17 August 2013

Last Sentences are Doomed!

Last time, I discussed the greater importance of the second and third sentences in writing a story or novel, especially how it was necessary for them to work together. Then I went off on an editing binge and nearly forgot I had a blog to tend to. So, as promised, in today's blog I shall discuss the last sentence of a story or novel.

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 come to understand everything that has transpired and the final piece of the puzzle is put in place. Done. What more is there to write/read? THE END 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 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:

F. 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 lines, 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 on 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 could 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 phase would be. Considering that the novel revolves around a group of friends whose lives are destined to end as organ donors and death, the lovely protagonist can only ponder when her time comes. (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 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 final 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 or farcical writing.

For example, in my literary anti-romance, A BEAUTIFUL CHILL (coming soon), a kind of boy meets girl, they try to make it work, girl leaves boy story, the last sentence is meant to suggest how the boy will perceive of this adventure long after 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 other literary novel, AFTER ILIUM, which follows the misadventures of a young man obsessed with the Trojan War, the ending comes from the works of Homer--which I though 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 final 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 in 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 final sentence 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 final 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"; read it and you'll see how it fits)

[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]

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 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!

(C) Copyright 2010-2013 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

1 comment:

  1. I had forgotten about Freytag's Pyramid - Somehow many of the tools I learned in college are no longer active in my elderly brain. It is a great tool for plotting anything, not only tragedies. Perhaps I use it unconsciously; perhaps I retained most of my hard-won knowledge in my subconscious. Perhaps I learned more than I thought I did.