What is falling action? This is a question I ask myself about once a year. Why do I ponder falling action so regularly? Well, I teach junior high English, and nowhere does falling action have more importance than in the middle school English class. That’s because falling action is part of Freytag’s Model, the story pyramid, a standard structure that teachers use to introduce plot structure.
However, today, I’m going to tell you why everything you thought you knew about falling action is wrong! But first, let’s define falling action:
Falling Action Definition
The falling action is a part of a story that can happen right after a climax, usually the story’s midpoint. During the falling action, characters deal with the consequences of decisions made before and during the climactic midpoint. These consequences will make it more difficult for a character to resolve their conflict.
In truth, falling action is specific to tragedies where it demonstrates the hero’s fall from grace. Would it surprise you to hear that falling action often doesn’t appear in the plot of most modern stories?
Because it surprised me!
You see, I was doing some research, and I found this article over at TheWritePractice.com-
Falling Action: Definition and Why Falling Action Doesn’t Exist In Most Stories
In it, Joe Bunting explains why we’ve all misunderstood falling action. I’m going to explain why, but I encourage you to read his article as well.
Why we’re all wrong about Falling Action
Most of us were taught about falling action as part of the Story Pyramid, another name for Gustav Freytag’s story model. The problem is that Freytag was only describing one type of story with his model- the tragedy.
Tragedy plots work differently than other stories, because in a tragedy writers will take a significant amount of time setting up a hero then an equal amount of time showing that hero’s fall.
Falling Action in Freytag’s Pyramid
If you were to draw the shape of a tragedy, it would look like a symmetrical pyramid. A tragic character will usually experience a rise in fortune, reach a pinnacle. Then some twist of fate will cause them to fall from grace. The fall usually brings our heroes to their lowest point, maybe even death.
This fall is what Freytag was talking about when he described falling action. This is why most modern stories don’t have a proper falling action because they’re not tragedies. Contemporary stories usually tell of a character’s triumph over impossible odds.
In most modern tales, once the hero triumphs, we get a few scenes of resolution, maybe an epilogue, then roll credits. There is no “winding down the action” because the climax has relieved the story’s tension.
So, let’s look at a few examples of Falling Action and how it works in a tragedy. We’ll look at a classic tragedy and a modern one.
Examples of Falling Action
Falling Action in Oedipus Rex
The mother of all tragedies, Oedipus Rex, is an ancient Greek play. In the tale, Oedipus is the King of Thebes. He lives in fear of a prophecy that he will one day kill his father and marry his mother. Eventually, Oedipus receives news that his father has died. Rather than feeling sad, Oedipus is surprisingly overjoyed. He believes that with his father’s death of natural causes, he has beaten the dreadful prophecy.
But… After comparing notes with his wife, Jocasta, Oedipus realizes that his father was not his birth father. Oedipus’s birth father was a man who Oedipus met once at a fork in the road, and after an argument, Oedipus killed the man. Oh, and that man was the former king of Thebes, Jocasta’s first husband.
And, you’ve probably already guessed it. Jocasta tells Oedipus that she and her first husband had a son who they gave away to Oedipus’s adoptive father. In horror, Oedipus realizes he is Jocasta’s son. At this point we’ve reached the climax of the story- things can’t worse, and they aren’t going to get better.
From this point in the story, Oedipus is enraged. He decides he will kill Jocasta rather than live with his mistake, but she has already hanged herself. When he discovers her body, Oedipus curses himself by taking two pins from his wife’s dress and gouging his own eyes out.
Oedipus asks his brother-in-law, Creon, to exile him. He also requests that Creon take in his two daughters, who he now knows to be his half-sisters, so that they can have a better life than their father/brother. Creon agrees, and the Greek chorus closes the play by singing this maxim:
No person should feel fortunate until they are dead.
Falling Action in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
Revenge of the Sith tells of the fall of Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker and the rise of an evil Galactic Empire.
The movie begins with Anakin and his mentor and surrogate father, Obi-Wan Kenobi. They are both Jedi or members of a mystical order of warrior monks. The Jedi live by a strict code of celibacy, but Anakin has broken that code and married his childhood love in secret.
While returning from a mission, Anakin’s wife, Padme, informs him that she is pregnant. The news overjoys Anakin, but he begins having nightmare visions of Padme dying in childbirth. An evil space wizard and powerful politician called Palpatine senses Anakin’s distress and begins to prey on his fears.
Soon Palpatine confronts Anakin and reveals himself as a Sith, an ancient order of evil wizards, and enemy of the Jedi. He tells Anakin to join the Sith as it is the only way he can save Padme.
Anakin informs his Jedi masters, and they confront Palpatine. After a long battle, a lone surviving Jedi, Mace Windu, has Palpatine cornered and is about to deliver the killing blow when Anakin cuts Windu’s hand off to stop him. Palpatine takes the opportunity to murder Windu.
Anakin is at his point of no return. He bows to Palpatine and commits himself to the evil Sith, hoping that this act will save his wife and child. Before Palpatine will teach Anakin to save Padme, he orders the former Jedi to kill his mentor Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi.
Anakin murders all of the Jedi, as well as children. He then confronts Obi-Wan but discovers Padme with him. Padme argues with Anakin, and he attacks her, knocking her unconscious. He then battles with Obi-Wan. Although Anakin is more powerful than Obi-Wan, he loses the fight due to his hubris.
Obi-Wan dismembers Anakin and leaves him to burn to death in a river of lava. (I forgot to mention they battled on a lava planet.) Obi-Wan takes Padme to receive treatment, but she dies in childbirth just as Anakin foresaw.
Palpatine saves Anakin by trapping him in a hulking suit and helmet that he must wear for the rest of his life. Palpatine also lies to Anakin, telling him that he was responsible for his wife’s death. Anakin cries out, realizing he has betrayed and murdered everyone he has ever loved.
His body is damaged beyond repair, and he is trapped in a prison of cybernetic armor, stripping him of his humanity.
Elements of Falling Action
In a tragedy, a lie will often trigger a hero’s fall from grace. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus doesn’t know he is adopted and kills his biological father. This act is the start of Oedipus’s fall.
Anakin believes the lie of his evil master, Palpatine, and then betrays everything he believes in as a service to this lie.
Often, tragedies end with a hero realizing their mistake but having already made irreversible decisions. The hero pays for those mistakes with either their life or the lives of the people they love most.
You can see how falling action serves the tragedy story structure. In a tragedy, the climax is usually a turning point where the hero makes a decision that sets them on a path of destruction. The falling action doesn’t “wind down the action.” It shows the consequences of the hero’s fatal mistake.
In non-tragic stories, like the hero’s journey, there is no falling action. The climax of these types of stories is usually the final confrontation between a hero and their antagonist. Because these stories aren’t tragedies, the hero wins, and the tension is relieved.
Take Return of the Jedi. In this film, the hero is Anakin’s son Luke. Luke triumphs over Palpatine by convincing his father to return to the light side of the force. After that, there is no winding down of action because the action has ended. The last 10 minutes of the movie would more appropriately be called a resolution.
So, let’s talk about the differences between falling action and the other final stages of a story.
Falling Action vs. Resolution
During the falling action of a story, we still haven’t seen the hero resolve their conflict. In the resolution, the hero has resolved their conflict. However, the problem isn’t always fixed in a way that is beneficial for the hero.
For instance, in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, the conflict is that our hero, Anakin, fears that his wife will die in childbirth. This problem resolves when Padme dies during childbirth. Obviously not an ideal resolution for Anakin.
The resolution also represents the tying up of any loose ends a story may have. In Oedipus Rex, the problem resolves when Oedipus curses himself for marrying his mother and killing his father. During the resolution, Oedipus asks his brother-in-law, Creon, to raise his two daughters. He also asks that Creon banish him from the kingdom as punishment for his actions.
Falling Action vs. Denouement
A denouement is a happy resolution. Like a resolution, a denouement can also represent the tying up of loose ends. Denouement, in French, means to untie. Denouement occurs after the central conflict is solved.
Denouements happen in stories with happy endings. In Return of the Jedi, Anakin reveals to his son that there is good left in him. Later, Luke witnesses his father’s ghost with the ghost of Obi-Wan. These events make for a happy ending.
In a tragedy, rather than a denouement, you have a story beat called the catastrophe. A catastrophe highlights what the hero has lost.
Falling Action vs. Epilogue
The difference between falling action and epilogue is that falling action occurs before the resolution. An epilogue is the only part of a story that will take place after the resolution. In the epilogue, an author will give an afterword for the characters. The reader will glimpse how the characters’ lives have changed, sometimes months or years after the resolution.
How to Write Falling Action in a Story
- Write a tragedy
Remember, according to Joe Bunting, Freytag’s story pyramid was meant only to describe tragedies. That’s why falling action segments don’t fit neatly into modern stories. That’s also why it’s often confused with denouement and resolution.
- Place it after a Climax- point of no return.
In a tragedy, the climax is often a point of no return for the hero. The characters will make a choice or learn new information, from which there is no coming back. In a tragedy, this climax will cause the downfall of the hero.
In Revenge of the Jedi, this pivotal moment is when Anakin kills his fellow Jedi. In Oedipus, the climax happens when the king learns the truth about his parents.
Note that this climax can happen at your story’s midpoint, and you can have an additional climax at the end of the story. The final climax of Revenge of the Sith is Anakin’s defeat at the hands of his mentor.
- Show consequences
Whatever your climax is, it should have far-reaching consequences in your story. These consequences will shape your hero’s decisions in the final act of your story. In a tragedy, your hero’s actions are driven by negative emotions like hate and fear.
Not writing a tragedy?
Still, think of the falling action as a time to show consequences from your character’s decisions. These consequences will make things harder for your hero and increase the tension of your story.
- Don’t worry about “winding down.”
If you google “falling action,” you’ll see the same term over and over again- “wind down the action.” But does it make sense to slow down the pace of your story during the third act?
To be honest, I’ve never understood what writers meant when they say that falling action is when you wind down the action. I think it’s just something repeated so many times it’s accepted as fact now.
But maybe I’m missing something. Am I wrong about falling action? Do you know what it means to wind down action? Let me know in the comments!
Continued reading on plot:
How to Create Stories with the Three-Act Structure
A Writer’s Guide to Amazing Plots
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