Rising Action: Where the Story Really Happens (With Examples)
Rising action is everything in a story that occurs after the inciting incident but before the climax, forming the bulk of the narrative. This involves the development of the protagonist’s internal and external conflicts, a primary conflict that comes to the forefront, obstacles they must overcome, and a “boiling point” that triggers the climax.
In other words, rising action is the engine that powers almost every story. You simply can’t follow any kind of established story structure without it… but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to write! Luckily, this guide will better acquaint you with this crucial story element: you’ll see exactly what should happen during the rising action, with the help of some sweet examples.
Delivering on “the promise of the premise”
First and foremost, let’s talk a bit more about what the rising action accomplishes. It tells the story, yes — but on an emotional level, it also delivers on “the promise of the premise”, which is the story that readers expect.
In a mystery novel, the rising action would be the detective trying to crack the case. In a romance, it’s the main characters falling in love. If a purported mystery features no actual mystery and an alleged romance novel has very little romance, then the writer has not delivered on the promise of the premise — or the book has been marketed very badly.
As a result, rising action is often influenced by a story’s genre or subgenre. Before you begin writing yours, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with what readers in your genre expect. (And make sure that whoever writes your blurb doesn’t grievously misrepresent your book!)
Examples of “the promise of the premise”
Now let’s dive into our sweet examples. To show how rising action manifests in different genres, we’ll look at two extremely different stories throughout this post: one a literary fiction classic, one a contemporary heist comedy.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald will be our first case study. Here, the promise of the premise is pretty well-known: a mysterious millionaire must overcome various physical and psychological hurdles to win back his first love.
Ocean’s Eight, starring Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, will be our second. This modern romp has a much more lighthearted premise, albeit still with high stakes: a savvy con artist and her partner-in-crime recruit a team of experts to steal from the star-studded Met Gala, which will net them millions apiece — if they don’t get caught.
Where internal and external conflicts develop
Just about every story is fundamentally about characters dealing with conflict. Specifically, they must contend with two types of conflict:
External conflict, where someone or something tangible prevents them from getting what they want; and
Internal conflict, where the protagonist struggles with something about themselves — a desire, fear, or some other internal aspect that they cannot reconcile with their larger personality, worldview, or current course of action.
A strong rising action sequence develops both these types of conflicts, ideally with multiple occurrences of each. For example, if you’re writing that mystery and your protagonist is hunting down a serial killer, his conflict with the unseen enemy must grow as the killer evades his capture (external conflict). He’ll likely clash with the police force and the community too, as people grow frustrated with his lack of results (more external conflict).
At the same time, the protagonist should also undergo some sort of personal difficulty — an internal conflict that stands in their way. Perhaps he suffers from a crisis of confidence but must overcome it to trust his instincts again (internal conflict). He may also feel conflicted about how he drinks to forget his troubled past, but at the same time, needs to forget about that in order to have a clear mind for the case (more internal conflict).
And of course, the best kinds of internal conflicts feed into external ones, and vice-versa: the longer it takes to catch the killer, the more confidence your protagonist loses, the less the town believes in him, the more he drinks, and so on.
Examples of internal and external conflict
The Great Gatsby: Gatsby must win over our narrator, Nick, in order to ask him for a favor (external). Once Nick reintroduces him to Daisy, Gatsby must then compete with her husband for her affections (external). Finally, he’s fighting his own obsession with the past, which could compromise the future he supposedly wants (internal).
Ocean’s Eight: Debbie Ocean (Bullock) must outsmart her fellow Met Gala attendees, security, the police, and a host of other people in order to pull off her heist (external). She’s also caught between a desire for heist-related revenge on her scheming ex and a desire to move on in a healthy manner (internal).
The internal and external conflicts can (and should) intertwine
Typically within the first act, the primary conflict takes hold; this is usually a combination of external and internal conflict. (Say, a corrupt ruler kills the hero’s parents and they must overcome their grief to defeat this villain and avenge their family.) The primary conflict will be the foundation of the rising action from here on out.
Here are the primary conflicts from our examples:
The Great Gatsby: Gatsby is so fixated on the past that he struggles to actualize his goals for the future: to be happy with Daisy and content with what he’s achieved.
Ocean’s Eight: The diamond necklace that Debbie intends to steal is ridiculously well-guarded. Luckily, she has a few tricks up her sleeve — but she’s also distracted by a swirl of internal conflict triggered by her ex, who’s also attending the gala.
Protagonists are tested by roadblocks
Roadblocks are concrete crises or circumstances that prevent the hero from moving forward toward their objective: for example, they might lose all their money, get knocked out in a fight, or find themselves lost in a jungle. Often the clock is ticking against them, and the less time they have to reach the finish line, the greater the stakes become in terms of roadblocks.
For example, if you were writing a romance where your protagonist is trying to impress her crush, she might have a number of escalating difficulties. First, she might trip and embarrass herself. Then she might accidentally buy her romantic interest a cup of coffee with the wrong kind of milk, causing an allergic reaction. Finally, against all odds, they go on a date — only for your heroine to accidentally lock herself in the bathroom with no escape!
Of course, roadblocks should feed into the development of the story and main character(s). In our romance example, perhaps it’s only after embarrassing herself so many times that your heroine realizes she can’t let shame get the better of her, and that it’s only through embracing herself — blunders and all — that she’ll find enduring love.
Examples of roadblocks testing their characters
The Great Gatsby: Gatsby must first overcome Nick’s dubious opinion of him in order to make contact with Daisy. Next he must contrive to get Daisy alone and express his feelings. Then, as they embark on an affair, both struggle to keep it a secret — particularly from Daisy’s husband Tom, who is wary of Gatsby’s strange behavior and Daisy’s agitation.
Ocean’s Eight: The first roadblock Debbie encounters is simply getting everyone on board with the heist. Then there are various challenges related to the plan itself — creating a replica of the necklace and the magnet needed to unclasp it, hacking the Met security system to create a blind spot on the cameras, getting the necklace off the wearer’s neck without her noticing, and so on.
Again, the protagonist’s key qualities are revealed as they deal with these challenges. In The Great Gatsby, we see Gatsby grow increasingly anxious as he realizes that maintaining an affair is no easy thing — especially because, no matter how lovely Daisy is, she cannot live up to his expectations. Meanwhile, in Ocean's Eight, we see Debbie stay cool and collected as she tackles each problem, her own confidence instilling the same in her team.
Subplots and side characters will come into their own
Constantly ratcheting, utterly unmitigated tension would be pretty intense to read, right? Thankfully, most stories aren’t just one roadblock and/or personal conflict right after the other — they involve a balanced cycle of tension and release.
Each crisis might be bigger than the last, but there’s always that bit of respite in between periods: a little comic relief, a B-story, or a quiet moment between two characters. Even in an action-packed sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel, your hero wouldn’t be fighting dragons and rival knights every waking moment — he’d also take some time to recover at the local inn or to share a sweet romantic moment with the princess.
This give-and-take of tension and relief is a huge factor in any story’s pacing. If your story has too many “rests”, the slow pace will send your audience to sleep; conversely, if it’s 100% action, it will leave people confused. Needless to say, well-paced rising action involves both big, dramatic moments of tension and “smaller” moments of relief.
Examples of tension patterns
The Great Gatsby: Though readers (and certainly viewers of the Baz Luhrmann adaptation) will remember The Great Gatsby’s dramatic parties and explosive fight scenes, the book contains plenty of quieter moments to keep the balance — Nick speaking with Jordan Baker, Gatsby taking Nick to lunch, and so on.
Ocean’s Eight: Even as the pressure mounts perilously, we get many clever moments of comic relief throughout Ocean’s Eight. For example, Debbie and her partner Lou blow soap bubbles as a diversion, street hustler Constance negotiates her terms at Subway, hacker Nine Ball brings in her little sister to help with the heist, and celebrity Daphne Kluger acts deliciously, indulgently melodramatic at every turn.
Keep in mind that even such calm or comic moments should serve a greater purpose besides pacing. In The Great Gatsby, important background about Gatsby and Daisy is revealed during those seemingly innocuous posh lunches and gossip sessions. And in Ocean’s Eight, each comic scene adds subtly to our understanding of the characters: Debbie and Lou are creatively strategic, Constance is really just a scrappy kid, etc.
Finally, the plot will reach a boiling point
The boiling point is the final stage of the rising action — arriving just before the climax, at which point the story actually “boils over”.
To clarify, the boiling point is not the climax itself, but the final incident (or sequence of incidents) that triggers the climax. After this, the rising action (which was always “rising” to the climactic scene, after all!) is over, the climax occurs, and the falling action and denouement follow.
Examples of narrative “boiling points”
The Great Gatsby: In this case, the boiling point is almost literal — one sweltering afternoon in September, Nick, Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom adjourn to a hotel suite to cool down. Tom and Gatsby argue over Daisy, and Daisy stirs up further emotions by saying she loves them both. Though all parties are upset and not exactly stable, Daisy and Gatsby leave in his car, setting the climax (Daisy’s hit-and-run and Gatsby’s death at the hands of George Wilson) in motion.
Ocean’s Eight: With everything leading up to the necklace being stolen, the boiling point here would be when Debbie and her team escape the Met Gala with the necklace and reconvene, only to realize that everything not is quite as it seems — how did they escape investigation so cleanly? And where did their extra money come from? (Queue dramatic plot twists as Debbie reveals her secret plans!)
We get it — rising action does (almost) everything!
But what supports the rising action?
Sure, rising action is the background machinery of every piece of media that you consume, but it doesn’t achieve this alone. Every story structure also has a set-up that precedes the rising action, then the climax, falling action, and resolution, without which you’d certainly be left wanting more.
Interested in learning more about the inner workings of your favorite stories? Check out our comprehensive guides for everything you need to know.