Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds Summary & Activities

Long Way Down is a highly acclaimed young adult novel that is poignantly written in vivid free verse. It is the moving tale of a young man, named Will Holloman, faced with a life altering decision. He has grown up knowing the "Rules" of his neighborhood. The Long Way Down rules are: #1 - No Crying, #2 - No Snitching, #3 - Always seek revenge on the person who has hurt someone you love. After witnessing his brother Shawn's murder, Will feels compelled to follow Rule #3.

Student Activities for Long Way Down

Long Way Down Essential Questions and Discussion Questions

  1. What is the cost of revenge? Is it worth it?
  2. What encourages a cycle of violence? Why is it so difficult to break?
  3. How do our choices and our actions in the face of adversity define who we are?
  4. What are the "rules" in Long Way Down?
  5. What are some "rules" that you live by in your life?
  6. How do your community's or society's rules affect your values?
  7. What does Dani symbolize in Long Way Down?
  8. How did uncle Mark die?
  9. How does Jason Reynolds use language such as anagrams and other figurative language to enhance the story?
  10. What did Will and Shawn's mother mean when she said that when he went walking in the nighttime, he needed to make sure that the nighttime wasn't walking into him?
  11. Who killed Will's brother Shawn?
  12. What do Will's memories of his brother reveal about their relationship to the reader?
  13. Why do you think Jason Reynolds used the elevator as the setting for much of the story?
  14. What messages or lessons do you think the author was trying to convey to the reader?
  15. What do you think happens after the end of the story?

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds Summary

Beware! This synopsis of the book, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds below does contain spoilers! This summary is meant to be a helpful recap for students after they have read the book. Or, a useful refresher for teachers to help them decide if they would like to use this powerful story in the classroom.

What is the plot of Long Way Down?

Jason Reynolds said that Long Way Down is written as a bit of a cross between A Christmas Carol and Boyz n' the Hood. It is a simple story, but one that is tragically all too familiar. Will tells the reader that he swears his story is true, however he doubts anyone will believe it. Will is 15 and was hanging out with his best friend Tony at the park when shots rang out. They slammed to the ground as they are used to doing when hearing gunshots. It's a reflex that has been ingrained into Will since he was a child. When Will looked up he saw there was only one body: his 19-year-old brother, Shawn, had been killed. Their mother is beside herself with grief. Will is too, but feels he can't cry: that's Rule #1. When policemen ask questions, Will and others remain silent. That's Rule #2. Will thinks about Rule #3 and discovers the gun hidden in his brother's middle drawer. Will takes Shawn's gun with the purpose of finding Carlson Riggs, the young man he believes is the killer. He sneaks out of his apartment with a plan to avenge his brother's death.

Carlson Riggs was Shawn's friend but he had become a member of a gang. Riggs and his gang ruled the territory where Shawn had just been to buy his mother's special soap for her eczema. Will is positive the killer is Riggs. He thinks he must have gone after Shawn for being in the wrong territory. Will goes to the elevator. His apartment is on the 8th floor. He presses L for Lobby, which makes him remember how he and Shawn used to joke that the button stood for "Loser".

As the elevator makes its "long way down", Will counts down the seconds. On the 7th floor, the elevator stops and a man gets on. Will is shocked to see Buck, Shawn's former mentor who was shot and killed some time ago. He is wearing the "in memoriam" shirt that was made in his honor. After Will's father died, Buck had taken Shawn under his wing. He was like a father figure to him. When Buck was killed Shawn took it really hard. Will notices that Buck is smoking a cigarette and the smoke begins to fill the elevator. Buck says he wants to check on his gun - the gun that he had given to Shawn. The gun that Will is now carrying with his plan for revenge. When Buck checks the gun, he notices that there are 15 bullets (one is missing).

On the 6th floor, another person gets on, this time a young woman, making Will blush. Will can't believe it but it's Dani, his childhood friend. Will and Dani were the best of friends when they were little until the day that Dani was killed by a stray bullet in a drive by shooting. Will and Dani had been playing together in the park. They were only eight. During the shooting, Shawn had pushed the kids to the ground, covering them with his body. But it was too late for Dani; the bullet had struck her and she died right in front of Will. He says he cried all night long after she died, until the next day when Shawn sat him down and taught him about "The Rules". Will thinks that Dani will understand his plan of revenge. If he had been big enough, he would have avenged her death too. But Dani asks one important question: "What if you miss?"

The elevator continues its descent. Buck gives Dani a cigarette and the elevator continues to fill with smoke. At the next floor, the elevator stops again and, this time, Will's Uncle Mark gets on. Uncle Mark was his dad's beloved brother who aspired to be a filmmaker. His life was cut short when he was shot and killed for selling drugs in the wrong neighborhood. He had promised himself he would only sell drugs for one day, just enough to get a new camera so he could be a filmmaker. But, life had other plans. Will knows that his father was devastated by his brother's death. However, he doesn't remember his father because he, too, died when Will was little.

The elevator continues down to the next floor and when the doors open, Will's father, Pops, gets on. Will was told Pops died of a broken heart after his brother was killed. In truth, Pops avenged his brother's death and then he himself was killed in retaliation. Will feels like he should follow the rules like his father did. He thinks his father will understand his desire to avenge his brother's death! Just like him! However, Pops reveals that it was all for nothing. He had accidentally killed the wrong man. Will's father embraces him and, then, without warning, pulls the gun out of Will's hand and puts it to his head! Will is so scared he wets himself. After a tense moment, Will's father finally releases him and gives him back the gun.

On the next stop, a young man named Frick gets on the elevator. Buck recognizes him as his killer! They explain that Frick had been trying to rob Buck to get initiated into the gang but in the scuffle, he accidentally killed Buck. Shawn loved Buck like a brother and after his death, Shawn went after Frick and killed him. Frick shows Will the bullet wound. Just one. That is why one bullet was missing from the gun. Will is certain that Carlson Riggs killed Shawn and now he believes it was to avenge Frick's death. But when he mentions this, Frick says, "Who?" He doesn't even know who Riggs is. The cloud of smoke thickens and Will is filled with doubt.

Long Way Down ending explained

At the end of the story, the elevator arrives at the second floor and one more person boards. It is Shawn. Will embraces his brother and confesses his plan to kill Riggs. He confides in his brother that he is scared and unsure. Shawn doesn't say anything and then surprises Will by breaking down and crying. Will was always told to follow Rule #1 and never cry. Seeing his brother cry is the final crack in his resolve. It makes him realize that maybe the Rules are wrong. The elevator reaches the lobby and the doors open. The ghosts all step out and Shawn turns to look back at Will and asks, "You coming?"

Our Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds lesson plans include figurative language, themes and character analysis. Students will be able to answer Long Way Down questions such as, what is the plot or narrative arc of the story, what are the overarching themes, what do certain characters or things symbolize, and much more.

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Long Way Down Activities and Customizable Lesson Plans

The above lesson plans are designed for teachers to easily copy and customize to meet the needs of their students.  The focus of these standards-aligned lessons is to help students perform a close reading of the story Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. By the end of these lessons, students will be able to identify the major plot points that make up the narrative arc of the story as well as analyze the story for literary elements such as figurative language, theme and symbolism and much more! Read on to learn more about the activities above. Remember when you find one that you think your students will enjoy, all you have to do is click "copy". It will be immediately brought into your teacher dashboard to assign to your students that very day!

Long Way Down Character Analysis

Have students track the different characters' development and growth throughout the story using a character map. This can be a helpful quick assessment for teachers to see how far along students are in the story. Every time they meet a new character they can add them to the character map. It can also be a helpful reference for students to have during class discussions or assessments. For example, if they are asked, "Who is uncle Mark?" or "Who is Frick?" or "Who is Tony in Long Way Down?", they will have detailed, illustrated notes at their fingertips that they created!


Have students choose a theme and illustrate it using examples from the story. There are many themes throughout the story which include but are not limited to grief, the cycle of violence, family, loyalty, and revenge.

Symbols and Motifs

Have students look at the different symbols and recurring motifs within the story. They can then choose a symbol from the story and illustrate what it represents. Jason Reynolds masterfully weaves in symbolism throughout the story. Students can look out for symbols such as: the elevator, cigarettes, smoke, Dani's flower dress, nighttime.

Plot Diagram

Have students map out the different parts of the story using a plot diagram. Students should identify major turning points in the novel such as the Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. The example in this activity is meant to replicate the imagery of an elevator traveling down to the lobby, but students may also complete their plot diagram using the traditional plot diagram template provided.

Figurative Language

Students can track the many examples of figurative language present such as similes, metaphors, personification, imagery, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, and more. Students can illustrate the examples from the text and include the type of figurative language along with text evidence and analysis.

Favorite Quote or Scene

Students can make a text to self connection by identifying their favorite quote or scene from the novel and creating a storyboard that illustrates the scene and includes the important dialogue or text along with a description of why it resonates with them!

Anagrams in Long Way Down

Jason Reynolds included many anagrams throughout the text. An anagram is when you rearrange the letters in one word to make a new word. In Long Way Down, the main character Will explains that the words are different but still connected, like brothers. Students can identify the different anagrams Will mentions in the novel using a T Chart creating illustrations and writing descriptions for each.

Movie Poster

Students can create dazzling movie posters for the novel to demonstrate their understanding of the most important aspects such as setting, characters, and the overarching themes of the story.

Ideas for Post-Reading Activities

Storyboard That is an excellent tool for students to create fun and engaging projects as a culminating activity after finishing a novel. In addition to our premade activities, here are some ideas that teachers can customize and assign to students to spark creativity in individual students, pairs, or small groups for a final project. Several of these ideas include Storyboard That templates that can be printed out or copied into your teacher dashboard and assigned digitally. All final projects can be printed out, presented as a slide show, or, for an extra challenge, as an animated GIF!

  1. Long Way Down is filled with many interesting literary devices for students to explore. One element that is used so well throughout this powerful story is irony. Students can storyboard the examples of irony they come across in the text! To learn more about how to teach irony in the classroom, see our article: The Three Types of Irony.

  2. For Groups: Choose a scene from the story and write a short play to reenact to the class. Use the traditional storyboard layout to plan out your scenes. You can add text to your storyboards, or simply use the cells to visualize each scene of your play.

  3. Using the timeline layout, retell the story in chronological order. Our timeline layout gives you the options to include year, month, day, and even hour! You may also choose to omit these altogether.

  4. Choose a setting from the story and create a map of the setting using the small poster or worksheet layout. Use free form or other text boxes to include a key or label the different parts of the map.

  5. Using one of Storyboard That’s board game templates, create a game based on the book for your classmates to play!

  6. For Groups: Divide the chapters of the book amongst your group members. Each member of the group creates a storyboard for their assigned chapter. This can be done as a collaborative project, or separately for longer novels.

  7. Using the worksheet layout and Storyboard That’s worksheet assets, create a test or a quiz for other students in the class. You can create all kinds of questions such as multiple choice, short answer, and even matching! When you are done, be sure to make an answer key.

  8. Using one of Storyboard That’s biography poster templates, create a poster about the character of your choice. Be sure to include important biographical features such as: place and date of birth, family life, accomplishments, etc.

  9. Choose a chapter from the novel and create a storyboard that shows that chapter from another character’s point of view. For an extra challenge, use the T-chart layout to compare the original point of view with another character’s point of view!

  10. Create a book jacket of the novel using one of Storyboard That’s book jacket templates. Use Storyboard That art to create the cover, and write a summary of the story on the back, just like real books have!

  11. Using one of Storyboard That’s social media templates as a starting point, create a social media page for one or more of the characters in the novel. Be sure to think how the character thinks while creating this page.

  12. Create a scrapbook page made by one of the characters in the novel. Storyboard That has lots of premade templates that you can use as is, or change to fit your character’s personality! Check out our scrapbook templates today!

How to Teach "Long Way Down" by Jason Reynolds


Introduce the Novel

Provide an overview of "Long Way Down" to the students. Discuss the author, Jason Reynolds, and the novel's unique format of verse poetry. Set the stage for exploring the themes of gun violence, revenge, and the power of choices in the story.


Analyze the Structure and Language

Guide students in analyzing the novel's structure and poetic language. Explore the use of repetition, rhythm, and other poetic devices employed by Reynolds. Discuss how these techniques contribute to the story's impact and emotional resonance.


Explore Themes and Motifs

Facilitate discussions on the novel's themes, such as the cycle of violence, the consequences of actions, and the influence of family and community. Encourage students to identify and analyze recurring motifs and symbols throughout the novel.


Engage in Character Analysis

Guide students in analyzing the protagonist, Will, and other key characters in the story. Discuss their motivations, conflicts, and transformations. Encourage students to explore the characters' relationships and how they shape the narrative.


Promote Empathy and Perspective-Taking

Encourage students to empathize with the characters and their experiences. Facilitate discussions that invite students to consider different perspectives, reflecting on how choices and circumstances impact the characters' lives. Foster a safe and respectful environment for sharing insights.


Foster Personal Reflection and Application

Encourage students to reflect on the themes and messages of the novel and how they connect to their own lives. Provide opportunities for personal response through writing activities, discussions, or creative projects. Prompt students to consider the novel's impact on their understanding of gun violence, choices, and empathy.

Frequently Asked Questions about Long Way Down

What are the Long Way Down rules?

The "Rules" refers to a code of honor that Will talks about at the beginning of the story. He says there are certain rules in his neighborhood that everyone knows and everyone follows: #1 No Crying, #2 No Snitching, #3 Always seek revenge on the person who has hurt someone you love.

How did Buck die in Long Way Down?

Beware! Spoiler! Buck was Shawn's mentor who took Shawn under his wing after Will and Shawn's father was killed. When Frick gets on the elevator it is revealed he had been trying to rob Buck to get initiated into the gang but in the scuffle, he accidentally killed Buck.

Who killed Shawn in Long Way Down?

Beware! Spoiler! At the beginning of the story, Will is convinced that Carlson Riggs killed his brother, Shawn. He thinks Carlson went after Shawn for being in the wrong gang territory and he is bent on killing Carlson to avenge his brother's death. However, in the elevator ride down, it is revealed that Frick killed Buck. Shawn loved Buck like a brother and after his death, Shawn went after Frick and killed him. When Will asks Frick about Carlson Riggs, Frick doesn't know who it is. It is apparent that someone killed Shawn to avenge Frick's death. However, the cloud of smoke thickens leaving Will and the reader in doubt about who Shawn's killer really is.

Who killed uncle Mark in Long Way Down?

Beware! Spoiler! Will's uncle Mark was his dad's beloved brother who aspired to be a filmmaker. His life was cut short when he was shot and killed for selling drugs in the wrong neighborhood. Will's father was devastated by his brother, Mark's, death.

How did Will's father die in Long Way Down?

Beware! Spoiler! Will was told Pops died of a broken heart after his brother Mark was killed. In truth, Pops avenged his brother's death and then he himself was killed in retaliation. Pops reveals that it was all for nothing because he had accidentally killed the wrong man.

Find more activities like this in our 6-12 ELA Category!
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