What is Rising Action in Storytelling? [& How to Write It!]

rising action

What is rising action in a story?

Rising action, also known as ‘the complication,’ refers to the events that take place in a story between the inciting incident and the climax. This part of a story is often where the protagonist faces challenges and must overcome obstacles to achieve their goal.

Click to go directly to my favorite rising action examples!

Are you wondering what exactly is the rising action of a story?

You may have heard of some of the literary terms of story structure.

While many people naturally understand the literary terms of the inciting incident, climax, or the resolution of the story, the “part in the middle,” or the rising action of the story, is less well-understood!

A lot of writers struggle with this particular section of a well-organized story. It can be tricky to identify the plot points that effectively heighten the stakes in your narrative while keeping it engaging and authentic.

I’ve struggled with this myself. When I wrote my short story, One Time Hero, one of my challenges was finding the balance between going deeper into the central character and his inner demons and raising the stakes and level of excitement – while also not changing the tone or pace I had already established.

Let’s explore some practical tips for achieving this balance!

rising action

In this article, we will discuss the rising action definition and give rising action examples from well-known movies and stories.

If you prefer to watch or listen instead of read, please watch my YouTube video on the topic of Rising Action!

What Is Rising Action in a Story?

Rising action in literature is one of the essential elements of a narrative.

It’s the part of the story where the stakes for your characters keep rising, and the reader (in the case of a book) or viewer (in the case of a film) can’t wait to find out what happens next!

The rising action can be thought of as the part of the story “in the middle”, after the introduction of the main characters and setting and before the climax occurs in the story. This part of the story is often where the main character faces challenges and must overcome obstacles to achieve their goal.

To have a successful rising action section, it is essential that the challenges faced by the protagonist are increasingly complex and that they raise the stakes of the story as the plot builds.

These challenges should be directly related to the inciting incident and the story’s central conflict and should move the plot forward.

You want your reader to be interested enough in your story’s characters and the plot to continue reading and become fully invested. A well-written rising action will keep the reader excited to see what happens next.

exciting story book

Without rising action, short stories and novels would be pretty dull. The conflict and suspense that comes with rising action keep readers hooked and wanting more.

Think of it this way: if the beginning of a story is like planting a seed, then rising action is when that seed starts to grow and take shape. It’s the part of the story where things start to get exciting, and all the pieces start to come together.

How to Write Rising Action

infographic showing how to write rising action in a story

Let’s look at how to write the rising action section of your story!

  • Establish the Stakes: Understand what’s at risk for your protagonist. What do they stand to gain or lose?
  • Introduce Obstacles: Start throwing challenges at your characters. These can be external (like a villain or a storm) or internal (like fear or doubt).
  • Develop Subplots: Introduce secondary storylines that either support or contrast the main plot.
  • Heighten Tension: Increase the difficulty or complexity with each event or challenge. Make sure the stakes get higher as the story progresses.
  • Show Character Growth: As challenges arise, show how they affect your characters. Maybe they learn new skills, or perhaps they reveal vulnerabilities.
  • Foreshadow the Climax: Drop subtle hints about the upcoming climax. This keeps readers intrigued and wanting to know more.
  • Vary the Pace: Mix up fast-paced, intense scenes with slower, more reflective moments. This gives readers a chance to catch their breath.
  • Engage the Senses: Make the setting and events vivid. Describe sounds, smells, and sights to make readers feel like they’re right there with the characters.
  • Strengthen Relationships: Show how the rising action affects relationships between characters. Are friendships tested? Do enemies become allies?

Remember, the rising action is all about building momentum. Each step should pull the reader further into the story, making them eager to see what happens next!

RELATED: Check out my thoughts on why low stakes are killing modern Hollywood!

The Role of Rising Action in Story Structure

Rising action is a key element of story structure. It’s the part of the story where things start to get interesting, and the story conflict begins to take shape.

The rising action typically leads up to the point at which the climax occurs, which is the highest point of tension in the story. After the climax, things usually start to wrap up in the falling action and resolution.

Shown graphically, the overall story structure of a three-act story structure narrative looks something like this:

three act story structure

The story begins with the Introduction or Exposition, where we see our story is relatively flat. The world our characters live in feels “normal”.

Through conflict, we introduce change in the characters, location, or story, leading to higher and higher stakes for our characters. This is the Rising Action of the story. Typically, this section of the story is the longest part of the story.

The Rising Action culminates at the Turning Point, where the climax occurs, at which point the conflict is resolved.

Then it becomes a Falling Action, where the story starts to wind down, and consequences come into play.

And finally, it ends in a Resolution, where we see the new “normal,” and our characters get closure.

Freytag’s Rising Action

An early representation of this is called Freytag’s Pyramid, developed in the mid-19th century by German author Gustav Freytag.

The Freytag Pyramid has five main parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.

Freytag's Pyramid
This is the plot diagram that Freytag himself created. It is from the original translation of the 1863 version of Freytag’s Technique of the Drama.

This is the plot diagram that Freytag himself created. It is from the original translation of the 1863 version of Freytag’s Technique of the Drama.

The Exposition is the introduction of the story—the characters, setting, and fundamental conflict are established here.

Rising Action occurs when the story starts to pick up speed, and tension begins to build.

Climax is the point of most significant tension in the story—this is typically when the protagonist confronts the antagonist.

Falling Action is when things start to wrap up—the tension starts to dissipate, and we see events leading to the resolution of the conflict.

Dénouement is the resolution of the story—all loose ends are tied up, and we see the aftermath of the events that took place.

There are some notable differences here between this structure and the classical three-act structure, but for now, it’s enough to note that they both approach plot development in this overall triangular form.

The Importance of Rising Action in a Story

All stories, even those with unconventional narrative structures, use rising action in the plot.

Rising action in a story occurs when the main plot points help to raise the stakes and tension for the characters through a series of internal and external obstacles throughout their journey.

The “rising action” of a story is typically characterized by several more minor crises or conflicts that need to be resolved before the story can reach its climax.

These mini-conflicts help to increase tension and keep readers engaged as they wait to see how things will play out.

In a sense, rising action is like a series of dominoes falling—once one conflict is resolved, another pops up in its place.

Each crisis or conflict brings the characters one step closer to the turning point where the story’s climax occurs.

Every good story requires the characters to overcome challenges (either external to themselves or internal) that cause the tension to rise in some way.

As noted in this article from The Write Practice, typically, these challenges or events lead the characters to a point where they need to make difficult decisions and take decisive action, culminating in the climax of the story, where the rising action is at its highest.

Is Rising Action the Same as Conflict?

Rising action is related to conflict, but they are not the same.

Change is what drives conflict in a story because it is this change that upsets the character’s “normal world,” and they spend the rest of the story seeking a return to normal.

The rising action is directly correlated to the amount of internal and external change the character or their world undergoes.

Hence, conflict drives rising action.

Internal vs. External Conflict

Rising action events may include both internal conflict and external conflict.

Internal conflict refers to struggles that happen within a character.

This could involve changing or opposing thoughts, worldviews, beliefs, or desires.

Typically, internal conflict leads to character development, where the protagonist grows in some way or learns something important about themselves.

internal conflict in rising action

External conflict refers to any conflict that sets a character against something outside of themselves – something outside their control.

External conflict can take many forms – for example, another character, a creature or beast, a machine, an alien or supernatural force, or Mother Nature herself (man vs. nature conflict). There are as many options at your disposal as there are stories.

external conflict in rising action

Good Examples of Rising Action in a Book or Movie

Let’s look at three rising action examples from stories that are both books and films.

We will go through all of the aspects of their story structure, with the most emphasis on the function of rising action in the story.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Introduction: We’re introduced to Harry Potter, Dumbledore, the Dursleys, and Harry’s sad life with his relatives in modern-day England, living in a closet and being emotionally abused. This is Harry’s normal.

Rising Action: Harry meets Hermoine, Ron, and Hagrid, among others, and travels to Hogwarts, a magical and completely different world than he’s used to. He learns about Voldemort. A troll is set loose in the dungeons, and Snape seems to be out to get Harry for some reason.

Climax: The bad guy isn’t Snape but is revealed to be Quirrel! All the conflict and mystery have led to this point. Ron’s talents with chess and Hermoine’s intelligence, combined with Harry’s flying skills, lead to Harry confronting the villain and having to choose – side with evil and possibly get his parents back, or side with good and lose that chance forever. Harry chooses to fight evil.

Falling action: Harry discovers that he has woken up in the hospital wing. And though the major conflict is addressed during the climax, Dumbledore wraps up the loose ends, tells Harry what happened after, and discusses the consequences of Harry’s actions. And, of course, Gryffindor wins everything.

Resolution: Harry’s friendships are renewed, and he’s content with his new normal. He heads back home, looking forward to next year, knowing he’ll return to Hogwarts. Though there are still some unanswered questions and challenges ahead, enough has been resolved to satisfy the reader and look forward to the next chapter in the series.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Introduction: We meet the Finch family – Scout, Jem, and Atticus, living in the town of Maycomb, Alabama. Their normal is the backdrop of segregation and open racism of the deep south in 1930s America.

Rising Action: Atticus, a respected lawyer, agrees to defend Tom, a black man charged with raping a white woman – placing him in direct conflict with the rest of the town.

Climax: The big courtroom scene. Though we know Tom is innocent, racism wins out over justice, and Tom is found guilty, shattering Scout’s hope that the truth will prevail.

Falling action: Tom gets shot in jail, the villainous Ewell tries to take revenge on Atticus by trying to kill Scout and Jem, and the children are saved by Boo Radley, their racist neighbor and former boogeyman.

Resolution: Through Scout’s eyes, we conclude that everyone, even racist boogeymen, has both good and evil within them, and injustice is ingrained in the system. But it also reinforces that there are good people willing to stand up for what is right, even if it costs them everything. It’s not a happy ending by any means, but everything in the story is resolved and all questions are answered. This leaves Jem and Scout to live in their new normal.

Romeo and Juliet

Introduction: The story starts when we are introduced to Romeo and Juliet and their respective family dynamics. The inciting incident occurs when Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love, even though they come from rival families. This sets the stage for the conflict that will drive the rest of the story.

Rising Action: The rising action in Romeo and Juliet is the gradual build-up of tension and conflict between the two lovers and their families. As their relationship deepens (partly during the masquerade ball), so does the hostility between their respective families, the Montagues, and the Capulets.

Climax: This eventually leads to a tragic series of events, beginning with the death of Romeo’s friend Mercutio at the hands of Tybalt, a Capulet. As the plot progresses, the conflict escalates as Romeo kills Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin) in a fit of rage. As a result, Romeo is banished from Verona.

Falling Action: When she is asked to marry Count Paris, Juliet fakes her own death in a desperate attempt to be reunited with Romeo.

Resolution: When Romeo believes that Juliet is truly dead, he takes his own life. Juliet finds Romeo’s corpse beside her and kills herself, thus bringing the tragic story to its conclusion.

Common Questions About Rising Action

What is rising action?

Let’s define rising action meaning. In a story, the rising action is the part where the conflict begins to build and the stakes start to get higher. This is usually when the protagonist starts to face challenges and obstacles that test their abilities. The rising action often leads to the climax, which is the story’s most exciting and suspenseful part. After the climax, the story typically starts to resolve itself, with the protagonist overcoming their challenges and achieving their goals.

Which three elements can contribute to the rising action in a novel?

The rising action in a novel is when the story heats up. Three elements can contribute to the rising action: suspense, intrigue, and conflict. Rising action is marked by emerging conflict and the protagonist’s growing challenges. It’s fueled by suspense, keeping readers eager for the next twist, intrigue that deepens the mystery, and character conflicts driving the story.

What is the purpose of the rising action in a story?

You know that part in a story where things start getting really intense and you can’t put the book down? That’s the rising action. After we’ve met the characters and got the gist of their main challenge, the rising action throws in a bunch of twists and turns. It’s like the universe saying, “You thought it was going to be easy? Think again!” This part adds layers to the story, introduces side plots, and basically makes everything more complicated (and exciting!). In short, the rising action is the roller coaster climb before the big drop – it’s what keeps us flipping pages, eager to see what happens next.

Can I use artificial intelligence to help me write the rising action part of my story?

Ever hit writer’s block and wished for a little nudge? Enter AI story generators! Think of them as a buddy who throws wild ideas at you when you’re brainstorming. Just tell the program about your characters, the sticky situation they’re in, and where it’s all happening. And voilà! They’ll toss back some interesting scenarios for your story’s rising action. Now, don’t get me wrong, your own creative flair is irreplaceable. But these AI tools? They’re like a jumpstart for your imagination.

Final Thoughts: What is Rising Action in a Story?

In a story, the rising action is the series of events that leads up to the climax.

The rising action typically begins after the story’s exposition (introducing the setting, characters, and conflict). It may span several scenes or chapters. During the rising action, the story’s main conflict is introduced and developed, and the protagonist begins to take action in an attempt to resolve it.

As the rising action builds, the stakes are raised until finally, in the climax, the protagonist must face the consequences of their actions. The rising action is often considered the most exciting part of a story as it contains the most suspense and tension.

Rising action in literature is essential to the plot structure of a well-crafted story, so if you’re working on a new project, be sure to give it some thought.

What conflict will your characters face?

What obstacles will they have to overcome?

How will the story build up to the climax?

Answering these questions will help you create an intense rising action that will keep your reader’s interest from beginning to end!

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Looking for more storytelling tips and tricks? Check out these other helpful articles:

How to Make Readers Fall In Love With Your Characters

How to Find Your Voice as a Writer [5 Simple Steps]

Examples of Themes in Books and Literature: Definition & Types

World Building for Fiction Authors: How to Create a Believable World

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