Whether you're writing a novel, a short story, or a screenplay, you'll have to deal with rising action—even if you call it by some other name. And if you want your story to be the best it can be, you'll need to know a bit about this literary term. (Spoiler alert: rising action is the longest part of your story and is essential for plot development).
So let's get right to what it is and how to craft an effective rising action section.
- What rising action is and where in your story it should come.
- Examples of rising action from well-known stories.
- Tips for making the best rising action section possible.
Table of contents
- Rising Action: Definition and Location
- Identifying Rising Action
- Rising Action Examples
- How to Write a Rising Action Section
- Rising Action Conclusion
Rising Action: Definition and Location
Sometimes called the middle (or the muddle on a bad day), the rising action is the largest chunk of any story that follows a conventional plot structure. It's what happens after the introduction and inciting incident but before the climax and falling action.
And if you're not familiar with any of those plot structures, you likely already have an idea of what rising action is. But before we get into the details of writing a rising action section that readers will love, let's get a little more information (including some examples).
Identifying Rising Action
Instead of diving into one of the story structures mentioned above to define rising action, I'm going to stick with a more broad story structure. Here it is:
- Introduction – Introduces the main character and their “ordinary world,” provides exposition.
- Inciting Incident – This plot element pulls the character out of their ordinary world and into the conflict of the story. The inciting incident is responsible for kicking the plot off with external conflict.
- Rising Action – The bulk of the story in which the main character faces challenges, makes choices, develops, meets other characters, and works toward their ultimate goal.
- Climax – The point of utmost tension in the story where the character must face their biggest challenge.
- Falling Action/Resolution – Loose ends are tied up, conflict is settled.
Depending on the story, the rising action section can take up anywhere from 60% to 80% of the plot. That's a lot of words! And the trick is to keep it interesting for the reader. So how do you do that?
To answer that question, let's look at some examples of rising action.
Rising Action Examples
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
The rising action of this plot starts when Frodo and Sam leave the Shire, and it continues until the climax in which Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo, prompting the young hobbit to realize just how important his task is.
If you wanted to look at the trilogy as a whole for another example, you could say that the rising action starts when Frodo and Sam leave the Shire and continues until Frodo finally tosses the ring into Mount Doom.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
The rising action of this story begins just after the narrator decides that he's going to murder the old man because of his staring eye. It continues as the narrator explains how he stalked, killed, and dismembered the old man, hiding the body under his floorboards.
The rising action ends at the story's climax, where the police are in the narrator's home and he is convinced he hears the old man's heart beating under the floorboards, prompting him to confess.
Star Wars: A New Hope
In this Star Wars movie, the rising action begins just after Luke Skywalker returns to his aunt and uncle's farm to find them dead. This thrusts him into the main conflict of the story by not leaving him any other choice but to go with Obi-Wan.
The rising action ends at the climax when Luke and many other Rebels head off to destroy the Death Star before it can destroy the Rebel base
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Like many romance novels, the rising action in Jane Eyre involves the two main characters getting to know each other and developing feelings. It begins after she gets a job working for Mr. Rochester, allowing the two to get to know each other. It ends long after she's found out that Mr. Rochester is already married. She's living with her cousin, about to leave on a trip, when she “hears” Rochester calling to her. She goes to him and finds that his mad wife has set fire to the castle before jumping to her death. Although blinded, Rochester recognizes Jane.
How to Write a Rising Action Section
As you can see, a lot can happen in the rising action section of a story. This is where many writers tend to get bogged down, unsure how to keep things compelling as they head toward the climax. Fortunately, there are some tried-and-true ways to keep your middle from becoming a muddle.
Craft a Clear Goal
One essential factor in creating a great story is ensuring that the main character's goal is clear to the reader. They need to want something, so the reader knows just what they're working for. What is that thing for your character?
Here are some examples of common goals in modern stories:
- Get back to their normal life.
- Live happily ever after.
- Win the love of another person.
- Stop the bad guy.
- Solve the crime/mystery.
- Gain enlightenment.
- Save a loved one in trouble.
- Save innocent lives.
- Get to a certain location (safety).
These are just a few examples. Even if you're writing a short story where a character is trying to buy a carton of milk at the store, that's still a goal. Make sure it's clear and that the character is working toward it as best they can. This has the added benefit of defining what exactly is at stake (life, love, justice, enlightenment, etc.).
Keep Raising the Stakes
Rising action is called such for a reason. The stakes and events should raise the stakes, creating more suspense until the climax. You don't want to make things easy on your protagonist in this section. Instead, every decision they make should be the wrong one. At the very least, these decisions should lead to unexpected consequences and complications.
That said, you don't want to bombard the reader with nonstop action. You'll want to give them time to breathe after each mini-climax as you ratchet the tension up. To do this, you can give the protagonist small wins along the way. But after each small win, you'll want to make clear that the biggest task is yet to come.
Develop Your Character
While an intriguing plot may help to hook readers, they'll only stay along for the ride if you give them characters they can root for. This is why a character arc for your protagonist is so important. And it's also why your main character needs to be actively engaged in the rising action portion of the book.
While it's okay to have the character reacting to things sometimes, you'll want to make sure that they're occasionally being proactive—even if this gets them deeper into trouble.
By having the story challenge your main character(s), you can force them to change. And this change—learning, discovering, and overcoming flaws—is often the most rewarding part of any story.
If you want to learn more about this, check out my article on crafting a character arc.
Have the Antagonist Challenge the Protagonist
If your story has an antagonist driving the conflict (most stories do), then they'll need to be a big part of the rising action. Even if the protagonist and antagonist don't interact directly during this sequence, they should still be butting heads.
It's common for the antagonist to put obstacle after obstacle in front of the protagonist, prompting internal conflict and difficult choices as the story's events unfold.
Usually, the protagonist is a step or two behind, making for a dramatic structure that has the reader flipping the pages to find out what happens at the story's conclusion.
Rising Action Conclusion
While adhering closely to a plot diagram like Freytag's Pyramid can certainly guide your story along, it's not essential for a good story. That said, a compelling rising action section—the bulk of most stories—is essential for a good story.
To avoid slowing the plot down, conflict and character development must drive this part of the story. The goal should be clear and the stakes should raise as the section progresses until the point where it seems like all is lost. The antagonist (no matter the form they take) should be putting roadblocks in the main character's way, forcing the protagonist to make tough decisions, therefore developing as a character. If you can nail the rising action, then you'll certainly have the skills and know-how to write the rest of the story arc!