Writers spend a good deal of time fretting about the opening sentence of their novel, just as readers enjoy quoting first lines from their favourite books. This is understandable, given so much is riding on that first impression. But what about closing lines? What about the final words that resolve the story and linger in a reader’s mind after they shut the book?
I’d hesitate to say last words are any less difficult to write. How do you leave the reader with strong positive feeling toward the book, and – in the case of a series – entice them to continue? And how do you do it without succumbing to cliché or melodrama, or tying the ‘happily-ever-after’ ending up so neatly that people roll their eyes?
To answer this, I’ve rifled through my shelves and selected some last lines from popular fantasy, science fiction and dystopian books. I analysed what techniques they used, and found they fell into 10 common ‘types’, which I look into further below.
First, a Note on Spoilers
Discussing final sentences presents an obvious problem: spoilers. However, last lines in isolation often don’t give away too much (just a general sense of future challenges or a happy ending people were probably expecting anyway), and are unlikely to be remembered weeks or months later when someone gets around to reading the book. I’ve also tried to select lines that aren’t too spoiler-y.
HOWEVER, if you don’t like any kind of spoiler, and intend to read or are in the middle of reading any of the listed books or series, proceed with caution. The quoted lines are in bold at the end of each section, and the books they’re sourced from are listed on the right hand side underneath, if you want to check and skip them.
1. The Journey Isn’t Over Yet
The suggestion of an ongoing or impending physical journey is a common type of last line, particularly for first books in a planned fantasy series. The point of these is obviously to remind the reader that there’s more adventure to be had in the next book, and that the story and journey isn’t quite resolved yet. Here are some examples:
“Then shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkien
“Still singing loudly, not looking back, matching stride for stride, they descended into the valley.”
– Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
2. The Conflict Isn’t Over Yet
These last lines remind the reader of an unresolved conflict or alert them to a potential future one, again often enticing them to continue the series. These can be very effective, but they can easily fall into the territory of cliché and melodrama if not done well (and bring to mind the “dan! dan! dan!” cliché we get from classic movies).
“I will kill him.”
– Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard
“He’d drink to the whole sorry lot of them, but mostly, to the poor fools who didn’t know what trouble was coming.”
– Crooked Kingdom, by Leigh Bardugo
3. Mid-Action Ending or Surprise Reveal
These endings come in the middle of action or a revelation, leaving you with your pulse racing and, if it’s the first in a series, a desire for more. While they can potentially be irritating or unsatisfying, if done well they can leave readers on a high. I’m not going to quote examples, because the ones I found are either major spoilers, or don’t make sense out of context. Instead, here are a few example scenarios:
- a beloved character everyone thought gone forever returns
- just when you think the fight is over, an enemy soars in and changes the game
- two warriors make a witty quip as they continue a battle
4. A Focus on Character
Fantasy novels with a distinctive, compelling or dastardly protagonist sometimes end with a focus on that character. This works well for a first in a series, as it emphasises not only the personality we have come to enjoy, but the fact we are likely to encounter more of them and their unique exploits in the next books.
“The same question came into his head, over and over, and he still had no answer. Why do I do this? Why?”
– The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
“I’ve grown, but whatever monster might be in me, it was always mine, my choice, my responsibility, my evil if you will. It’s what I am, and if you want excuses, come and take them.”
– Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence
5. You May Now Kiss the Bride
Just as many movies and wedding ceremonies end on a lover’s kiss, so do many books. If done well it can be a nice romantic image to end on. That said, the first example below is not all romance – it has a somewhat dangerous edge to it, given the vampire theme:
“‘Yes, it is enough,’ he answered, smiling. ‘Enough for forever.’ And he leaned down to press his cold lips once more to my throat.”
– Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer
“It felt wonderful. Like being struck by lightning. It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.”
– Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
6. Funny Quip
Some books choose to leave you with a smile on your face by ending with a joke, or a wry illusion to previous events. Often the humour can come through the simple force of understatement, as in the first example (Sam at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) or the contrast of a climactic resolution with a mundane or funny statement very typical of the character, as in the second:
“And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor on his lap. He drew in a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”
– The Return of the King, by J. R. R. Tolkien
“The whole Creation was waiting for Rincewind to drop in. He did so. There didn’t seem to be any alternative.”
– The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett
7. Reference to the Title or Premise
These are final sentences that remind you of the title or key premise of the book, sometimes making a reference to events at the beginning. If done well these can nicely bring the theme to the fore at the end of the book, create a nostalgic sense of looking back, or make the reader feel they are in on a joke.
“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
(conclusion to The Hunger Games trilogy)
“I am no longer Tris, the selfless, or Tris, the brave. I suppose now, I must become more than either.”
– Divergent, by Veronica Roth
8. Riding off into the Sunset
The cliché “ride off into the sunset” exists for a reason: it is not only how a lot of movies end, but how many books end (admittedly, the sunset it optional). The character is journeying off to a new adventure or new life, but unlike the ending I mentioned at number 1, we get the sense that we won’t be following them there.
“The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.”
– The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien
“Then she wandered off, following a zigzag path along the border between Life and Death, her tail wagging so hard, the tip of it beat the river into a froth behind her.”
– Abhorsen, by Garth Nix
9. Everything’s Gonna Be Alright
These closing sentences often come at the end of series, when characters have been through a lot of hardship. I’d say they’re probably the closest equivalent to a happily-ever-after, because they inform us that the character is now well and truly going to get that peaceful life they hoped for, and no future disasters await them:
“‘No,’ he said, folding up the little slip of paper and putting it in his pocket. ‘No, I’m not troubled. In fact, I actually think everything is going to be all right. Finally.'”
– The Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson
“The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.”
– Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
Though it’s interesting to see this subverted to create the opposite feeling below:
“But it was all right, everything was was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
– 1984, by George Orwell
10. Poetic or Profound Last Words
Some books go for a poetic final words that are profound, beautiful, saddening or thought-provoking, often focusing on a theme within the resolution or capturing a particular mood.
“It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.”
– The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. 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.”
– The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis
(conclusion to the Chronicles of Narnia)
So What Makes a Good Closing Sentence?
I think all of the above kinds of concluding lines can be effective, and ultimately it’s usually the ending as a whole, rather than the last couple of sentences, that will influence how I feel about the book and whether I want to read the next in the series. However, in searching through all those last lines, I noticed a few things:
- Understated or simple last lines often work better. Closing words innately carry weight because readers know they’ve reached the end, and if the last phrases try for too much grandeur they risk venturing into melodrama territory. However, if an ending line is too mundane, or feels too abrupt or disconnected from what came before, it will fall flat.
- Final sentences that rely on clichés often result in eye-rolls, e.g. while this book is older and can be somewhat forgiven, it’s still not my cup of tea:
“The Prophecies will be fulfilled,” the Aes Sedai whispered. “The Dragon is Reborn.”
– The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan
- A more common kind of ending, such as the kiss or the ride into the sunset, works better if carefully crafted so it doesn’t feel lazy or generic.
- If final paragraphs or pages try to include too many of the above types of endings (e.g. kiss + ride into distance + reminder of future conflict + reflective poetic comment) it can feel tedious and overdone.
- A decent closing line can be robbed of gravitas if hampered by an unnecessary exclamation mark!
My favourite kinds of last lines are the funny quips, references to titles/premises, and the poetic or profound last words – but really, I like any final sentence as long as it fits the story and concludes it well. As this article about wrapping up fantasy stories points out, endings should match the tone, and deliver on promises the book has made.
Do you have a favourite closing sentence or paragraph from a book? And what kinds of ending lines do you like or dislike most? Let me know in the comments!