I’ve been talking about the various parts of a story, and now we’re getting close to the end. I’m not even sure I’d call the next part of the story part of the end. Maybe part three of the middle?
After we’ve had the big semi-climactic moment in the middle of the story, the audience and the characters need a chance to recover and catch their breath so they’ll be ready for the end. There’s usually some kind of quieter interlude after that big middle part. On a chart, this would be falling action. You need some less intense times so that the intense times will be a contrast, but that doesn’t mean this part of the story is allowed to be boring.
This may be an emotionally intense part of the story, even if there’s not a lot of action. You see a lot of love scenes in this part of a story. Think about The Terminator — after Sarah and Kyle escape from the police station and have a big car chase, they make it to safety in a remote motel. There, they talk and get to know each other a little better. He tells her about the future he came from and her role in it as the mother of the leader who’s helping humans fight back against the machines, and he tells her that he came through time because he’s always loved her — at least, the idea of her. They make love. This scene may seem slow in comparison to the rest of the movie with all the car chases and gun battles but, in a sense, it’s the most critical scene in the story, since it’s when that future leader is conceived.
Another example would be the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which they’ve made it safely to the ship with the ark after that big chase and fight scene, and Marian tends to Indy’s wounds, trying to find a place where it’s safe to kiss him without hurting him.
If someone — usually the mentor figure — got killed during the midpoint semi-climax/ordeal sequence, this is when the surviving characters mourn that person. If they weren’t very successful in what they tried to do in the midpoint, they may regroup here. There may be planning sessions or an analysis of where they went wrong.
This may be a time when the hero has some doubts. If he failed in the midpoint, he might fear that he’s not up to the task. He might question the goal. Sometimes he might even try to sneak away, feeling everyone else is better off without him.
Or, if everything went right, they may think they’ve won. They may have obtained the quest object and are celebrating. Because they don’t know they’re characters in a story, they don’t know that the story isn’t over yet. They may think everything’s okay or that the rest of it will be easy. Surely the most difficult part of the quest was getting the charmed amulet out of the evil wizard’s secret base. Now all they have to do is get home and use it to save their land.
But, of course, the story isn’t over yet. That knowledge allows the writer to maintain some tension even in this quieter part of the story. Readers can see that there are still a lot of pages left, so it’s not over. There won’t be a hundred pages of celebrating. The villain is still out there and not ready to give up. That cyborg will track them down and continue trying to carry out its mission. The Nazis aren’t going to give up on the ark, and they have a lot of resources. The evil wizard is going to try to get his amulet back. The hero can’t just give up and walk away. We know this, and that makes any celebrating, bonding, or rejoicing bittersweet. We enjoy seeing the characters get to be happy for a little while, but there’s a sense of dread about what they’ll face next.