In fiction rising action need not be action itself, and that’s because the term “rising action” includes not only character actions, but also character decisions, as well as events within the setting or plot (an economic depression, for example, or an earthquake). Taken together, all these incidents help build interest, suspense, and tension — and lead to the novel’s climax.
The individual events that constitute the rising action are important because they help lead the story to its climax. To put it another way, the climax is the ultimate, logical outcome of the rising action. If a writer doesn’t plan the rising action so that it’s believable and so that the cause-and-effect is very strong, the climax may not satisfy the reader.
Rising action is created when a writer throws obstacles in his hero’s path. These obstacles stand between the hero and her goal. The obstacles can be other people . . . or the character’s own doubts or hesitations . . . or society . . . or the natural world.
All action is, in a way, change. Rising action, then, is escalating change — to a character, to a relationship, to a plan, to a mission, to a town, country, or world. Again, this change need not be action: it could be something as simple as a character making a discovery, or being told a secret. Much of the rising action in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca consists of the protagonist (the second wife) learning things that change her perception of and understanding of Rebecca.
In Building Better Plots, Robert Kernen encourages writers to think about the arc of their story: the plot events that curve upward from the first incident to the climax. Kernen believes that as you outline or list these story elements, you should “naturally feel the level of tension, anticipation, and your characters’ stakes rising.” I agree. Rising action is something you can feel as you think about your story’s plot. And you can especially feel it as you’re writing the escalating events.
Many months ago I wrote about Rewriting: Macro. If the story in manuscript form doesn’t contain rising action, the writer must rewrite the entire story so that it does contain rising action. That’s a major (macro) rewrite. So it pays for the writer to pay attention to rising action from the first page onward.
Rising action is often depicted as a set of stairs, with each step an escalation (increase in intensity or seriousness) of the protagonist’s situation and choices. I prefer to think of rising action as a series of bridges that get burned behind the protagonist due to each choice she makes. Or as a tunnel of increasing narrowness, with no retreat possible: the only way out is through bold action.
Recently I wrote my first YA novel (publication date not yet set)and in plotting it I tried hard to make certain there was one bridge crossed and burned toward the end of the first 20% of the manuscript, maybe two additional bridges crossed and burned in the next 60%, and the final bridge crossed in the last 20%. I knew that if I plotted the novel with rising action embedded in the story, I wouldn’t have to worry that my first rewrite would require the insertion of rising action. What I chose as my steps of rising action were there from the beginning, pulling the story forward.
Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, contains a chapter titled “Rising Action and Pace.”