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Tips for Writing Strong Rising Action

What’s going to happen next? We’re at the edge of our seat? The plot thickens!

Do your readers have these kinds of reactions as your story progresses? They can if you have strong rising action.

Rising action is the progress of your main character as they move toward the big climax. Figuratively, this is like climbing a mountain. The higher the altitude and the steeper the narrative incline, the harder the going for your characters. Progress is not a straight line, instead it is full of hazards, steep inclines, crevasses, obstacles, unpredictable weather, faulty equipment, and self doubt. Yet, as your protagonist faces conflict and tension, their journey generally continues in the same direction. Will they make it to the goal or not? 

Make a plan!

Rising action is also easier to write if you plan out the difficulties and arrange them from least tense to most. For example, let’s say my plot focuses on my main character leading a group up a mountain. I want this to be stressful and full of conflict because I want these characters to grow, but I also want them to divide. I know that on this journey I want a snake bite, a twisted ankle, a forded a stream, a technically challenging rock climb, a lost Kevin, a freak snow storm, and for the two most experienced hikers to argue. I should arrange these events from least stressful to most, saving the one that has the most potential for complete destruction of the entire quest for last. 

So my list might look like this:

1. Twisting an ankle

2. Fording a stream

3. Kevin gets lost

4. Freak snow storm

5. A snake bite 

6. Challenging rock climb

7. Argument 

It’s likely that you would arrange these events differently, but that’s the beauty of writing. Authors get to decide how intense a situation should be. Maybe that snake is just a little grass snake, but it’s enough to freak Kevin out, so we can put it at number one. 

Regardless of how you arrange the events, this list will serve you as your outline for your scenes. 

Plan an emotional journey too!

If I’m going to write this mountain climbing book, I shouldn’t limit myself to the physical challenges that the characters face. I must also line up the emotional toll that they take. With every setback, my characters need to express their frustration, impatience, fear, and dependence on one another. My characters on this mountain adventure should bond together and/or splinter apart. This is especially important if I plan on my biggest conflict to be an argument between characters. All of the emotional energy that has been expressed throughout the earlier scenes should come to a head at the climax, so it is not just a physical accomplishment, but also an emotional one. 

Pile on layers for the dramatic climax!

The climax is when the major antagonistic forces and the protagonist have a final showdown. This is, to continue the metaphor, when your protagonist arrives at the summit. 

Like with any goal, characters are going to change. In the course of the story, you want your characters to grow — both their positive traits and their negative ones come out with each challenge. Some should have surprises. Oh, that guy isn’t as skilled as he made out to be, or she’s a coward. The climax is the place in the story where everything is revealed, all of the conflicts are maximized and permanent changes have to take place.

Before you write the dramatic climax, ask yourself:

1) Who is going to come out the victor?

2) What permanent change will the loser have?

3) What interior conflicts is the protagonist facing during the climax, he has to “plant a flag” figuratively on his new way of thinking during the climax, or just before. 

4) What tools or environmental objects or devices are handy during the final climax?

5) What is said during this exchange? This is an important piece of dialogue and you need to get this right. 

6) Is your antagonist monologuing? Try not to have them do that. 

7) What goes badly for the protagonist? He gets pinned to the ground, she gets caught with the bomb, they face death head-on, his horse runs away, 

8) What other forces from previous in the story show up here? 

9) What are the sensations of this scene? 

10) Where are all the other characters and what are they doing?

11) What mistake can the antagonist make? Like they slip on the banana peel, they run out of bullets, they back into the wood chipper. 

12) What flash of insight or memory does our protagonist have? 

13) Are their henchmen or side-kicks? What are they doing to help/ hurt the situation?

14) Does your protagonist keep his cool or lose his temper? 

Then end with an image . . .

Once the dust settles in all of the climactic drama, all of the loose story ends are tied up, all questions are answered, and the protagonist has (or maybe hasn’t) accomplished their goal, write the last few pages or paragraphs should to sum up what has been accomplished. Don’t make them too obvious or repetitive. And consider your last lines to be that of an image — something descriptive and perhaps symbolic of what has come before.

“And as they descended, Mt. Rising Action stood in the silence.”

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

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