Everyone knows what this diagram shows, correct? It shows the five-point diagram of plot, as specified by Gustav Freytag.
But does anyone really know how to use it?
I understand the exposition, or introduction. I understand the denouement, or conclusion. It’s the stuff in the middle that gives me trouble, most notably the climax.
I thought the climax was the characters’ low point, where they go from reaction to action. The conflict has been piled on them until they can hardly take it anymore all through the rising action, but they start to fight back at the climax. Their fight takes up the falling action.
At least, that’s what I thought, based on my knowledge of the common form for stories. Usually the story begins by throwing the main character into dire circumstances, which soon become worse and worse. This goes on until the hero starts fighting back with some success, at which point there’s a long slog to the conclusion, where everything is hunky-dory again. This is usually true regardless of the definition of climax. But today I was told that the climax is usually the point at which the main character succeeds. Frodo throws the Ring into Orodruin. Aslan defeats the White Witch. Valentine isn’t dead after all and the Count of Monte Cristo can rest, having defeated his many enemies. (I’m just realizing… That ending to The Count of Monte Cristo is really Dumas saying how he wished Romeo and Juliet had really ended. I am glad Maximilian didn’t commit suicide, though.)
If the climax is where the hero succeeds, then the falling action has to be extremely short. Almost nothing happens there. Frodo destroys the Ring and the falling action is that Sauron dies, the orcs are routed, Aragorn is crowned and the hobbits go back to the shire. Tolkien drew his out a little with the Shire conflicts at the end, but there still isn’t much. Aslan defeats the White Witch and the falling action is the Pevensies’ coronation and their eventual return home. The Count completes his revenge and the falling action is Maximilian and Valentine getting back together and Cristo sailing off into nowhere. “Wait and hope.”
See, I thought all these falling action examples were the conclusions. They sound an awful lot like conclusions. I thought the final battle sequence was the falling action, not the climax.
Climax is defined by Wikipedia as being “[a narrative work's] point of highest tension or drama”. Would I say the point of highest tension or drama in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is when Aslan returns from the dead? No. Once I see Aslan, I know he can fix everything– that’s the assumption we make when we see a lion that can be killed and not be dead. Perhaps I would say that the part just before that is the climax, when Peter is leading the army against the much larger army of the White Witch, knowing full well that she just killed Aslan. That’s what I would call the characters’ low point, and that’s what I would label as the climax. When it seems that the hero couldn’t possibly succeed against these odds, that’s what I’d label the climax. It’s the height of tension. The hero doesn’t seem to have anything working for him and is in the depths of despair. The Fellowship is gone, Frodo was seemingly just killed by Shelob and taken by orcs, Gollum has betrayed them, and Sam has to take the Ring on or let Middle Earth perish– that’s the low point of The Lord of the Rings. That’s when Sam starts fighting back. He journeys on with the Ring, rescues Frodo and together they destroy the Ring. That is the falling action, at least from my view of things.
There are a few different ways of diagramming plots that I’ve seen. There’s the Seven-Point Story Structure, as well as the Hollywood Formula. Both have points at which the characters are at the depths of despair, each at approximately 3/4 of the way through the story. That would be what I call the climax. According to the idea I heard this morning, however, the climax is the point at which the hero succeeds. According to both of these structures, that would place the climax extremely near to the end. Is that how everyone understands it? I agree that just before the final battle finishes there’s a lot of tension, but is it really the climax? In my opinion, the point just after the low point is where things start moving extremely quickly– thus, it stands to reason that that would be the falling action, doesn’t it? Things start evening out immediately after the hero succeeds– so that should be the end of the falling action, shouldn’t it? If you can answer, please do.