What is rising action? How to build to an epic climax

What is rising action | Now Novel

What is rising action? It’s the events in a book, story, play or movie that build towards a climax. Rising action consists of the character actions, encounters, and situational changes that propel your story to your denouement or ending.

How do you build your book to a satisfying climax? Try the following suggestions:

First: A fuller rising action definition

We know that rising action is ‘a related series of incidents’ in a plot that build towards the story’s highest point of interest, suspense or tension.

So let’s look at an example:

In Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train (2015), the protagonist Rachel Watson is at a low point when the novel begins. Her husband Tom has left her for another woman, Anna, 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. We see 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 events 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:

  • It shifts the narrative towards a high point of irresolution: Rachel cannot ignore the troubling information she pieces together
  • It 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

This increasing sense of impending drama fuels the story towards further events. So how do you create captivating rising action of your own?

1. Create rising actions from characters’ motivations and desires

Tension in your story may come from myriad sources. You might pit characters against hostile environments, against antagonists or even against allies (if relationships sour). Yet the primary source of tension underlying these oppositions are your characters’ motivations and desires. They contain the seeds of your story’s biggest conflicts.

Let’s take, for example, rising action for a romantic lead.

In a romantic story, the first rising action might emerge from the messy, often unpredictable beginning stages of love interests getting acquainted. This time in a new relationship is fertile ground for misunderstandings, like when Lizzie Bennett thinks D’arcy is an arrogant ‘douchebag’ in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). (Although love isn’t Lizzie’s primary motivation – her and Darcy’s meeting is more the product of society’s desire for young women of Lizzie’s age to marry.)

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 rising action sources in his novel The Notebook) How could separation yield more rising action?

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 would possibly (or likely) encounter. [Get the How to Write Real Characters workbook for extra character creation tips and exercises.]

Margaret Atwood quote on action | Now Novel

2. Raise the stakes

In rising action, the stakes grow as the story progresses. Because his anti-hero protagonist, Rodion, commits a murder in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), the stakes are high from the start. Stakes – what a character has to lose if event X does or doesn’t happen – make scenes and chapters compelling.

For example, if the killer in Dostoyevsky’s story cannot outsmart the story’s detective, the shame of a criminal trial (and worse) await him.

What drives the stakes in a story? 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 Dostoyevsky’s Rodion).

External forces also raise stakes. For example, a character needs to pass their degree well to get funding to study their dream course. The stakes – the conditions for funding – are beyond their complete 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. This is rising action that would add invigorating suspense.

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?’ Then play with these ‘musts’ and ‘can’ts’. Give the ‘musts’ obstacles, frustrating detours. And make your characters sometimes teeter on the brink of big, game-changing ‘can’ts’.

3. Set rising action over shorter and longer periods

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 character goals and backstories). Another way of looking at these two levels – the main story thread and smaller threads – is longer and shorter rising action.

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. Along the way they 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.

The longer rising action emerges from the couple’s ultimate goal – locating their son. It’s the broader goal, fraught with its own unknowns, that drives their traveling.

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. Yet invest each mini-goal with its own rising action. Litter the way with roadblocks, detours and dead ends.

4. Link chains of rising action to heighten suspense

Good rising action is dependent on there being suspense. When we don’t know what happens – and want to know, urgently – we keep going to 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 rising action (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 5-day mini course on creating better pacing and action.

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