Rising Action: Definition and Examples

23 Nov 2022 The Writing Craft

To make your reader feel they can’t put down your novel, make sure everything your main character does to get out of his terrible trouble makes it only progressively worse, until everything appears hopeless.

Such obstacles and failures making things worse — with the emphasis on progressively — is the very definition of Rising Action.

Without it, you risk losing your reader after just a couple chapters.

This article will serve as your handy guide to Rising Action — what it is, how it fits into your story, and examples of the best.

What is Rising Action?

It’s what builds tension, raises the stakes, and injects conflict — the engine of fiction.

Of course, Rising Action differs by genre. While the Rising Action of a murder mystery may involve the detective searching for clues, a thriller might evolve into car chases and fight scenes.

In a romance, it might consist of love interests pursuing each other or running into misunderstandings.

How Rising Action fits your story structure

Your story structure is the framework you build your story around. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll often see me talk about mega-bestselling novelist Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure.

His is the structure that changed the path of my career.

It helped catapult me from a mid-list genre novelist to a 21-Time New York Times bestselling author.

I’m a Pantser, not an Outliner, but even I need a basic structure to know where I’m going. So I love that Koontz’s structure is so simple. It consists only of these four steps:

  1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible. Naturally, that trouble depends on your genre, but in short, it’s the worst possible dilemma you can think of for your main character. For a thriller, it might be a life-or-death situation. In a romance novel, it could mean a young woman must decide between two equally qualified suitors—and then her choice is revealed as a disaster.

And again, this trouble must bear stakes dire enough to carry the entire novel.

One caveat: whatever the dilemma, it will mean little to readers if they don’t first find reasons to care about your character.

That means deftly injecting details about your character being a lover or a spouse or a parent or a sibling—someone who matters to others.

  1. Everything your character does to get out of the terrible trouble makes things only worse.  Avoid the temptation to make life easy for your protagonist. Every complication must proceed logically from the one before it, and things must grow progressively worse until…
  2. The situation appears hopeless. Novelist Angela Hunt refers to this as The Bleakest Moment. Even you should wonder how you’re ever going to write your character out of this.

The predicament becomes so hopeless that your lead must use every new muscle and technique gained from facing that litany of obstacles to become heroic and prove that things only appeared beyond repair.

  1. Finally, your hero succeeds (or fails*) against all odds. Reward readers with the payoff they expected by keeping your hero on stage, taking action.

*Occasionally, sad endings resonate with readers.

Once your main character is introduced, and enough is revealed to invest your reader into them, your setting and time are established, and the reader learns your protagonist’s situation, your inciting incident should plunge your character into terrible trouble.

When you reach the climax, everything your character has done to solve the conflict has failed, and things appear hopeless.

That constitutes the Rising Action that should carry you through what I refer to as the Marathon of the Middle, where too many novels fizzle out. The problem? A lack of Rising Action and conflict.

For fiction, most agents and publishers require a complete manuscript because you must prove not only that you have a great idea and beginning, but also that you can finish.

To accomplish that, you need enough setups and payoffs to bear all that Rising Action and carry you all the way to the end.

Effective Rising Action should build enough conflict to keep your readers with you until the climax. Several ways to accomplish this:

Conflict creates tension, while Roadblocks create seemingly insurmountable problems for your character. Determine what your protagonist wants most, and put something or someone in the way.

If your CEO is late to an important meeting, put her in traffic. If your detective is close to finding the killer, have the key witness murdered.

Tension and suspense keep readers turning the pages.

Examples of Rising Action

Lord of the Flies

British schoolboys stranded on a deserted island endure a power struggle leading to an explosive climax.

The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen volunteers to replace her sister in survival game battles of life and death

Roadblocks threaten Katniss and keep us turning the pages until she succeeds.

Little Red Riding Hood

From Red’s first encounter with the Big Bad Wolf to the iconic “What big teeth you have, Grandmother!” line, the heightened tension keeps us rooting for her.

Can You Identify the Rising Action in Your Favorite Stories?

Revisit your favorite books and movies and try to determine the Rising Action that kept you engaged.

And take advantage of my free writing assessment quiz to receive customized feedback that plays to your strengths and helps you make your novel the best it can be.