The falling action in a work of literature is the sequence of events that follow the climax and end in the resolution. The falling action is the opposite of the rising action, which leads up to the plot's climax.
Five-Part Story Structure
Traditionally, there are five segments to any given plot: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Exposition is the early section of the story, giving audiences information about the status quo when we first join the characters and plot. This section will often contain backstory or information about how things currently are, so that when the rest of the plot is set into motion, the change (and the stakes) is clear.
Rising action typically happens after some sort of inciting incident, which shakes up the status quo presented in the exposition and requires the characters to launch into a new journey, off of the "expected" path. During this section of the story, characters will encounter new obstacles and continually increasing stakes, all moving towards the biggest moment of conflict in the whole story, called the climax. The climax may be one of two moments: it may be a moment in the middle of the story that serves as a "point of no return" (Shakespeare plays are a great example of this format), or it may be the "final battle" type of moment near the end of the story. The placement of the climax matters less than the content: this should be the single greatest moment of change and conflict for the hero.
Falling action follows the climax and is the exact inverse of rising action. Instead of a series of events that increase in intensity, falling action is a series of events that follow the biggest conflict and show the fallout, whether good or bad. The falling action is the connective tissue between the climax and the resolution, showing how we get from that major moment to the way the story ends.
Purpose of Falling Action
In general, falling action demonstrates the consequences of the climax. Following the climax, the story will head in a different direction as a direct result of the choices made during the climax. The falling action, therefore, follows that part of the story and depicts the way those choices affect the characters going forward.
Falling action will often de-escalate the dramatic tension following the climactic moment. This doesn't mean that it lacks conflict or dramatic tension, only that it's aimed in a different direction. The momentum of the story is no longer accelerating towards a moment of confrontation, but instead moving towards a conclusion. New complications are less likely to be introduced, at least not ones that will re-escalate the stakes or change the direction of the story; by the time a plot reaches the falling action, the ending is in sight.
Examples of Falling Action in Literature
There are many examples of falling action in literature because almost every story or plot requires a falling action to reach a resolution. Most storylines, whether in a memoir, novel, play, or movie have a falling action that helps the plot progress toward its end. If you see some titles here that you recognize, but haven't read them yet, then beware! These examples contain spoilers.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling, the falling action occurs after Harry faces Professor Quirrell and Voldemort, which would be considered the climax (the moment of greatest dramatic tension and conflict). He survives the encounter and is whisked away to the hospital wing, where Dumbledore explains more information about Voldemort's vendetta and what dangers Harry is likely to face in the future.
Little Red Riding Hood
In the fairy tale/folk tale Little Red Riding Hood, the story reaches its climax when the wolf announces that he will eat the young protagonist. The series of events that happen after this conflict to lead to the resolution are the falling actions. In this case, Little Red Riding Hood screams out, and woodcutters from the forest come running to the grandmother's cottage. The story isn't yet resolved, but these falling actions are leading to its resolve.
Romeo and Juliet
A final example is depicted in the classic play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Traditionally, Shakespeare plays correspond the five elements of plot to each of the five acts, meaning that Act 4 in a Shakespeare play will contain the falling action.
After the climactic moment in the play, the street fight where Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt, then flees, the falling action indicates that the plot is headed toward a sad, but unavoidable, resolution. Juliet's feelings are confused between her love for her new secret husband, who is banished from Verona and mourning her beloved cousin who just died by Romeo's hand. The decision she makes to take the sleeping potion is a direct result of the deadly fight and Romeo's exile, and it leads towards the tragic resolution of the conflict.