It’s the end, the bad guy is defeated, but you’re not quite ready for the medal scene yet. Maybe you have a few loose relationship arcs to tie up, or maybe the hero still has to escape the exploding base after the villain’s death. Nothing as exciting as the climax, but still some conflict. That means it’s time for falling action, which just so happens to be this week’s topic! We talk about what falling action is, whether you need it, and how one is supposed to pronounce “denouement.”
Generously transcribed by Ace. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is…
Wes: And boom, out the window, defenestrated.
Wes: Now we’ve resolved the main conflict of this podcast and we watch as the falling action occurs!
Chris: This is kind of an anti-climatic podcast.
Wes: I was just like, what is falling action? And I was like, pushing someone out a window. That’s fine. Yeah, alright, well I jumped right into it. Today we’re talking about falling action.
Oren: I think technically you jumped right out of it is usually how we would describe defenestration.
Wes: I guess so, but like, we’ll get into kind of the nitty-gritty thing. But if the climax is somebody going out the window, then the falling action is dealing with what happened after that.
Oren: That’s true.
Wes: Which is where we are. And I guess I just defined it. So, hey.
Wes: How about that?
Chris: It all harkens back to the good old triangle graph—
Wes: Gotta love that.
Chris: —we saw in grade school with that big slow rising action slope going all the way up to a peak, which is the climax, and then falling into the falling action. And to be clear, the climax, the peak, is not in the middle.
Wes: But what about symmetry? How dare you?
Chris: You cannot. There is no, the midpoint isn’t real, people. What it is is that statistically there’s probably a peak of a child arc near the middle. Just because if you have an odd number of child arcs and they’re of equal size, there’s going to be a child arc peak in the middle there. So if you think it exists, you can use confirmation bias to verify its existence by just looking for something exciting near the middle of the story. But it’s not real because it’s a substructure. It’s not part of the overall story arc.
Oren: My favorite is the “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel” definition of the midpoint, which is “a false victory or a false defeat.” And then the author gives a bunch of examples of real victories and real defeats. And so apparently by false, what they mean is that the story’s not over yet. So basically, any example of the hero winning or losing something around the middle can count. And it’s like, yeah, I guess I can see why you would find this in most stories.
Chris: Just the idea that succeeding or failing a child arc is always inherently false. I don’t think that’s how that works. I do think that there’s definitely a question of how narrowly you’re defining the climax.
Chris: Because if we’re saying falling action comes after the climax, I think that when people use the term climax, they’re often thinking about a full sequence.
Chris: Right? Often one scene. But if there is a fight that is several scenes long, it might be that entire exciting fight sequence, which is several scenes long. And that’s kind of what they’re thinking about when they say the climax.
Chris: For me, I would pinpoint that peak more precisely. So it’s the turning point. And I would even call the action—so if your character, for instance, is about to get fried and they suddenly have an epiphany, that would be your peak. And it can be a single moment. It could be just one paragraph. And then if they take an action based on that epiphany, maybe they identified a weakness in their opponent, that would be already into falling action. Because now they are resolving the throughline right there and defeating the antagonist. Now, somebody else would be like, well, no, we’re still in the climax there. So that’s not falling action, depending on how narrowly you define it.
Wes: I, for the purposes certainly of this podcast and talking about falling action, I think it’s important. The climax lasts however long it does. But what happens at the climax should be some resolution of the main conflict. Like the thing.
Chris: The throughline.
Wes: Yeah. The throughline must be resolved.
Wes: It must be resolved. End of story. If the big bad needs to go, they go at the climax. And the falling action is, OK, the big bad’s gone. What’s left to deal with? And that is what that is supposed to be. It should not be as intense, but it should still matter.
Wes: But plenty of stories just don’t have falling action. And that’s completely fine.
Chris: Especially if it’s shorter.
Wes: Especially if it’s shorter. Yeah.
Chris: And it has less arcs to resolve. And it just doesn’t make sense. A lot of the time, short stories end on a real punch, right?
Wes: I remember reading The Aeneid in college. And it ends right when Aeneas just kills this guy, the enemy chieftain. Just kills him, dead, end of story. I was like, well, all right. That’s one way to end a story. But then I realized, oh, wait, A New Hope. They blow up the Death Star, and then they just get medals, and it’s over.
Oren: So I actually, if you’ll excuse me, I have an example involving New Hope. Because of course, the question when we’re talking about falling action, I’m sure what all of you have been desperately wanting to know, is what’s the difference between falling action and epilogue?
Chris: Or is it denouement?
Oren: I legitimately don’t know what that means.
Wes: It just means the final part of the story.
Chris: At least the online definitions I saw, which are generic and people might disagree, really made it look like it was the same as falling action.
Oren: At least the way that I look at stories, I do think there is a useful distinction to be drawn between when you are still drawing down from the climax, from the action of the story, and then something that happens a little later to give you some closure. And in New Hope, the falling action is very short. It’s heading back to Yavin, Luke landing, getting a big hug from Leia and Han, and then assuring us that R2 is going to be okay. That’s falling action. And then we cut to the medal scene, and I would argue that the medal scene is epilogue because we’re no longer resolving anything. Now we’re just giving a little bit of extra at the end to be like, yeah, what happened here mattered, and we have medals to prove it, right?
Chris and Wes: Yeah.
Chris: Going back to the Martian, which is the one that did not have any additional falling action. If we’re going to say the falling action is what happens after the throughline is resolved, we’ve already had the principal resolution, and it’s just all of the follow-up resolution. The Martian would end without any falling action, which is in the book, right?
Chris: Which is not great. So we have Mark Watney, he’s on Mars. There’s a whole question of whether he’ll survive, and he’s just barely getting by, and he’s getting thinner. You know, not a healthy time for him. And then we have our climax where he’s got to kind of bungee out into space, and somebody’s got to catch him and reel him in. And in the book, they finally get him back into the ship, and so we know he’s safe and done. That’s it. So the movie then added an epilogue, which we see, we flash forward in time, and he’s like a professor teaching people, and he gives like, you know, the inspiring speech about what he learned from his experiences, which is definitely an improvement. I do think that the longer the story is, the less it becomes acceptable to simply end before you have any falling action, especially. If you have lots of falling action, I don’t think you necessarily need as much epilogue, right? It’s just having wind down time that matters.
Wes: Right. I do think that that is an excellent example of an epilogue. I don’t think the New Hope example is epilogue. I think it’s denouement because it’s happening immediately after the events of the climax are resolved.
Chris: But does it actually tie up any, does it actually resolve any arcs?
Wes: That’s not really the role of denouement.
Wes: The falling action resolves any lingering conflicts, and then the denouement is basically showing how they end. And then an epilogue happens after the events. So like the time gap in The Martian is a great example of things kind of skipping forward. So if you take it out, the epilogue out, the story should still stand. I guess you could take the medal scene out of New Hope.
Chris: You could take the medal scene out and the story would still stand. It doesn’t resolve any arcs. It’s just a feel good scene.
Wes: Right. But more often than not, an epilogue is not the same as a conclusion, and a denouement is a conclusion. An epilogue—in our Prologues and Epilogues podcast, we talked about this. Epilogues are extra. They’re just meant to flash forward in time and show like how people get on. But like, they’re not the same thing. So I think that’s an important part to point out is that we have the climax. We have the falling action that deals with any leftover bits. The denouement shows kind of how they settle. And an epilogue usually is an afterword, something to piece anything else together and say like, oh, by the way, these people got married and had kids.
Chris: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not really seeing a role for the denouement there because either a scene resolves an arc or it doesn’t. And if you’re saying that an epilogue is only something that happens after you have a time skip, you know, that could be a separate definition that would distinguish it from a denouement. That’s not how we’ve before used the word epilogue. But I’m just not seeing how a denouement could be distinct from both falling action and epilogue because there’s just not a whole lot of choices there.
Oren: I have a hot take. My hot take first is that I think we’ve been saying denouement wrong this whole time. I’m pretty sure it’s denouement. [It is.]
Wes: Oren, I hate you.
Oren: I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happening.
Chris: No less than denouement deserves.
Oren: Pretty sure we’ve just been saying it wrong for 10 minutes.
Wes: I mean, that’s fine. All words are made up. And so all pronunciation can be made up, too.
Oren: Yeah, fair enough.
Chris: Do we need this term at all? Can we just throw it in the trash bin and pretend it never existed?
Oren: I don’t think it’s super material whether we say that an epilogue requires a flash forward, like a later point in time or not. I think what matters is that we’re drawing a distinction between a part of the story that is still resolving things and a part of the story that is not.
Wes: Yes, that is true.
Oren: That may be denouement, it may be epilogue, we could have that argument in another podcast. I think we generally agree that for this definition to be useful, that’s where the falling action would end.
Wes: Yes, the falling action is the last part of the story where any conflict is resolved. After that, there should be no more conflicts to resolve.
Oren: I would generally say that is a good definition of falling action, which is why the Scouring of the Shire is so weird.
Oren: What is going on here?
Wes: Clearly the weirdest thing, but also that’s a big example. I have a smaller example, Little Red Riding Hood. The climax of that story is not when the woodsman comes and cuts the wolf open. The climax of that story is when the wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood.
Chris: I don’t know if that’s a great example because she has no agency. She’s supposed to be the main character.
Wes: But it’s a fairy tale.
Chris: Well, yeah, that’s why it’s not very good.
Wes: No, it’s not very good. But if we’re just doing a basic triangle, there’s the rising action where she’s on the way, the threat is growing because the grandma gets eaten, it grows. Then the main thing happens where the main character gets consumed, and then the deus ex machina shows up to save the day.
Chris: Yeah, right.
Wes: I mean, right? Like on a basic level, there’s that. But the Scouring of the Shire is a much better example because Sauron’s defeated. We tossed the ring into Mount Doom, but then there’s falling action that’s like appropriate falling action. Like, oh, crap, the volcano’s erupting.
Chris: The problem with the Scouring of the Shire is that it opens up a whole new arc that you were not expecting to be there. Right? Which is not usually what you’re supposed to be doing in falling action.
Wes: No, it’s not. And yes, we knew that Saruman wasn’t firmly dealt with.
Oren: Yeah, the Ents just let him go.
Wes: The Ents really slacked off.
Oren: They’re not good jailors. Do not put them in charge of keeping people in one place.
Wes: Right, but a generous read could be to show and truly emphasize the heroes that the Hobbits have become, how they ride into town and Merry and Pippin are like super tall from all the Entwash that they’ve been chugging, and just kick some butt.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, I guess we could call it epilogue because it’s basically a separate story that’s there for the purpose of just showing characters being happy and reflecting on their experiences, right? They’re showing off their new skills that they got while having their epic adventure.
Wes: You’re right. I mean, it is kind of a separate story, which—this is why I’m hung up on this. We see in a lot of prologues, a separate thing is happening and prologues and epilogues are kind of the same. Just depends on where they’re located. The movie doesn’t do the Scouring of the Shire, which is good, but does show, I think, a good denouement. Like the conflict is resolved and people are sailing west and we’re happy.
Wes: Denouement. Oren, you’re going to mess with me forever.
Oren: The denouement! Ugh.
Chris: I mean, is the denouement supposed to be just the last thing you see, but not unless it’s epilogue? I just don’t think this word has a consistent definition.
Wes: What would you say if then we see the boat sail west, whatever, and then they’re happy in the Shire and they’re settling down, roll credits, and then five more minutes show up and it skips forward or it shows something extra that’s like them, I don’t know, just trying to piece together here because the point of going west or staying in the Shire is kind of like, you’ve had your trial, here’s your reward, and that’s the resolution.
Chris: I mean, I would say that I would just call it all epilogue unless it’s actually closing a story arc, in which case it’s falling action or kind of resolution stage.
Wes: Right. Yeah.
Chris: Regardless of whether there’s a time skip or not. I mean, I have one article in which I referred to the very last thing you see as the end note. Basically, it’s the closing tone of the story. So that could be worth a special term.
Chris: But I don’t think there’s any distinct point that comes after falling action that we could say the story has ended because falling action, its purpose is to conclude the story. It’s to disperse all the tension and tie everything up. So after that, there’s nothing to tie up regardless of whether you skip forward in time or not.
Wes: Yeah. And I think the biggest takeaway that I hope everybody has from this is literary scholars made all these terms to get published and that’s it. None of them have any great meaning and they’re just arguing about random structure that has no real application for storytelling. So trust us when we say that: have your main climax that resolves the big question and then deal with the fallout and then end your story.
Chris: I’ll go through the sequence that usually happens at the end.
Wes: Yes, good idea.
Chris: So first, before the climax, there are usually resolutions to smaller arcs and there doesn’t have to be, this is optional. But for instance, if you have an “all is lost” moment before the climax that you’re doing what I’ve referred to as a dramatic reversal, there’ll be—a character arc might complete to restore hope or characters might reconcile their relationship and that might end a relationship arc. And that will set the stage for the climax, right? So the characters were fighting, they resolve that, and then now they’re ready to team up for the climax. So we have those non-throughline arcs that can close before the climax or after.
Then we have our climactic sequence begins, got our big fight sequence or what have you. And then there’s going to be a climactic turning point, which is the single moment that the character is just like in deep trouble and has some kind of breakthrough, whether it’s pushing past barriers or having—coming up with some insight or what have you. Then we have after that turning point, we’re already starting on a downslope, but we’re still in the climax is our follow up action, where it’s like, I had an insight. Now I’m going to use that insight decisively to finish the through line. Finish him! And that usually ends the climactic sequence.
And then our throughline is tied up and then we have more smaller arcs go through their resolutions in what we’re calling falling action. So, usually, depending on the story, it could be one scene, it might not be there at all. It could be a whole series of scenes with more resolutions. And then if we conclude all of those other arcs in the story and we still don’t feel like we’re finished with our feel good content, then we can have our kind of goodbye epilogue scenes, which are just there to show characters being happy or reflecting on their experiences. There’s no plot arcs concluding, they’re already concluded, which is what we would normally call epilogue. So that’s how the ending, that peak and falling action normally works. And we can get fussy about like, OK, where does the denouement? I’m never going to say that word without—because that’s how it is to me. Where does the denouement fit in that sequence? But that’s the sequence that we have, right?
Oren: Well, I mean, if it’s happening at the current moment, it’s actually called the de-NOW-ment.
Chris: Oh, oh, no. Get out of here.
Wes: Get out of here, Oren. Oh, no.
Chris: In many stories, I think it’s interesting that you do have a choice whether or not you want to resolve those smaller arcs in your falling action or before the climax. And it creates kind of a different feel depending on what you’re going for. If you want sort of a dramatic reversal and then like, oh, hey, hope is restored, you know, and now I’m ready to face the big challenge. If you like that feeling, you can go for some closures that happen before the climax. Or if you just want a riveting story that’s just one thing going wrong after another all the way up until the climax and then a decisive moment and then it all comes together. You can save most of those arcs to resolve after. I do think that maybe you have a little bit more time for explanation if you wait until after the climax. You don’t have to worry as much about keeping the story moving there because the tension is already low.
Wes: I think a good way to identify falling action is if the tension has wound down a little bit. And that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t still be some things that need to be resolved because they could be very bad. But understanding that the climax should be the thing that is the most tension. You’ve got to deal with that. You know, and so if, I don’t know, defeating General Zod is the climax, but to defeat him, you’ve basically threatened this entire city that you have to go take care of. That’s falling action because the whole rising action wasn’t pointing to the fact that that city was going to get destroyed. It was taking out General Zod. So sometimes the climax can create extra conflicts as a result of them, depending on how epic and huge the story is. But that’s common.
Chris: Right. Like a character gets hurt and falls.
Chris: And then the hero’s like, nooo! And then like kills the villain. And then we have our falling action when they go back to that person who fell and be like, mentor, don’t die! And then the mentor says their final words.
Wes: And they’re like, I’m just hanging on this ledge. It’s fine.
Oren: Or I mean, we could just have Palpatine throw Kylo Ren into a hole and then he just climbs back up and there’s no explanation of how he didn’t die. Whatever. It’s fine. He’s climbing up out of that hole now. It’s falling action time.
Wes: So falling action is when you can just have the most fun you ever want, right?
Oren: Yeah. Just do whatever. You do whatever you want now. It’s fine. Nothing matters anymore.
Chris: It’s funny because the falling action doesn’t need much tension anymore, right? If you have some tension in that before you resolve any kind of arc, you usually focus on the arc. So for instance, you know, you might have a falling action scene where somebody is like, oh, no, I need to confess my love for my love interest. And then there’ll be like some nervousness leading up to that scene. And that’s your tension. That’s your remaining tension from the arc. And then there’s a love confession. And then they’re like, oh, yes, we’ll be together forever! And your tension is all gone. Right? And so there’s still some tension in there, but you don’t really have to—usually have to manage tension during falling action. I don’t think I’ve ever. There might be some stories where the falling action goes on too long, but I cannot recall a story where I was like, oh, this falling action doesn’t have enough tension. That’s not really what we’re looking for anymore at that point.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, if anything, your big tension related problem in falling action is going to be the situation where you open up a new plot and try to raise tension again. And it’s like, no, no, the story’s over. We ended the story. It’s like, nope, now you got to fight the Riddler’s forum members. You got to fight them. It’s like, do we have to?
Chris: Right. Which goes back into the false ending problem that The Batman has.
Chris: Which is an odd thing. So this is when you make the audience think that the story has concluded, only to be like, wait, but there’s more. Now, that’s not even my final form. Or, you know, have a whole new climax. And The Batman does this. It feels like what was previously the tensest arc has concluded. It felt like the throughline because it just had more tension than anything else. And then suddenly we reveal there’s another whole climax. And this happens partly because they want Batman to collaborate with a villain. And so they can’t make that villain look too bad or else it looks bad that Batman collaborates with him. So as a result, he’s not adding a lot of tension to the story. So then there’s not enough tension after the other arc is concluded. And then suddenly it’s like, but no, this villain, now here’s his master plan and now we’re going to go into another climax. So that’s how that happened. And I can understand how they got in that fix.
Chris: And you’d think that it’s like, oh, but aren’t you excited that we’re going to have now a more exciting climactic sequence? And you’d think so, but no.
Wes: Yeah, yeah. The falling action is a good opportunity for us, like everybody to kind of like take a breath. And if there’s conflict, know that it’s probably going to be OK. You know, like the end of Buffy comes to mind where the city gets leveled. But they’d already evacuated it. And you didn’t think that after fighting all those uber vampires, they were just going to suddenly get taken down by some falling rubble.
Oren: Yeah, I wasn’t too worried about that.
Wes: Yeah. In that case, it’s just necessary to transition you from the climax to a resolution just to get there. It’s part of the path.
Oren: Right. I mean, sometimes the stakes can still be quite high, but just the way that it is dramatically constructed, it still feels like lower tension. Like, a really clear example of this is in Final Fantasy VII, the video game, because it ends with you defeating Sephiroth, right? That’s the climax. You defeated the big bad and his big old sword, the big swordy boy. You’ve defeated him. He was very shirtless. Everyone had a good time. And then it goes into cutscene mode where you have to escape the crater and then you’re flying out on the airship. And you’re seeing that this big old meteor that Sephiroth had summoned is still coming, which is technically a higher stakes conflict. Like in terms of the number of lives at risk than your fight with Sephiroth was. But you can also just kind of tell that this is going to be dealt with, right? And, you know, lo and behold, your dearly departed Aeris does her final limit break from beyond the grave and that deflects the meteor. And it’s like, great, good job. We didn’t really have to do anything. We’ve done our part. We allowed this to happen. That’s some decent falling action right there. And then the game doesn’t have any epilogue. And I’m mad about it. But, you know, that’s another, that’s a different argument for a different time.
Chris: Read the book Seraphina, which is quite a good book. I actually enjoyed it, but it does have a weird issue with its climax and falling action where the book has dragons and the main character is a half dragon. But, you know, the dragons can take human form. So that’s how she resulted. She can’t transform into a big dragon. And so we have what is or should be the climax where she has to, you know, use her wits to talk to a big dragon and distract it so it doesn’t kill her or any of the other people, any of her allies. But then afterwards, the dragon flies off and there’s a big dragon fight between two dragons. And it just feels like this should be the climax, but it’s not because the main character is just watching. Right? And it’s a little, it’s like, I guess this is maybe falling action, but that dragon was the villain. So the arc about that villain hasn’t entirely resolved until he’s taken down. Right? And so, again, I can see how the story ended up in that situation. She can’t turn into a big dragon to battle him herself. And because the story has dragons in it, it might be kind of disappointing if there are no dragon battles. At the same time, it just adds some awkwardness to, OK, what is the climax? Is it the dragon battle where the main character has no agency and we’re just kind of watching? Even though that seems like it’s more climatic and that’s when the actual throughline is resolved. Or is it that moment where she faced off with the dragon, but we didn’t really get a resolution there.
Oren: The weirdest bit, and I don’t know if this is technically falling action or epilogue or—
Oren: —denouement or whatever we’re going to call it. Yeah, I don’t know which of these it technically is, but in the novel Sabriel, the big fight ends with a heroic sacrifice. That’s the climax, right? Like she sacrifices herself to defeat the bad guy and she dies. And then I think there’s an indication on the page that there’s a scene break, but it then returns in the same scene. No time has passed, but on the page it makes it look like there’s been a scene break, right? Like it uses the triple dots, I think, to make you think that we’re in a different scene now, but it’s the same scene. And then she comes back to life.
Chris: It’s lying, lying. That’s what it is.
Oren: And I don’t know if that’s falling action or what.
Chris: It’s lying lies.
Oren: Yeah, it’s definitely lies. Yeah, okay. It was a heroic sacrifice, and then she immediately got resurrected for reasons.
Chris: It just feels so manipulative. Like, oh, she’s dead. Scene break. You know, it just feels like you had a commercial break or the end of an episode and the TV show writers are like, okay, guys, we have to end this episode on the hook. It’s like, okay, well, we don’t really have any twist planned for this part of the plot. Okay, we’ll just make it look like the protagonist dies. And then the next episode starts like, okay, oh, look, they’re not dead after all. You just thought they were dead. Ha ha ha. Let’s move on. Like, why did you do that? Why did you make me worry about the protagonist’s life for a whole week between episodes?
Oren: It’d be especially weird if you were one of those people who, like, you know, gets really frustrated when a character dies. And so you stopped reading the book and you just don’t know that she comes back to life because it looks like the scene’s over. Like, so you figure if she was going to come back to life, it would be in this scene. But according to the text, it’s the next scene. It was very weird. It’s the weirdest thing. I don’t, again, I don’t know what it technically qualifies as, but I know I didn’t like it.
Wes: I think lies is a good classification. It’s fine. Okay, so just to wrap up, if we—quick reminder, falling action is the stuff that happens after the climax. And there should still be some tension, some conflicts, but it is an opportunity to unwind from all the tension that gets resolved in the actual climax itself. So just know that that is what we’re talking about here. And you don’t need to know any other terms, really. You probably don’t even need to know that term. Just, hey, you know, resolve your conflict and then take care of business and then get out of town. Off away from Sunnydale we go.
Oren: So, for example, here, we wouldn’t want to end this podcast with me starting another argument about how it’s actually pronounced do-no-mount.
Wes: Oh my god.
Chris: Do not mount.
Oren: And I think that’ll be it. We’re gonna get on out of here.
Chris: If you enjoyed any of our fine tips about pronunciation and terminology, consider filling our tip jar by becoming a patron. Go to patreon.com/mythcreants.
Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have Callie McLeod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Music]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreant Podcast. Opening/closing theme: “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?