When I think of falling action, I think of all of the scenes in Gladiator that come after Maximus Decimus finally has his revenge on the new emperor (warning Gladiator spoilers ahead!)
Maximus stabbing the emperor is the undoubtable climax- his long sought revenged is finally reached. Many important things happen after this; we still see his inevitable demise and a number of important scenes follow; yet these scenes are no longer part of the story’s climax.
The scenes that follow, despite being dramatic in their own right, are slower and more satisfying, they lead us to the conclusion of the story. The main climactic moment has already occurred, which means that all of those scenes that follow are part of the falling action.
A story’s falling action is the action that occurs immediately after the big climax has taken place and the action shifts towards resolution instead of escalation. The action is now no longer rising, instead it is now falling and taking us (the viewer/reader) onwards to the end of the journey. In short, it is everything that comes after the important questions have been answered.
In this guide you will learn how to better identify falling action and how to write it. Once you read this article you will be able to define falling action, understand the role it plays in story structure, and know the difference between falling action and rising action.
Let’s dive in!
What Is Falling Action?
Falling action in a story is, simply put, the action that comes immediately after the important climax has taken place. Note that some films or books might seem to have multiple climaxes (like in the Lord of the Rings finale where they seem to come one after the other.) However, there is usually one important main climax, which the rising action has been leading towards.
Keep in mind, though, that exciting things can still happen after the climax (like the volcano erupting in Lord of The Rings) and those scenes are still part of the falling action. All falling action leads to the story’s resolution and the tying up of loose ends of the plot.
How Does Falling Action Fit In With Freytag’s Pyramid?
It’s hard to talk about falling action without talking about German author Gustav Freytag, who, through the illustration of his (Freytag’s) pyramid, argued that all stories can be reduced to one basic plot structure which consists of five stages: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and dénouement.
Let’s break these down.
The story starts with exposition, which breaks down the information the reader will need in order to understand the story best.
Who is this story about? Who is the main character? Who is the antagonist? What is their world like? What are their key relationships? What are the stakes? What is the time period? What are all the relevant details?
Once this is all established and the reader is invested, the inciting incident typically occurs in the story, which then moves things on to the rising action.
2. Rising Action
When the rising action hits, the plot usually quickens and starts to (as the name suggests) rise towards the climax. The tension in rising action will typically grow from scene to scene as plot developments lead us through the story and upwards to the grand climax. No matter how complex or unique a story is, it’s likely to have rising action.
The climax is arguably the most important part of the story, though each part of Freytag’s pyramid is significant in its own way. A climax will tackle the story’s central conflict, answer its main question, and will serve as the main turning point for the story.
Typically, it’s when the hero reaches their destination, or when they finally confront the villain. As the pyramid/plot diagram suggests it is the peak of the story – the action will no longer rise, and the stakes will not get higher from here. Once the story reaches the climax, the action will head towards resolution in the form of falling action.
4. Falling Action
As discussed throughout the article, falling action refers to all the scenes/plot points that come after the climax and lead to a resolution and the final “after” snapshot. (Refer back to the first heading for a more detailed falling action definition.)
Few stories skip falling action completely, but if you’re writing a series of books, especially if they’re in a genre which is rife with major conflict and plot twists, you may decide to leave some loose ends. In this case, it might be that your protagonist gets closer to solving the obstacles presented by the story’s main conflict, which gives readers some satisfaction, but a few unanswered questions remain. This means your readers will have some closure, but will also be eager to read the next instalment of your series.
Dénouement is often confused with falling action and to be honest it’s easy to confuse the two. Dénouement is the very last bit of the story which shows the final resolution. It’s not so much the unthreading of plot lines that the falling action is but rather dénouement is the final say on how everything has been resolved. In Lord Of The Rings, it would be showing Frodo happily back in the Shire. Dénouement can also involve a tragic resolution too where things don’t work out as well as your protagonist had hoped.
Dénouement hints at what’s to come, and show us how everything has changed for the main character and secondary characters and it leads us to the story’s end.
The Difference Between Falling Action And Rising Action
The key difference between rising and falling action is that rising action follows an upward trajectory where it escalates in intensity in order to reach the climax. Falling action should, like its namesake, follow a downward trajectory and aim to give the viewer/reader relief from the climax.
Let’s explore the importance of falling action.
Why Is Falling Action Important?
Falling action is important because if you ended a story on a climax there would be no emotional relief for the reader/viewer. The story, whether sad or happy, would have no satisfying end or closure. You’ve spent all this time getting your reader excited and invested; you cannot then just leave them at the peak.
The main reasons to include falling action in literature are as follows:
- Ties up loose ends, especially in relation to the main conflict
- Falling action serves the reader’s curiosity, giving them satisfaction and closure
- It provides extra time for a closing statement of themes and the core message
- Wraps up side-storylines, or the stories of multiple characters
- It gives the story time to wind down so you can head towards your closing image with purpose and intent
Examples Of Falling Action
Falling action can take many forms (in terms of style, format, genre etc). Here are five falling action examples from literature and film:
The Hunger Games By Suzanne Collins
In The Hunger Games, the falling action is everything that comes after Katniss wins the games. The main plot has been addressed and the action moves towards the resolution. Dénouement would be the scene that shows her life long after the Hunger Games have ended.
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone By J K Rowling
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the falling action happens once Harry faces Voldemort. The time after that spent in the infirmary, and the house cup and all that follows is falling action.
In the film Titanic, the climax would be the Titanic sinking and Jack and Rose being stranded. Once Jack passes and Rose decides to use her last morsel of energy to get the whistle, the falling action begins. Dénouement would be the very final scene when the old lady drops the necklace into the ocean.
A Christmas Carol By Charles Dickens
In A Christmas Carol, the falling action occurs after Scrooge wakes up and realises that he is still alive, and it is still Christmas, and that there’s still time to change his trajectory. Everything that comes after this with him fixing all his wrongs is part of the falling action.
Matilda By Roald Dahl
In Matilda, the climax occurs when Miss Trunchbull is vanquished. Matilda skipping grades and Miss Honey’s life returning to normal is the falling action. Miss Honey becoming Matilda’s new guardian once her family has left for Spain could be considered dénouement, as it shows us Matilda’s new normal, and what her life is likely to look for the foreseeable future.
How To Write Falling Action
The three steps to writing falling action are as follows:
- Identify all of the loose ends you would like to wrap up, arrange them in order of importance and in a descending pattern, (i.e. the action should be calmer and not rising.)
- Consider the pace of the overall story in order to decide how your falling action should fit and how much room it will occupy on the page. Tip: make a checklist of the storylines /plot points/ jokes you would like to see wrapped up and tidied, and then check things off once you have included them in the falling action.
- Loosely plan out your story structure so that you know roughly what the falling actionwill entail.
Once you know which beats you want your falling action to hit and in which order, and once you are clear on which plot points should be concluded, then you can draft the falling action just as you would any other section of your book or screenplay.
Frequently Asked Questions
Let’s address some of the most asked questions when it comes to falling action.
What Is A Falling Action?
Falling action is everything that takes place immediately after the climax. The purpose of falling action is to bring the story from climax to a resolution. It is one of the key elements in any story which will usually include an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement.
How Do You Identify A Falling Action?
In order to identify falling action try asking yourself the main plot point of the story, then identify when that plotline is resolved (i.e. when the hero finally confronts the villain), once you are able to identify the climax you can identify the falling action. Remember the falling action will usually revolve around resolution and de-escalation of the previous action, and will follow a downward spiral.
What Is The Difference Between Dénouement And Falling Action?
Dénouement is the final part of a story which usually shows you a glimpse into the main character’s new normal. Like in the case of Matilda, dénouement often gives the viewer a snapshot of what’s in store for the MC in the future (Matilda will now happily live with Miss Honey). Dénouement is usually much shorter than the falling action. It’s often a commentary on the future of the world in the book as well, similar to an epilogue, a dénouement will explain where the world you’ve created, and your story’s characters, will go from here.
It’s very important for writers to focus on their falling action and to really flesh it out in the perfect way for their narrative. It isn’t something to be overlooked or skipped. When keeping in mind falling action, you can refer to Freytag’s pyramid and try to visualise the way you first expose your story and the important details.
Then imagine the line going upwards with your rising action and try to pair that with emotions- first the reader is intrigued with your exposition and details of the story, then they should be excited and nervous with your rising action, the climax should hit hard and heavy and be the peak of the storyline, then the reader should feel a sort of detangling of threads with the falling action. Falling action should bring with it a sense of closure and relief.
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