Have you ever gotten stranded while writing your second act?
It happens to the best of us, even those of us who like to outline. Sometimes we get past the introduction, we write the scenes we’d envisioned, and then we hit this no-man’s-land in the runup to the climax. This can make a first draft lag hard before events just start happening, rapid-fire, before the climax.
This section of your work is usually the rising action. It’s one of the simplest parts to understand and locate in other pieces of work, but putting it together yourself can be surprisingly difficult.
In this article, we’ll talk about what rising action is, how to write it, and where you can find examples of rising action to reference later. Let’s get started!
This guide to rising action covers:
What is rising action?
In the simplest terms, rising action is the list of plot points which lead to the culmination of your novel, or the climax. It falls after the inciting incident—your characters are introduced, something triggers their adventure, then there’s rising action until the climax.
For a clearer understanding of how rising action works, let’s take a look at Freytag’s Pyramid.
Consider the graph of Freytag’s Pyramid below:
Here, ‘exposition’ covers the introduction, where we meet our characters and their world and get a sense of what kind of conflicts they might have. Then, something happens which sets the plot in motion—this is the inciting incident. Think of the first Hobbit movie when Bilbo leaves the Shire, yelling “I’m going on an adventure!”
After the inciting incident, you’re in act two. Act two is all about pointing the action toward the climax—everything your characters do from here until the climax is your rising action.
So, when all is said and done, rising action should accomplish the following:
- Bring us closer to the climax
Authors commonly get stranded writing the rising action because they aren’t writing with the climax in mind. They get lost writing random encounters or ticking off a list of scenes they wanted to include, but they’re not thinking about how those encounters or scenes will result in the climax of the novel.
You should be able to draw a line from each piece of rising action directly to the climax. Think cause-and-effect. Because of the last scene, what’s happening now? If you can’t think of anything that ought to happen as a direct result of the last scene, it’s probably because that last scene didn’t do anything to change the status quo. What they do next will feel arbitrary, when it should feel essential.
- Challenge the characters
You want your story to earn its climax because you want your characters to really earn their rewards. Game of Thrones wouldn’t be half as fun to watch if Cersei shrugged and decided to give the throne to someone else—she’s holding on to it with all she’s got, so everyone has to fight for it with all they’ve got, and that’s where interesting things start happening.
- Raise the stakes
Rising action should raise the stakes. Again, think about earning that climax. You want the most (believably) dramatic, satisfying win for your protagonist, which means you’ve got to up the stakes to make it more and more impressive when they do win. Don’t be afraid to make your characters experience real discomfort, loss, and significant setbacks along their journey. This is how they grow!
- Explore the world
Rising action is where you’ll be exploring your characters, pushing them to their limits, and exploring the world you’ve put them in. Show us some cool stuff! If we’re going on a journey far from home, make the landscape as much of a villain as the evil warlock. Give us interesting secondary characters to add flavor to the world and to our hero’s journey.
How to write rising action
How do you write rising action without falling into no-man’s-land? Here are a few pointers:
Know where your story’s headed
Don’t worry—I won’t force you to outline if you don’t want to. Outlines aren’t for everyone, and that’s completely fine. However, understanding where your story is headed (specifically having an idea of the climax) will help you out. If you know where you’re going, you’ll have a better time getting there, and you’ll be able to factor that end goal in when you’re thinking about what your characters should do.
Understand your character arcs
This is in the same vein as the last point, but have an idea for where you want your characters to end up. Even if you don’t have an idea for what exactly the climax will be, you could at least keep in mind what you want the ending to look like. Do your characters win the war, for example, or lose it? Does one of them become king? Do they get together in the end, or break up?
Having this in mind will also help you know what to set up in the rising action.
Challenge the status quo
If your second act is full of random scenes with little impact on the story itself, it might feel a little like nothing happens until the climax. To make your story interesting, you have to introduce changes to the status quo. Break and re-break your characters so they grow, change, and work towards that climax or endgame idea.
Raise the stakes
How are you going to challenge the status quo? You’re going to raise the stakes higher and higher and higher.
Find new ways to make the journey difficult for your character. To use Game of Thrones as an example again (and spoilers for season three, by the way): Jaime Lannister gets captured by the Starks, and Brienne of Tarth is tasked with taking him back to King’s Landing. The goal of the writer is to make this entire ordeal as difficult as possible. So, how do we do that?
Brienne and Jaime hate each other. Both of them get captured, and just when we’ve gotten used to that, Jaime’s hand gets cut off. It’s one disaster after another after another, and no character or appendage is sacred in making the journey brutal.
The reason why Jaime’s character arc is so satisfying to watch is he loses everything—-his sword hand, and by extension his ability to fight, is vital to his core identity. We watch him slog in the mud and drink horse pee and struggle endlessly until, finally, he starts becoming a better person. It’s satisfying because it’s hard-won, and it’s a great lesson in rising action for us all.
Don’t forget about payoff
Rising action is basically setting up the payoff we’ll see in the climax and falling action. You’ll have smaller instances of setup and payoff sprinkled in throughout your novel, but these pieces are the big character-arc things. While you’re writing the rising action, think about how it’s going to pay off in a later scene. Maybe you have a scene where one character reveals a history of substance abuse—in a later scene, if there’s a new character struggling with that issue, we’ll expect that character to have some kind of connection to them.
Keep track of where your characters are and what’s happening, and make sure you’re paying off what you set up. If we have a character who’s a sharpshooter, for example, and this is showcased a hundred times throughout the book, we’ll be confused and disappointed if they could use this skill but don’t, for no reason, in the climax.
Examples of rising action
Check out these examples of rising action to get a better sense of what this looks like in practice:
In Shrek, the rising action is everything that occurs after the magical fairytale creatures crash Shrek’s swamp. His journey to question Lord Farquaad, his encounter at the tournament, and the journey to and from Fiona’s castle all fall under rising action. Everything is geared toward the climax, where Shrek stops Fiona from marrying Farquaad because he’s fallen in love with her.
In other words, the rising action is where Shrek learns to love someone else, and in turn, love himself. This takes him into the climax, where he has to act to save Fiona (and himself) from an unhappy life apart.
In Twilight, the plot can be a little hard to track—-a lot of romances rely more heavily on character-driven storytelling as opposed to plot-driven storytelling, and this is a great example. Our rising action here is really everything that happens after Bella learns that Edward is a vampire. His being a vampire is the thing that kicks the plot into gear, and after that, the stakes are raised until we get to the climax, where Bella is attacked.
The rising action in Twilight includes the baseball sequence. The Cullens take Bella to the baseball field, and Victoria and her friends crash the party. This is where we get the first real hint that Bella is in serious danger here—-the stakes are raised. It’s not just Edward who might snap, but we have to worry about these other vampires, too.
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games’s inciting incident is when Katniss decides to volunteer as tribute in place of her sister, Primrose, for the Hunger Games. After this, we launch into the rising action. She’s taken to the Capitol, where she has to learn how to play diplomacy games, and finally she’s taken into the arena to actually play the Games.
Everything between her decision to volunteer and her final showdown with Kato at the Cornucopia is the rising action. Everything she does takes her to the moment she decides to use nightlock with Peeta and dupe the Games into letting them both leave the arena alive. The lessons she learns and the bond she shares with Peeta all lead up to this, as well—if she hadn’t learned to play the Games and if she hadn’t grown closer to Peeta, she may have chosen a different route.
Beauty and the Beast
In Beauty and the Beast, the inciting incident occurs when Maurice gets lost in the woods and captured by the Beast. Everything after this is rising action, up until the moment Belle breaks the curse in the climax.
Belle refusing Gaston’s proposal is rising action, which is paid off when he fights the Beast and loses. Her decision to become the Beast’s prisoner so that her father can be released launches her love story with the Beast, and much of the rising action is the Beast learning to be less of an awful person around Belle.