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How to Handle a Story’s Stage No. 4: the Plot’s Falling Action

For today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, we’ve moved past a story’s beginning, its rising action and its climax to its “Falling Action.”

Falling action is a story’s route to total resolution. At this point in the plot line, the major drama has already happened. So has the major action. And the major action has already been tackled and probably conquered as well.

Now it’s just a matter of tidying everything up before the ending takes place. There might not be much to tidy up, so this section might not be long at all. But there’s always some story straightening that needs to be done nonetheless.

Just because the big battle has been fought or the big obstacle has been overcome doesn’t mean there’s not some mess left to be cleaned up or questions left to be answered. So the falling action is where those extras are addressed – if not taken care of altogether – in order to funnel neatly into the conclusion, or ending.

Here’s an example I always give my creative writing students when I’m teaching at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). It’s meant to illustrate all five stages of a story’s plot, but I think it best describes the last two steps.

This is definitely more of a visual lesson, so try to picture a typical classroom with four walls and one door up at the front.

There’s also a speaker’s lectern across from the door and, oddly enough, three chairs arranged in haphazard order between the two. Also, the door is shut, and the main character is standing at the lectern.

That’s where this story begins.

The Girl Who Wanted to Get Out of a Room

Once upon a time, there was a girl who wanted to get out of a room, so she set out to do exactly that.

[Stage Direction: Main Character starts moving toward the door.]

But before she could take too many steps, she ran into the rising action [Main character stares at first chair], which she had to figure out how to get around.

So the girl curved around the first chair on the left side [Main character curves to the left] to successfully navigate around it. Then she curved to the right to circumvent the second chair [Main character curves to the right]. And then, assessing the third chair, she decided that the best way to get past it was to go over it. [Main Character steps onto chair and then over it, before proceeding to the door.]

But in reaching the door, she also reached the story’s climax. So the door wasn’t open; it was shut!

The girl pulled on the doorknob, but it wouldn’t open. [Main character pulls on doorknob.] She pushed on it next, but to no avail. [Main character pushes on it.] Then, she jiggled it and rattled it and threw her whole weight against it to make it move. [Main character jiggles, rattles and throws her whole weight against the door.]

Finally, in a fit of utter despair, the girl slumped to the floor [Main character slumps to the floor], ready to give up and let the room win. In that moment, she realized she’d never get out. Ever. She’d starve to death in there. It was all over.

Yet out of that darkest moment came an idea: a light bulb went on in her head, and she realized that she hadn’t yet tried turning the doorknob. Perhaps it wasn’t locked. Perhaps there was a solution after all!

[Main character picks herself up off the floor and reaches for the doorknob one more time.]

And so the girl turned the doorknob, swinging the door open to reveal a wide, empty hallway – and her freedom.

Of course, there were still two stages to her plot line before her story could be complete. With new confidence, she handled the falling action by stepping out of the room [Main character steps out of the room], where she found her happy ending on the other side of those rising action chairs and the climactic door that was once so very closed.

In that example, both the falling action and the ending come very quickly. Yet their brevity doesn’t mean they’re any less important. They’re still extremely necessary plot-point stages to finish up the story.

If the main character doesn’t take the necessary step out of the room, the story won’t have any real satisfaction. The girl will be stuck in the same situation where she started; and she will, in fact, starve to death.

Small though the falling action stage is in The Girl Who Wanted to Get Out of a Room example, the girl still needed to follow it through – even though the major drama was over and done with.

A good, complete story is made up of both big and little elements. And while the falling action is typically on the smaller side of that spectrum, it’s no less important to understand and implement.

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