raised his hand over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.” (That’s what it says, SW)

Creole Belle by James Lee Burke. “As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.  For me, the acceptance of those words and the fact that I can spend my days among the people I love are victory enough.” (Okay, this is two sentences, but what the hell? SW)

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. “Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-beat wheat.” (Man, I love that one.)

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. “To this day free access to the preserve is granted only to birds and to residents of Canterbridge Estates, through a gate whose lock combination is known to them, beneath a small ceramic sign with a picture of the pretty young dark-skinned girl after whom the preserve is named.”

ERnest J. Gaines
Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. “I was crying.”

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.  “And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal–carries the cross of the redeemer–not in the bright moments of his tribe’s victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”

The Hero with a Thouand faces

So here we have a half-dozen random selections from books almost everyone recognizes as classic works of our recent literary history. As I studied them, I became even more convinced that a writer’s parting shot is as crucial as the beginning words of the book.

These final sentences sum up all that an author hoped to say, all that she wanted the reader to glean from her efforts. It is probably in these closing remarks that the author is most likely to jump out of a character’s point of view and become the narrator himself, to try to take the reader by the neck and say, “Did you get the point?”

I know those sorts of moments are called author intrusions by some, but they don’t bother me. I really want to know what the author thought the book was about, even if she didn’t get it across to me.  Or I want that last sentence to clear up things which were ambivalent in the writing. Or I want to be inspired, or to despair, or to laugh at the end, to realize the joke’s on me, or that there is no joke.

If the book must end, let it end big.  Not necessarily loud, not always with thunder, not with an unexpected twist that makes no sense. Let it end with a few words that clue me into the heart of the book, that cast a parting farewell to the sailor as he ships out to sea, that draw a line in the sand, or squint toward a constellation almost too faint for the naked eye.

Just don’t let it end with a whimper.

Okay, I’m through. But I’d love for you to share a favorite last sentence or two with us.

 

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