The best stories capture our imagination from the very start until we turn the last page. Readers get lost in the story, eager to know what happens next.
How do writers do that? One of the ways that writers are able to keep readers’ interest is by using rising action.
What Is Rising Action?
Rising action is one of the most important elements of a story. Once you have revealed the main conflict, it’s time to build up the tension. In order for readers to cheer your protagonist on to victory, they must know what they’re up against, and all the things they need to do to overcome those challenges.
Rising action occurs as every step supposedly brings the protagonist closer to their goal, but instead, problem after problem arises to challenge them.
What Is a Rising Action in a Plot Diagram?
Rising action is indicated in the simple plot diagram below:
The beginning of the story or novel will include the exposition. Then, the rising action begins the middle part of the story, building up to the climax. The resolution makes up much of the end.
What Are Examples of Rising Action?
You can find rising action in many familiar stories. Here are some examples:
Example #1. Finding Nemo (film)
The movie starts off with Nemo excited to go to school, accompanied by his overly protective father. While in school, his friends challenge him to disobey his father by going to prohibited territory. Nemo’s dad shows up at the last minute, and an argument pushes Nemo to rebel and do what he’s not allowed to do: swim out into deeper waters, where he ends up captured by a fisherman.
Nemo’s dad then tries to find Nemo, but he faces challenge after challenge, including meeting Dory who seems to be able to tell him where Nemo went but turns out to be a forgetful lady that instead hinders his journey; being caught in a fishing net with a school of fish; coming face-to-face with a shark; encountering fish-killing jellyfish; and many more.
Example #2. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Gone with the Wind opens with Scarlett O’Hara enjoying life as a teenaged girl with plenty of men vying for her attention. But her heart only wants Ashley Wilkes, who is engaged to be married to his cousin Melanie. Scarlett contrives to win back Ashley by a complicated scheme of flirting with every boy at a barbecue at the Wilkes residence.
Scarlett goes on with her plan, but it backfires when Ashley refuses to go back on his engagement to Melanie. This propels Scarlett to hatch a plan to get revenge on him by marrying Charlie, Melanie’s brother whom she doesn’t love.
But the Civil War suddenly starts, and Charlie leaves after only a week of marriage and dies, leaving Scarlett with a baby boy she doesn’t love.
By some twist of fate, Scarlett ends up living with Melanie in Atlanta, but the stakes go up with Melanie’s life-threatening pregnancy, right up to the time when the Yankees are coming into Atlanta.
She gets help from Rhett Butler, a dashing man with whom she’s been having a love-hate relationship over the years, to take them away from Atlanta, but just when she’s feeling secure with his protection, he suddenly ditches them in the middle of nowhere.
Again and again, her plans get thwarted and she’s thrown into a bigger problem, all the way until the end of the book.
Example #3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Gandalf the wizard explains to Frodo the implications of the One Ring to rule all the other rings and Frodo decides to leave the Shire to bring the ring to its fated destruction at Mordor.
As Frodo leaves with three friends, dark riders pursue him and each time they feel safe in one place, something happens that forces them to move on.
Example #4. Call of the Wild by Jack London
Call of the Wild opens with beloved pet Buck being kidnapped and sold to be part of the dog teams used in the Klondike missions. He is brought to a group where pack leaders are already in place and bullying is a mainstay, which means he has to fight for his survival.
All of Buck’s experiences push him farther away from his civilized habits and deeper into the wild spirit inside his heart: first he gets into a fight with larger dogs, then he resorts to stealing food like the other dogs did.
These build up until the climax, where he takes revenge on the Indians who killed his human friend.
How Do You Create Rising Action?
From the examples above, you can see that the writers did not have qualms about throwing their characters into peril after peril.
In rising action, you as the writer will rain down a barrage of problems on your protagonist. The more insurmountable the problems he faces, the more satisfying the climax and resolution will be.
So how do you create rising action? Here are some idea triggers to get you going.
1. Know your character’s desires and motivations.
First, you’ll need to give your character motivations and goals that will span the whole length of the story. After all, it will be these motivations and goals that connect your reader to your main character.
Once you have your readers’ sympathy, then, think about things that may hinder their achievement of those goals. Because your readers are already rooting for your protagonist, they will be just as bummed when the protagonist runs into roadblocks.
While it is possible to throw just about any problem at your protagonist, the ones that will have the highest stakes will be those that affect their motivations and desires.
2. Whatever can go wrong must go wrong as soon as possible.
Think about all the ways that things can go wrong in every scene.
Why is this important?
Without a challenge, your readers can easily put down your book. But when they see the protagonist thwarted at every turn, you will hold them in suspense as to when they will finally overcome the challenges.
Don’t hold back the punches: get all the balls rolling as soon as possible. You don’t want to make things easy for your protagonist, as it’s the seemingly impossible odds that they finally surmount which adds to the thrill of reading a story.
3. Mix short-term with long-term rising action.
Having all the rising action occurring on the short term or all of them on the long term makes for a monotonous read, no matter how exciting the events are. Instead, think about how conflicts arise in real life: they normally come in different timeframes.
A good combination of both long-term and short-term tension creates a good pace for your writing. The long-term rising action may refer to something that stretches throughout the length of the story, while short-term tensions may come up one after another trying to throw your character off the path.
4. Don’t pity your protagonist.
As a writer, you might be tempted to feel pity for your protagonist and want to keep him in safety. Don’t! A safe character makes for a boring story.
The more danger you introduce, the more exciting your story will be, and the more satisfying will the ending be for your reader.
5. Find your protagonist’s worst fear.
This is the best question to ask: what is the thing that your protagonist fears or hates the most? Chances are, many of your readers can relate to some of these, and it also makes your character more three-dimensional.
Once you know what it is, it’s your job to find a way to introduce that, in a logical way, into the story. We talk more about the logical way of introducing concepts in the next step.
6. Stay within the bounds of logic.
While you may be excited to throw trouble after trouble at your protagonist, make sure you introduce them in a logical way.
One way to do this is by dropping hints or clues (also known as foreshadowing) before the event actually happens.
For example, if you intend to use your character’s terror of dogs to hinder her at one point in the story, you must have already mentioned that fear prior to the scene.
Plotting Your Story
Remember that in any story you write, rising action is crucial if you want to keep your readers engaged.
By understanding the role of rising action in your story structure, you’ll be better able to develop your plot and characters in a meaningful and impactful way.
Do you have a favorite example of rising action in a book or film? Share it with us in the comments below!