There’s a section of every story that’s often tricky to do well (and no, it’s not coming up with the title or idea itself). Falling action is the period between the climax and conclusion, when the dust settles on our characters. Be it television, film, theater, novels, comic books, or video games, most stories must craft compelling falling action—and know when it’s not necessary.
“Okja” Courtesy of Netflix
Falling action is the period of your story following the emotional climax. It is an important part of storytelling that often diffuses tension and shows how our characters have changed (or not) given the events the audience has just seen.
Falling action is where you wrap up your subplots and show the audience how your characters adjust to their new normal after the climax. Contrary to what it sounds like, plot is still happening during the falling action. This is no time for your characters to rest on their laurels. It is a de-escalation period, one that can make or break how your story ends. Too little falling action and your denouement feels rushed; too much falling action will drag out your ending and lose the audience’s interest at the most critical point.
Courtesy of study.com
German writer Gustav Freytag’s five-act structure pyramid places falling action as the second-to-last section of your story:
- Exposition: Where we learn all of the necessary details about your main and supporting characters, as well as the status quo of the world they live in
- Inciting incident: The moment that turns the story in a different direction, interrupts the status quo, and sends your main character off to achieve their goal
- Rising action: Your main character meets a series of escalating obstacles that raise the stakes and keep them from their goal
- Climax: The point of highest tension and drama in which your main character resolves their conflict and reaches their goal
- Falling action: The aftermath of the climax that sees your characters (and the audience) reckoning with all that has changed
- Denouement: The audience fully understands what the new status quo for your main character looks like going forward
If you subscribe to the classic three-act structure, the beats are fairly similar. Here, your falling action should start about midway through the third act.
On the surface, this could seem like falling action is little more than “boring” plodding as you wait to resolve your story. But it doesn’t have to be. New plot twists and minor conflicts can be introduced during the falling action; how your protagonist handles these new developments demonstrates the ways they’ve grown or come to appreciate themselves as they are in a new light.
In some cases, the climax of the story is a realization rather than a “great battle.” Here, the story’s antagonist and central conflict are defeated during the falling action as your main character comes to terms with that realization. Good falling action is about how you juggle the story’s many moving parts. If the climax symbolizes the thesis of your story, the falling action is where both the audience and the protagonist come to truly understand it.
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Courtesy of Bryanston Distributing Company
The short answer is no, but it comes with a huge caveat: Your climax and resolution must be expertly paced to align with your story’s themes and the tone you are aiming for. Take, for example, a horror movie like 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” (Spoilers ahead.) The final scene sees Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) laughing hysterically as she flees in the back of a truck from the horrifying Leatherface before the movie cuts to credits. This chaotic ending leaves zero time to breathe or decompress, and that’s on purpose. The film wants the audience to feel unsettled.
Your falling action can also still be effective if it’s very short—one brief scene, even. In “The Graduate,” the climax of the story comes when—spoiler alert!—Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) spirits Elaine (Katharine Ross) away from her wedding. The eloping youths get on to a bus and, as the excitement of the moment wears off, their faces fall slightly before the movie ends. This brief piece of falling action purposely leaves the characters and viewer uncertain, contemplating the future. If you want to leave your audience with more questions than answers, your falling action can be cut short.
In the early stages of your writing, know that not using falling action is no easy feat and requires a deft hand. You have to walk a fine line to keep your story from feeling rushed and unfinished, leaving your audience with lots of questions (and not necessarily in a good way). Until you feel deeply secure in writing basic structure, falling action should be included in your work.
“Star Wars” Courtesy of Lucasfilm
When it comes to writing falling action, understanding your characters—and the point of their journey—is key. Ask yourself:
- Who were they at the start of this story?
- Who are they now that they’ve gone on this journey?
- What does it mean to them, both internally and externally, to have experienced this story?
- How are they different? The same? Stronger? Weaker? More in touch with the person they’ve been all along?
Falling action should give us a glimpse into the progression they’ve made and what that might mean for their future. Falling action is a relatively short part of any script or story, so don’t drag it out, but make sure every aspect you include is meaningful.
Spoilers ahead: A great example of brief but effective falling action is in George Lucas’ “Star Wars.” The movie doesn’t end immediately after the Death Star is destroyed. We see how the journey changed Han (Harrison Ford), Luke (Mark Hamill), and Leia (Carrie Fisher). The two men, formerly a scoundrel smuggler and unimportant farm boy, are given medals of heroism by Leia, who has come into her own as a princess and political leader. This shows how the characters changed given all they’ve experienced, and puts them on the path toward what comes next in the sequels.
In William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the climax of the story sees the two titular teen lovers die by suicide. But their actions create a ripple effect for their warring families, who agree to set aside their differences in an attempt to make peace. Without this moment, the story would feel unfinished—it gives the tragic tale a deeper universal meaning.
Imagine “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” where the story immediately ends after Frodo (Elijah Wood) throws the One Ring into Mount Doom. The journey home is equally as important to the story’s resolution. We need to see how this journey affected and changed the rest of the fellowship to truly understand the scope of all they accomplished across the epic tale.
In the end, falling action is an important part of any story, and not one to be haphazardly thrown in without much thought. Though the beginning, climax, and resolution often get the most consideration, strong falling action can make or break your story. Think of it as a reward for your audience, a “thank you” for going on the journey. Make it as good as possible, and it can turn your work into a standout piece of art.