Updated: Oct 16, 2018
Once the introductions have been made, the rising action of a story is where the tale really begins to unfold. It is during this period of the story that the characters start to further develop, the plot begins to unfold, and the stakes are raised that push the main character toward their ultimate goal and showdown. In a lot of ways, the bulk of the story is in the rising action as this is the bridge between the introduction of the story and the final climax. While there can be several smaller periods of rising action, climax, and then falling action in subplots along the way, the rising action as a whole is the period building up to the main conflict of the story being resolved.
While it is important for rising action to be used to develop characters, setting, and help further immerse the writer in the world of the story, a lot of what rising action has to accomplish is about tension, suspense, raising the stakes, and foreshadowing the ultimate conflict. There are a lot of ways to accomplish all of these goals in a unique way based on your writing style and how you want to communicate these details to the reader.
How to create tension and suspense
An important part of rising action is building up tension and suspense for the eventual climax of a narrative. These further complications to the plot both intrigue readers and help keep the story interesting. Setting up trials for the protagonist to overcome not only paves the way for the climax but can also be useful way for the writer to delve into character flaws, backstory and other aspects of character development. A character’s reaction to the obstacles in their way can also be very telling of their characterization.
One approach many writers use to build tense or suspense is creating hopes and expectations among their readers. This can often fall under the category of foreshadowing. Setting up for future events creates in readers an expectation of the outcome of those events, so they will read on to see if their predictions are correct or not. An example of this might be having a heroine be asked on a date by her crush or revealing ancient lore about a mysterious monster in a cave before sending your heroes into its depths.
Another method is the so-called stair step approach. This method involves creating roadblocks or obstacles for the protagonists to overcome. With each obstacle the protagonist overcomes, the closer they get to the climax of the plot. The labors of Hercules are an example of this. With each labor he completes, he not only wins more support from his supporters but his foes also get deadlier and he gets closer to the climax of his story.
Raising the stakes for the characters involved is another way of building intensity in a story. Making the cost of failure higher or making a situation more dangerous makes it that much more suspenseful. An example of raising the stakes is when the kidnapper increases the amount of money needed to return their captive or when the time left on a bomb suddenly becomes shorter than the super spy expected.
An important rule of building tension and suspense is staying one step ahead of the reader. The author knows the ultimate resolution of a plot but must leave out information to keep the reader’s interest. All isn’t revealed until the falling action when loose ends are tied up, so now is the time to start creating those loose ends and give the reader resolutions to look forward to.
The rising action is also where the majority of the story’s action takes place. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean intense, drama-filled action sequences but rather the general movement of characters and the building of events. For example, a narrative building up to a climax at the school dance might include scenes of students asking out their dates or preparing for the event. The key to action is some sort of plot device that makes your character react or move. The point of action is to make the characters physically move and create a sense of time passing.
A writer should plan for action scenes well before writing them. The writer should consider how the action scene will help progress the storyline and the growth of their characters. Additionally, a writer should know if the character is going to win or lose any battles being written in advance. Knowing the results of an action scene not only helps with foreshadowing but in the development of the scene. Likewise, a characters skills should be known in an advance before writing a scene. If writer has put no hints in the story that their character is a trained assassin, it will come out strange when they suddenly have an assassin's skill set during the midst of an action scene.
One of the ways to effectively create an action scene is to make sure the events are unfolding in real time. This means eliminate long descriptive passages or big chunks of conversation. The pace of the story has to be quick and typically should include some sort of physical movement. This allows the reader to feel they are a part of the action.
The pace can also quickened by focusing on the characters reactions and having the characters make quick decisions. Action sequences are when characters act on their instinct rather than thinking things through. Adding unexpected consequences, reactions or results to the actions of your characters can also heighten the sense of drama in an action scene. A liberal use of verbs can also be important when writing an action scene to help communicate the sense of drama and urgency.
Be careful that you don’t over write your action scenes as too much action can get quickly boring or distracting. Action scenes should be balanced out with other types of scenes, such as conversation or description. It is also essential to justify an action scene otherwise it won’t be believable. Action scenes should have a purpose, not just a random bloodbath in the middle of the story.
Other things to develop
In addition to being the place for action, the rising action of a narrative is also the place to develop details about the characters, the plot and the world where the characters live. It can be tempting for authors to dump all of the information about their characters, setting and the world in where their characters live during the exposition of their narrative, but it is much better to slowly unveil these details during the rising action.
As the narrative progresses, the writer can introduce more characterization. Typically, the rising action is where the flaws of the characters - both protagonists and antagonists - start to become more prevalent. This is also the time to be developing the backstory behind characters as well as the relationships between characters, both those who get along and those who don’t. This is where the reader can also begin to see flaws in the characters develop, flaws that in the traditional narrative structure must be overcome by the hero or that bring about the villain’s ultimate downfall.
The rising action is also when the writer can develop sensory details about the world in which their characters lived. Worldbuilding is essential, not just for high-fantasy and science fiction stories, but for any narrative setting. Creating a believable setting and a believable world for a story to take place is essential for any narrative, but it is especially imperative in fantasy or science fiction settings, which may require the reader to suspend their disbelief in order to progress with the narrative. Building the world in which the characters live also make it easier to incorporate that world into the narrative, particularly when that world comes into play further on down the line in the story.