Falling action can be difficult to master, but it’s actually not much different from rising action. In fact, some of the best examples of this type of action include many of the same characteristics rising action does. So why is it so difficult?
In this article, I take you through the four best practices for successful falling action. First, I’ll define what it is, provide some examples, and then we’ll dive into your step by step guide. Ready to get going?
What Is Falling Action?
Falling action is action that takes place after the climax of a story but before the resolution. Think of it as the open-bow boat going from on plane at full throttle, then slowing until the bow sinks back into the ocean, going just a few knots.
If you’re more of an on-land person, it’s taking your foot off the gas pedal and coasting, not braking, to your next stop.
Falling action is a way to give your readers dignity as they near the end of their experience in your story. We’ve all closed books and felt that uncomfortable feeling of whiplash. The climax was captivating, but then it just—ended.
We don’t want to be that type of author, so let’s study the following examples of how falling action can be done well.
*Due to the topic of falling action, be sure to note that there are land mines of spoilers ahead. Proceed at your own risk.
The Return of the King
J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy is perhaps one of the most engaging and expansive examples of well-written fantasy. Speaking as someone who watched the extended edition films and read the books (yes, including The Hobbit), I have to say I felt extremely respected in my experience of the ending.
After journeying through The Fellowship of the Ring and the lengthy miles covered in The Two Towers, the slow, falling action in the final scenes were thoughtful.
After the ring is thrown into Mount Doom and the volcano explodes, we are carefully taken through many wrap-up scenes:
- Frodo and Samwise waiting on the rock for rescue
- Frodo’s entourage of hobbit friends greeting him when he wakes up, safe
- Aragorn being crowned king
- Frodo’s goodby to his friends and ultimate departure to The Grey Havens
- Samwise returning to the Shire, marrying his sweetheart, and starting a family
Every major plot point was wrapped up with nostalgic yet satisfying moments.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Steph Chbosky’s last lines, written by his protagonist, Charlie, sum up Charlie’s character arc so well:
“Tomorrow, I start my sophomore year of high school… So, if this does end up being my last letter, please believe that things are good with me, and even when they’re not, they will be soon enough. And I will believe the same about you. Love always, Charlie.”
Charlie made his journey through a traumatic past, making friends, his first kiss, his admittance to the hospital, and ultimately, coming out victorious over the pain of his past. With the story told through his voice, this last note is a perfect wrap-up to his story.
Step By Step: How To
Now that you have a couple of examples, how do you write falling action well? Let’s conduct a brief case study on the above two examples.
#1 – Maintain Your Tone
Tone integrity is crucial when it comes to the final pages of your story. Imagine if The Return of the King had suddenly switched to a lighthearted voice. This would undermine the gravity of the quest and throw the readers off.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a great example of tone done well because it not only uses Charlie’s voice to wrap up the book, but through his own words, shares his character growth. He is okay. And even if he isn’t, he will be again.
#2 – Let Readers Down Easy
Even for thrillers, most readers don’t want to close a book gasping for breath and wishing they could return to the story world for a bit more closure. In The Return of the King, the major quest complete, Tolkien lets his readers down slowly through not just falling action, but by wrapping up, one by one, less and less serious plot points.
#3 – Subtly Reinforce Your Theme
Charlie’s coming of age story takes the reader through the excitement and devastation of the first year of high school. In the end, Charlie comes of age as he enters his sophomore year, learning how to be okay despite a difficult past, and knowing that even if he has days when things aren’t good with him, they will be soon enough.
#4 – Show The Reader Dignity
Both fiction examples stand out in their respect for the reader’s dignity as well as time. The Return of the King has a longer ending, but bear in mind that readers have to say goodbye to characters they journeyed with through the entire trilogy. Tolkien shows the reader dignity all the way to the last page.
Chbosky’s book is much shorter, and therefore does not need as extensive an ending. That said, he still writes a standout last chapter and even provides an epilogue, giving readers a peek at Charlie’s mental state as he nears his second year of high school. In this way, he respects the reader’s time while also providing a conclusive ending.
Contrast With Rising Action
While both rising action and falling action should maintain the tone of the story, reinforce the theme, and show the readers dignity, they differ in one key aspect: How they handle the emotion of the reader.
Writers include rising action to pull the reader to the edge of their seats, keep them turning pages, and keep them immersed in the story world. The following questions are often teased through rising action:
- How will the protagonist get out of this situation?
- Will the villain beat the protagonist?
- How will this book ever reach a happy ending?
On the other hand, falling action is written to provide clarity and satisfaction to readers:
- The protagonist grew and therefore succeeded in the end
- The villain lost and their final scene makes sense
- This ending may not be happy, but it is satisfying
Both rising and falling action, however, are written for the reader. While there are differences between the two, when writing toward the climax of your book (rising action) or away from your climax and toward your resolution (falling action), keep the following in mind:
- Your goal is to take the reader on an expansive journey
- Your characters’ actions and reactions should make sense with their character
- You are in charge of helping the reader close the book (at the end of a chapter or for good) happy with the story and eager to read more of your work
Action, whether it’s rising or falling, does not need to be burdensome to write. Action is the glue that holds stories together. Whether you write thrillers or romance, employ these four tips in your next manuscript and see how they help! Not all action is written with the same intensity, but all action, rising or falling, contributes to your story in a dramatic way.