After the climax, the story actually should wrap quickly. What remains is the main character recognizing what they have been through, tending to wounds (emotional as well as physical), acknowledging loss, acknowledging newfound knowledge, repairing friendships that may have frayed as decisions were made out of necessity or expediency, but not necessarily kindness. This part of the plot is called the falling action.
Again, thinking about my students, some had a hard time recognizing this part of the story. So let’s take an example most everyone can recall in detail. This is from “Star Wars” (Episode IV):
If you’ll recall: the climax was Luke entering the main trench and finally managing to blow up the Death Star with his “Force-aided” shot.
The falling action is the next scene: Luke landing at the Rebel base on Yavin, getting out of the cockpit, helping get the damaged R2D2 out of his spot and seeing to it that he’s repaired. C3PO offers his own circuits. These actions deal with the consequences of the climax (healing/tending wounds).
Luke also has Han and Leia running up to greet him. Importantly, to acknowledge and resolve their previous actions had created emotional wounds, Luke has an exchange with Han — “That shot was one in a million, Kid!” “I knew you’d be back!” “Couldn’t let you take all the credit!” “I knew there was good in you.” (Leia)
There’s another part that’s not in the screenplay. In the novelization, there’s a brief moment of Luke explaining to Leia about feeling Obi Wan, hearing him. She’s not on the same level, but she acknowledges he experienced something, and aren’t they all so lucky it worked out. Luke grew from his experiences so he’s looking at the universe, and his own place in it, a little differently. Awareness of self-growth is also the job of the falling action.
NNWM advice – Planning for Lessons Learned
If it’s lessons learned from the climax, from the journey, how can you know what the characters will learn before you’ve written it all out?
This is where you, the author, are in control. The point of deciding the falling action before you begin writing is stating outright, “This is what I want my characters to have learned about themselves, about their situation, about their history, by the time they get to the end of the story.”
Here’s another way to think about it: At summer camp, directors and counselors plan activities so that children will learn something (such as how to work as a team by rowing a boat together across a lake). Yes, the children will learn things outside the planned activities too, but there are at least a few goals for the children to learn and grow specifically in mind.
So in your NNWM planning or in your story plan generally, type a heading – Falling Action/Lessons Learned. Now, write the things you want your character to learn or how you want them to change.
Your characters almost certainly will learn more than this and even change in ways you can’t predict, but with this guideline sitting out in front of you while you’re writing, you will write “toward” it. You’ll ask yourself, “how is this action, decision, or reversal, going to teach my characters what I want them to learn?” Any extra scenes that come about because the characters momentarily “go elsewhere.”
When you get to the writing of the falling action part of the draft, write dialogue or moments of introspection demonstrating the character has learned these lessons, reflecting on their actions earlier in the story to show (to themselves and the reader) how far they’ve grown.
Okay, that’s it for falling action. Come back tomorrow for the final part of my plotting advice: the resolution.