Today we’re talking about rising action. We’ll start with a definition of rising action, move on to an example of rising action from Romeo and Juliet. Then we’ll look at how rising action works in five different plot structures. And last, we’ll give you an opportunity to practice rising action in your writing!
Rising Action Definition:
The rising action is part of a story that builds conflict through decisions made by the protagonist or events that happen to the protagonist. Each of these events creates tension until we reach a climactic event or point of no return.
Rising action takes place after the exposition or beginning of the story. During the exposition, the author introduces our main character(s). The author will also tell us about the story’s setting, usually by showing the characters’ ordinary lives.
Rising action starts with a story beat called the inciting event. This event, or events, is a story beat where some force moves the protagonist out of their ordinary world. The rising action is where the story truly begins.
Read more about inciting incidents here.
The rising action starts when your character sets off to find something. What the character is looking for could be physical, like a hidden treasure, or symbolic. The character may be on the hunt for purpose or self-respect. The point is, your character will set off on a journey to find something.
Along the way, a protagonist will make decisions that they believe will get them closer to their ultimate goal. Some of those decisions will work out, while others will blow up in the character’s face. All of the character’s actions will raise the stakes of the story. The tension will build until the story hits a breaking point or the midpoint of the story.
Why Rising Action is Important
The rising action is what keeps readers or viewers engaged in a plot. In a story, you need things to happen to keep the plot moving. But, a plot isn’t just a retelling of events. In a narrative, there should be a clear pattern of cause and effect.
How to keep readers engaged
A character will start with a problem; usually, they will want something. So, the protagonist will set off to try and find that thing they want. Along the way, they will make decisions and take action.
They will plunge deeper into their search with each move, and things will become more complicated than they realize. Your character will get in over their head. And, the tension of the story will gradually rise as the stakes increase.
This pattern of rising tension will continue until the character hits a point of no return- a climax. This climax usually marks the end of rising action and the start of a story’s final act.
This gradual increase of tension and stakes is what keeps a reader engaged.
Examples of Rising Action:
Literary Example of Rising Action in Romeo and Juliet:
We talked about how rising action begins with a character discovering they want something and ends in a climax or point of no return. Let’s see how this pattern plays out in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
The protagonist discovers a want/ need:
Our story begins in fair Verona-
Romeo is depressed over his love for a Capulet girl, Rosalin. He agrees to attend a Capulet ball with Mercutio and Benvolio in hopes of seeing Rosalin. However, he meets Juliet and falls in love with her instead.
Romeo’s family, the Montagues, are at war with Juliet’s Capulets. This feud doesn’t matter much to Romeo, but a Capulet, Tybalt, sees Romeo at the ball and is enraged. Remember Tybalt; he’ll become important later.
The protagonist begins a search to fulfill their want:
After a chance encounter, Romeo discovers that he cannot live without this girl he just met. So, as any teenage boy would, he commits criminal trespassing. He finds Juliet and the two confess their undying love for each other.
The stakes rise along with the tension:
Romeo and Juliet decide to get married.
Friar Tuck, hoping to end the feud between their families, performs Romeo and Juliet’s wedding.
Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage.
This all happens in, like, a day!
The climax, or point of no return:
Tybalt is enraged that Romeo crashed the Capulet ball. He finds Romeo and challenges him to a duel. Romeo, having just married a Capulet, now considers Tybalt family and refuses the challenge.
Romeo’s friend Mercutio steps in and duels Tybalt. Romeo tries to break up the fight, but Tybalt kills Mercutio. Raging, Romeo forgets his newly formed family bond and kills Tybalt.
Did I mention that Mercutio was kin to the Prince of Verona? Oh well, he was, and in this story, the Prince acts as the town’s mayor. So, the Prince banishes Romeo from fair Verona.
And we have reached our point of no return!
That’s an example of how rising action works in a fictional story. Let’s look at how this technique plays out in different plot structures.
How Rising Action Works in a Story
Rising Action in Freytag’s Pyramid
The term rising action originated from Freytag’s story pyramid. German novelist Gustav Freytag developed the story pyramid in the mid-nineteenth century. The pyramid breaks down like this:
- Rising Action <–
- Falling Action
- Denouement (day-new-mah)
We won’t bother with all the other phases of the structure. Rising action starts right after the exposition when we learn about the story’s character and setting. The rising action is a series of events that ratchets up the tension until a pivotal moment.
In Freytag’s model, the climax occurs at the story’s midpoint and marks the end of the rising action. An example of this would be when Romeo kills Tybalt in the third act of Romeo and Juliet. All the events between Romeo meeting Juliet and the death of Tybalt are the play’s rising action.
Rising Action in the Three Act Structure
The three-act structure is separated into, wait for it… three acts. Here are the three acts:
- Act I- Set up
- Act II- Confrontation <– Rising Action
- Act III- Resolution
In the three-act structure, rising action is represented by all of Act II- Confrontation. But, unlike Freytag’s model, the rising action doesn’t end at the midpoint; it continues until the beginning of the third act.
In the Three-Act Structure, there are three climaxes, one for each act. The first climax is the inciting incident. The inciting incident represents the beginning of this structure’s rising action. The second act ends with another climax that also ends the rising action.
Rising Action in the Hero’s Journey
I’m not going to review all twelve stages of the hero’s journey.
If you’d like to read about all of the hero’s journey, check out my article on it here.
Once your hero has crossed the threshold into the special world, you will see rising action in the story. The rising action of the hero’s journey covers these stages:
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Approach to the Inmost Cave
- The Ordeal
- The Reward
During these stages, the hero gathers allies, faces challenges that will help them towards their goal, and plans attacks. The Ordeal represents a major climax of the hero’s journey. Usually, it involves a significant loss like the death of the mentor. The reward is some tangible or symbolic thing that the hero gains from their struggles. This reward will aid them later on in their journey.
If you’d like to write your own hero’s journey, pick up a copy of my Story Writing Workbook. In the book, I take you through each stage of the hero’s journey and provide expert examples in text and video. I include guiding questions and writing exercises designed to help you craft your narrative!
Rising Action in the Four Act Structure
Kishotenketsu is a story told in four parts. Rather than relying on conflict to drive the plot, this structure presents an ordinary world and character. Then the plot expands on that character and reveals a twist that redefines the character and their world in the third act.
Read all about this story structure in my article here.
The first and second acts would represent the rising action in the four-act structure. There isn’t the typical introduction of conflict in the four-act design that you’ll find in other plots. The rising action happens while the author presents a familiar setting that the third act twist will disrupt that normalcy. In the fourth act, the world returns to normal.
Rising Action in the Story Circle
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is an eight-step plot structure he developed while running shows like Community and Rick and Morty. The Story Circle is a straightforward and effective way to create a plot and character arc.
If you’d like to read more about the Story Circle, check out my article on the subject here.
There are four sections of the circle that represent rising action. They are:
In the Story Circle, a need drives the character’s action. After establishing the protagonist in part one, you introduce something they want or need in part two. Rising action starts when the character goes on the search for the thing that they want. Once they find what they’re looking for, they must return to the ordinary world, ending the rising action.
Practice Rising Action
List the rising action plot points of your current work in progress or your favorite film or book in the box.
Remember, the rising action will start when a character realizes a want or need and end with a point of no return climax.
Continued reading on Rising Action:
How Rising Action Works in a Story- The Write Practice
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