Earlier this month, I mentioned that I’m beginning the rewrites of the falling action of my next novel. Traditionally, the falling action is:
“…right after the climax, when the main problem of the story resolves. It is one of the elements of the plot of the story, the other elements being exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution. Falling action wraps up the narrative, resolves its loose ends, and leads toward the closure.”[Source]
My goal with this book is to stick a bit closer to the five-act play structure, as this book is a tragedy. The falling action of a tragedy hits around Act IV, and this is the notable time where the protagonist 1. Comes to terms with the fallout from the climax and 2. Accepts who they are and gives into their darkness. If you think about the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, this is the “Transformation” stage, right after the Revelation/Abyss. But since I’m not writing about a traditional hero, this isn’t a transformation; this is an acceptance.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’m borrowing a lot from Shakespearean tragedies to write this book (as well as Joseph Campbell, because why not cover all your literary bases, right?). A Shakespearean tragedy’s protagonist goes through the same Transformation stage post Abyss, but instead of changing for the better, they (usually, he) realize the damage they’ve done (usually, murder) is undoable and they accept their fate (usually, death) as the coming action.
I’ve got examples from three well-known tragedies to back me up:
- Hamlet: Everyone’s favorite whiny, indecisive, Danish prince has his moment of realization and acceptance in Act IV Scene III. [Lines 40 – 65]
- King Lear: Almost all of Scenes VI and VII in Act IV are Lear accepting his foolishness interspersed throughout his raving madness [Lines 97 – 108; 111 – 124;]
- Macbeth: We can’t forget the Scottish play. Unlike the other two examples, Macbeth’s famous moment of acceptance comes in Act V Scene V — not the “sound and fury” speech, but shortly thereafter—“and now a wood comes toward Dunsinane.” [Lines 44 – 51]
In every example, the climax of the play has happened and the protagonist knows he’s in an unwinnable situation: regicide, madness, war — these are the consequences of their actions.
But just like you do not have to rigidly follow Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, you don’t have to follow the five-act tragedy to the letter either. For example, my fourth act falling action won’t tie up all plot threads, just a few of them. I want to keep some surprises in the resolution (i.e., the fifth act) to keep the tension going until the last page. Otherwise, the story loses its intensity after the falling action.
Regardless of how you structure your falling action, it is important that you have some idea about how you as the author are going to get from the climax to the denouement. Keep the following in mind:
- Dropping plot points will dissatisfy your audience, especially if they’re emotionally invested in the ones you’ve dropped
- Wrapping things up too early can mean an abrupt, unhappy ending
- Dragging the story on for too long will test the audience’s patience and make them doubt your skills as a writer
Another problem with falling action is what I like to call “drag.” It’s when the author had a good idea for an ending and a climax, but no clue how to connect the two. Thus, the falling action drags forever — whether it’s in a book, a movie, tv show, or play. Director Billy Wilder once said, if you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act. And while he was referring to screenwriting, I think you can apply similar thinking to books: if your ending doesn’t connect with your climax, the real problem is in your falling action.
To combat this, you might find it helpful to write the ending first and work backwards. I’ve had to do this before to keep my thoughts organized and streamlined. Writing isn’t linear for everyone, and even when it is, it’s a mess. Working your way back from the denouement might make sense for your writing project. Say that you want your novel to end with your protagonist hopping a bus to San Jose, waving to her parents. You can write about how she got there next:
- she quits her job
- she has a fight with her boss
- she gets accepted into college
- she gets the lead in a play
- she admits to herself that she is in love
All of these are end points of plot elements you can tie up in the falling action. From here, you can decide on a climax — say, she auditions for that play. Now, you have connected the climax and the denouement together with a suitable falling action. Later, you can go back and fill in the details (and the rising action and exposition).
Good luck on your falling action! I hope it’s filled with action, suspense, and tension! I’ll be re-writing mine over the next few months with good progress to come!