In novels, movies, and plays—really, in any kind of creative storytelling—the plot normally follows a narrative arc. Why? Well, for some reason, human beings find it incredibly satisfying to hear about an adventure with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Even if you’re telling a bedtime story to a toddler, they’re likely to get fussy if you try to stop your tale in the middle (unless they’ve fallen asleep). They’ll probably insist that the story isn’t done yet.
The standard plot structure goes something like this:
Exposition, the part of the story where the characters are introduced
The inciting incident, when something kicks off the adventures
Rising action, the longest part of the story
Climax, the most dramatic turning point in the story
Falling action, when the consequences of the climax come to pass
Denouement, the final wrapping-up of plot points
Certainly, many authors and playwrights choose to subvert this structure and defy expectations. You can choose to tell a story differently. Still, writers use this structure, time and time again, because it works. For whatever reason, this sequence dependably resonates with audiences all over the world.
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The rising action covers everything that happens between the inciting incident and the eventual climax of the story. In fact, the easiest way to find the rising action is by locating those two dramatic bookends.
The inciting incident usually involves the introduction of a new character, a chance meeting, a change of circumstances, or some unexpected event. Whatever instigates a change in the main character’s life, that’s probably the inciting incident.
You can spot the climax because it’s tense, surprising, and the most dramatic point in the story. Since the climax normally happens more than halfway through the narrative, and the inciting incident occurs towards the beginning, the rising action makes up the largest chunk of the story.
The Function of Rising Action
The rising action is long because it’s doing a lot of heavy lifting. Most of the content that makes you care about a character happens as they muddle along, making choices and taking actions.
The rising action of the story gives the writer a chance to:
Provide more information about the backstory and goals of the main character
Showcase the main character’s flaws
Give hints and clues about how the story might resolve
Entertain the audience with subplots
Highlight the way different characters respond to plot events
Imagine jumping directly from the inciting incident to the climax. In that scenario, the reader would likely be bored. Even given a well-written and dramatic chase scene, the perfect climax, the audience has to understand why the chase is important. The audience has to care about the characters and care and care who comes out on top.
Examples of Rising Action in Drama and Film
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the inciting incident is the moment when Romeo meets Juliet at the masquerade ball and their lives both change forever. The climax happens when Juliet’s cousin kills Romeo’s best friend, Romeo retaliates, and then he’s banished from Verona.
Everything that happens between those two plot points qualifies as the rising action:
Romeo and Juliet meet secretly
They declare love for one another
They decide to get married
The friar agrees to marry them
Juliet’s cousin challenges Romeo to a duel
Romeo refuses to fight
The rising action is the juicy part that gets the audience to fall in love with Romeo and Juliet. As they engage with each other and the other characters, they establish themselves as complex characters and the type of people you want to support. By the time Romeo gets exiled from Verona, most audience members discover that they care about him, about Juliet, and about their future together.
When you watch The Lion King, the animated film, you’ll see that the inciting incident occurs when Scar lures Simba’s father to his death. The climax happens when Simba overpowers Scar and forces him to confess to the murder.
All the events sandwiched between those two moments contribute to the rising action:
Scar drives Simba out of the community
Scar sends hyenas to kill Simba and assumes the throne himself
Simba escapes and befriends Timon and Pumbaa
Simba encounters Nala, who reminds him of his long-lost home
Rafiki shows Simba the ghost of his father
Simba returns to help the suffering community
The rising action sets the stage for the dramatic battle between Scar and Simba. Because the audience has seen Simba’s personal growth over the course of the movie, they’ve become invested in his success. Only now, after all of the rising action, does the fight scene give us satisfaction.
An Example of Rising Action in Literature
Just like movies and plays, novels need to develop characters and introduce a wide array of story elements before plunging us into the most dramatic part of a story. The reader needs to build a personal connection with the protagonist, and the best way to do that is by observing the character in action.
Let’s look at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In that book, the inciting incident occurs when Harry finds out that he’s a wizard. The climax of the book happens during Harry’s big battle with his nemesis Voldemort (as Quirrell). In between those two plot points, J. K. Rowling sets up one small frustration after another. There’s the primary problem—that Voldemort wants to kill Harry—but the bulk of the stumbling blocks that Harry faces at Hogwarts are smaller:
He worries about whether he’ll end up in the right dormitory
He tries not to get caught sneaking around campus
He has to rescue Hermione from a troll
His broom causes him problems in a game of Quidditch
As he responds to these obstacles, Harry’s personality reveals itself. Each minor part of the story builds towards the climax even if it doesn’t seem directly related to the main conflict. The rising action also gives the author the chance to plant lots of false clues so that the twist at the end surprises everyone, both Harry and the readers.
The History of Rising Action
The German writer and lecturer Gustav Freytag introduced the term “rising action,” along with the idea of a plot pyramid, in his book Die Technik des Dramas. In an English translation of the book from 1900, he described the part of the plot diagram that he labeled “the rising movement,” “the ascending action,” or “the rising action.”
The action has been started; the chief persons have shown what they are; the interest has been awakened. Mood, passion, involution have received an impulse in a given direction. In the modern drama of three hours, they are no insignificant parts, which belong to this ascent.
Freytag’s pyramid divided the optimal dramatic structure into five sections: introduction, rise, climax, return or fall, and catastrophe. His version of the standard plot structure is slightly different from the one we use today, but he laid the foundation for our modern understanding of storytelling.
He argued that authors have used this literary device, what he called rising action, throughout history. Long before he labeled it, rising action appeared in classic works of literature. With his plot pyramid, Freytag simply gave readers a tool to help guide analysis. By studying rising action, we can see how writers build compelling stories—and perhaps tell some more compelling stories of our own.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.