What is rising action? Building to an epic climax

What is rising action? Building to an epic climax

How do you build a story towards climactic events? Rising action is a key ingredient of storytelling and dramatic structure. Read a definition, followed by tips and examples to make your story gripping:

Table of Contents

Rising action: Definition and example
1. Create rising action from characters’ motivations
2. Raise the stakes
3. Vary rising action’s duration and intensity
4. Link chains of rising action to build suspense

Rising action: Definition and example

Rising action is a literary term referring to narrative events that grow in suspense, tension an stakes towards the highest point of interest, suspense or tension.

An example of rising action:

In Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train (2015), the protagonist Rachel Watson spies on her husband Tom who has left her for another woman, fueling her alcoholism.

As the story unfolds, we see Rachel harassing Tom and Anna. The tension Hawkins creates through Rachel’s actions brings in rising action. Individual characters reach breaking point due to Rachel’s behaviour.

Through her obsessive spying on Tom and Anna, Rachel starts uncovering unnerving details about the lives of another couple living nearby. She’s slowly entangled in additional lives and lies.

These complications provide rising action as Rachel must decide what to do with unsettling information she gains through spying.

What we can gather about rising action from this example:

  • Rising action moves the narrative towards a point of higher suspense and more urgently required action: Rachel cannot ignore the troubling information she pieces together
  • Rising action adds complications and stakes: Because of Rachel’s addiction and questionable boundaries, the reader might wonder how much of Rachel’s experience is paranoia and how much is cause for legitimate concern. Situations become more dangerous, unpredictable; potentially explosive

So how do you create captivating rising action of your own?

1. Create rising action from characters’ motivations

Rising action begins with what characters want.

Tension in your story may come from myriad sources. You might pit characters against hostile environments, villains or even former allies (if relationships sour).

The primary source of tension underlying conflict is your characters’ motivations. What do they desire? What stands in their way? This contains the seeds of your story’s biggest conflicts.

Example of romantic rising action: Pride and Prejudice

In a romantic story, the first rising action might emerge from the messy, often unpredictable beginning stages of love.

This time in a new relationship is fertile ground for misunderstandings.

Even the classics (and not only modern thrillers) have rising action.

When Lizzie Bennett thinks D’arcy is an arrogant ‘douchebag’ in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), for example. She is offended when he refers to her in unflattering terms at a dance. Every repeat encounter after this event is rising action in the sense that there is suspense for the reader about how further interactions will turn out, given their conflict-sowing start.

What scenarios help to build rising action?

In a romantic character arc, you could build rising action out of motives and desires linked to, for example:

  • Competition: A character wants the love interest all to themselves – yet a third person (the classic ‘love triangle’ conflict) enters the scene, sparking conflict
  • Separation: Your characters already want to be together. Yet what if they’re driven apart by forces  – interfering family; war – beyond their control? (Nicholas Sparks uses both of these as sources of escalating action in his novel The Notebook).

Writing exercises for planning rising events

Write down a character’s core desires and motives at the start of your story.

Now imagine possible complications and tensions a person with these goals could encounter. [Get the How to Write Real Characters workbook for extra character creation tips and exercises.]

Action and change quote - Margaret Atwood | Now Novel

2. Raise the stakes

In real page-turners, the stakes grow as the story progresses.

Stakes are the price of action, or the potential price of action.

Because his anti-hero protagonist, Rodion, commits a murder in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), the stakes are high from the start.

For example, if Rodion cannot outsmart the story’s detective, the shame of a criminal trial (and worse) await him. His first brush with the local detective thus provides tense rising action, as the uncovering of his crime draws closer.

How do you find the stakes in your story?

Look to internal conflict, for one. A character who has committed a crime, for example, might battle with their own conscience urging them to confess (this is true for Rodion). You could show their going back and forth between deciding to confess and not. This would create rising action based on internal conflict. 

External forces also raise stakes. For example, perhaps a character needs to pass their degree with distinction to get funding to study their dream course.

The stakes – the conditions for funding – are a source of tension, of narrative suspense, beyond their control.

Once your reader knows what’s at stake, you can turn even simple actions into rising action.

For example, the example student who must get great grades is driving to the exam venue. But there’s an accident blocking the usual route. Time’s running out. They’re so close to the venue they make a snap decision to just leave their car in the middle of the road and sprint to the exam hall.

The more crucial the stakes, the more urgency in your characters’ choices and actions. Thinking up great stakes comes down to thinking in terms of cause and effect. Ask:

  • For my character to reach X desirable outcome, what absolutely must happen?
  • What absolutely can’t happen?

Play with these ‘musts’ and ‘can’ts’. Give the ‘musts’ obstacles, frustrating detours. Make your characters sometimes teeter on the brink of big, game-changing ‘can’t’ catastrophes.

What is rising action? Infographic | Now Novel

3. Vary rising action’s duration and intensity

Rising action may grown at multiple levels. It may occur within a scene, yet also build over your story as a whole.

We often speak of story arcs in terms of ‘plot’ (the main events of the story) and ‘subplot’ (the smaller, related arcs that expand on central themes and characters’ goals and backstories). Another way of looking at these two levels – the main story thread and smaller threads – is longer and shorter rising action.

Example of different durations: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

An example: In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (2015), an elderly couple in pre-Christian Britain sets off on a journey to meet their long-lost son. The couple can barely remember him but have a nagging sense they’re expected.

The broad story arc’s rising action concerns whether or not they’ll find their son.

Along the way, the husband and wife encounter uncertain and frightening situations, such as when they stop off in a Saxon village where they do not speak the local language. The locals are agitated and mistrustful because nearby ogres have allegedly severely injured a local boy.

Longer rising action grows from the couple’s ultimate goal – locating their son. The broader goal is fraught with its own unknowns.

Shorter rising action – such as the tension in the village they stop in – creates a pervasive sense of unease.

Ishiguro creates a sense through these two scales of action – the ongoing journey and the eventful stops – of rise and fall. The story ebbs and flows; breathes – and we breathe (or hold our breath) with it.

Give your characters end goals that will be reached over the entire duration of your book. For example, a detective in a murder mystery’s natural end-goal is to solve the crime.

Invest each mini-goal with its own rising chain of events, too. 

Litter the way with roadblocks, detours and dead ends.

Good rising action is dependent on suspense.

When we don’t know what happens – and want to know, urgently – we keep going until the climax.

It’s like the children’s song, ‘There was an old woman who swallowed a fly’. It starts:

‘There was an old woman who swallowed a fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly: perhaps she’ll die.’

From this morbid beginning, it continues:

‘There was an old woman who swallowed a spider
that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die.’

The song continues with various things that were swallowed to solve the previous problem. The pleasure of the song is that the initial suspenseful scenario (the old woman’s fly-swallowing) has a delayed outcome.

The actions delaying the main outcome are suspenseful in their own right, too.

Need help creating compelling action? Take our free 5-day mini course on creating better pacing and action.

2 Replies to “What is rising action? Building to an epic climax”

  1. This is extremely helpful. I had a sense of rising action in the inter-related story arcs of my two main characters, but this helps me build the rising action more deliberately. I love the suggestion for blending shorter periods of rising action (i.e., confronting unexpected challenges) with the characters’ main goals. And the advice, “Litter [their] with roadblocks, detours and dead ends,” is clear and easy to remember.

    1. I’m glad to hear it was helpful, Jim. I’m glad you’ve found actionable ideas on rising action, too. All the best for finishing your current project!

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