Do you want to know the secret to masterful, climatic storytelling that keeps readers turning the pages until the very last sentence?
What Is Rising Action?
The rising action is the second of six essential plot elements, which comes right after the opening of a story, otherwise known as the exposition. It is usually made up of a series of events that lay down breadcrumbs, ask questions, and set roadblocks and conflicts that must be overcome. It also creates tension and suspense, which leads right up to the third essential element, the dramatic climax. For example, in a suspense or crime novel, the rising action could be the protagonist going on a journey to solve a mystery or crime. But in a romance novel, the rising action could be the characters’ journey to falling in love.
Some writers believe that the success of a story hinges on the effectiveness of the climax, but I vehemently disagree. Without a strong rising action (essentially, the fuel that powers your narrative, keeps it moving and prevents it from stalling) the climax will inevitably fall short or seem unbelievable.
In fact, I would go as far as saying that the rising action is your story.
Let’s delve further into the components of the rising action and how it fits into a traditional story structure.
How Rising Action Ties Into Your Story Structure
The rising action is one of six, essential plot ingredients that make up the basic story structure.
Let’s remind ourselves what they are.
Exposition. This is the beginning of the story (the opening chapters). It sets the scene and introduces the main character(s) and their dilemma. You will also get a feel of the underlying themes of the story here. For example, in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games you are introduced to Panem, a North American country consisting of the wealthy Capitol and 13 districts in varying states of poverty. You also find out that every year, children from these districts are selected via a lottery to participate in a televised death match called The Hunger Games.
Inciting Incident. An inciting incident is an event that launches the main premise of the story. It typically occurs within the first one-third of a book. For example, in The Hunger Games, the inciting incident is the main character, Katniss Everdeen, volunteering as tribute and taking her younger sister Prim’s place.
Rising Action. As mentioned above, the rising action is the ‘meat’ of the story. It’s where most of the action occurs. To continue with our example, the rising action in The Hunger Games kicks off immediately after Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute. The reader is taken on Katniss’ journey in the games, the challenges she faces, the alliances she makes and her inner and external conflicts that she must overcome to survive.
Dilemma/Crisis. The dilemma/crisis is often confused with the climax of the story, particularly as they come hand in hand (or one after the other). Essentially, the dilemma is the do-or-die moment of the story. A final, life-changing decision for the protagonist. The Hunger Games presents Katniss Everdeen with a continuous moral dilemma, which is tested to the max when her competitor Peeta announces a “fake” story of his burgeoning love for her. But as the two grow closer, this moral dilemma is weighted with emotion as Katniss learns that the rules are changed so that there can only be one winner. Will she sacrifice herself to let Peeta live, or will she kill the person she cares for to be able to return home to her sister?
Climax. This is when the building tension reaches a breaking point, and the conflict is resolved once and for all. For example, in The Hunger Games, this is where Katniss and Peeta threaten suicide rather than fight one another to the bitter end. This is quickly followed by the falling action.
Denouement. This is otherwise known as the resolution, and pretty much does what it says on the tin. It ties up loose ends, answers unanswered questions and shows the main character in their new normal, inevitably changed by the events of the story.
Another way of plotting your story is by following Freytag’s Pyramid, which is the brainchild of nineteenth century playwright and novelist, Gustav Freytag who realised that all his favourite playwrights (including non-other than Shakespeare himself) followed the same distinct, five act arc, which could be plotted into a pyramid structure.
This structure is by no means perfect and is in some ways at odds with how modern-day writers plan their stories. But if you are a visual person, it’s a great starting point on which to build and develop your story because it enables you to see, at a glance, the value of rising action in driving your protagonist towards the top of the pyramid (aka the climax). Its structure differs slightly from the one I described above, but it touches on the same points.
Examples Of Rising Action
Now that we have grasped what the rising action is and how it fits into a narrative, let’s take a look at some well-known novels to see the different ways rising action has been used.
Example One: External And Internal Conflicts
Conflict is one of the most crucial ingredients of rising action. It is what will make your story unputdownable.
No matter what genre your story sits in – be it crime, romance, science fiction, literary or fantasy – I guarantee you that your protagonist(s) will encounter some kind of conflict. Because let’s face it, no one wants to read eighty to one hundred thousand words about a main character leading a dull, monotonous life. Heading to the office. Doing their housework. Dropping the kids off at school. Readers want to witness the main character going through real-life trials and tribulations that they can relate to. Getting stood up on a date. Witnessing a murder. Facing the death of a loved one.
And this thirst can only be quenched by internal and/or external conflict.
No Honour by Awais Khan is a stunning novel about sixteen-year-old Abida who falls pregnant and is forced to leave her rural Pakistani village for the dangerous streets of Lahore. And Jamil, her father, who risks his own life to find her.
From this brief synopsis, we can immediately identify the inciting incident as Abida’s pregnancy and escape from the village. The key rising actions – being Abida and Jamil’s intertwining external and internal conflicts- stem directly from this event and drive the dual narratives forward. Abida faces the external conflicts of an abusive husband and keeping her newborn baby safe, while internally being plagued by her youthful innocence. Jamil is weighed down by guilt and fear for his daughter, while navigating the inevitable obstacles of finding her in a city with over eleven million people.
Now, consider your own story and write down what external and internal conflicts your protagonists might face on their journey.
Example Two: Roadblocks
Roadblocks are concrete crises or obstacles that prevent the protagonist(s) from reaching their goal. Obvious examples can be found in the crime/thriller genre with main characters being injured or kidnapped. But you can find roadblocks in other genres too.
For example, in Beth O’Leary’s uplit debut The Flatshare the protagonists, Tiffy Moore and Leon Tworney, save on rent by sharing the same bed in the same flat but never meet due to their working shifts and routines.
As they learn how to communicate via notes left for one another, they soon realise they are falling for one another. The more they try to meet, the more obstacles stand in their way, until the reader is on the edge of their seat hoping the unlucky couple will get their happily ever after.
Now look at your own novel. What roadblocks might your characters face as they strive towards their end goal/purpose?
Example Three: Tension And Suspense
I can think of no better author to demonstrate the use of rising action to create tension and suspense than Agatha Christie, and her world best-selling mystery novel, And Then There Were None.
And Then They Were None follows ten strangers who are lured to a remote British island under false pretences. The inciting incident of the novel occurs at the outset as the guests realise that their host is not there to greet them. Then when they sit down to dinner, a mysterious recording is played to the guests on a gramophone accusing each of them of murder. This dramatic incident triggers a series of rising actions, as one by one each guest is killed, and the remaining guests must find the murderer before death catches up with them too. Rising actions are utilised to perfection in this novel to create an intense, claustrophobic environment with a ‘ticking time bomb’ narrative.
But remember, you don’t have to keep killing people off to create tension and intrigue. For example, rising actions can be the revelation of secrets and lies on a family holiday or children trying to sabotage their recently widowed mother’s new relationship.
Can you think of other ways you might use rising action events to keep suspense and tension alive?
To create a strong rising action for your story arc, think carefully about where your main character is now (both physically and psychologically) and where you want them to end up. Reflect on who they are as people (their inner conflicts), the actions they are likely to take, and any challenges (external conflicts) they are likely to face along the way.
Some Final Thoughts On Rising Action
I hope I’ve managed to convince you that there is no magic involved in compelling and climatic storytelling, but rather that it is all lies in a well-developed plot.
Once you have the concept for a story, instead of diving right in, take a step back and flesh out how the events might play out, bearing in mind that you need a lot of plot points to keep your reader engaged for the full length of a novel.
Think of your rising actions as the building blocks of the story, a chance for you to develop and refine your plot, flesh out your characters and really get under their skin to establish their strengths and weaknesses. Raise the stakes with dramatic turning points. Add subplots to throw the reader off the scent. And create tension and intrigue that propels your narrative towards the climax.
Remember, this is your story and these are your characters. This is your chance to push them to their limits.
And most importantly, have fun with it. Because when an author enjoys putting their characters through hell, the readers will enjoy cheering them on and watching them win!
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