How Rising Action Works in Storytelling

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Rising action is often one of the most important plot elements in a screenplay or script. An exciting, suspense-building element that arrives early in the story, rising action typically kick-starts most of the action and the bulk of the events that happen in a production.


What is rising action?

Scene from 'Vengeance'“Vengeance” Courtesy Focus Features

Rising action is the piece of a story that leads up to the most exciting part—the climax. It consists of:

  • Inciting event(s): Rising action in a story most often follows the inciting event, the point of no return that leads us directly into the bulk or "meat" of the story. 
  • Introduction of conflict: Rising action also sets up obstacles, conflicts, or questions that the main character(s) will have to overcome over the course of the story. It is often considered the fuel for the story, since it plays a large part in helping the audience understand these characters’ motives, beliefs, desires, and goals.
  • Pre-climax: When used effectively, rising action can improve the impact of the climax of a story. It can build suspense and make the audience emotionally invested in what happens to characters.

How rising action fits into story structure

Scene from 'Mean Girls'“Mean Girls” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Rising action in a plot follows the exposition and is instigated by the inciting incident. Typically, stories abide by the following structure: 

  1. Exposition: who the story is about and the stakes that make their narrative important
  2. Inciting incident: a catalyst that forces the character to act
  3. Rising action: the building of suspense following the catalyst
  4. Climax: the highest point of tension in a story, often occurring in a way that seems devastating for the protagonist
  5. Resolution: the end of the story where everything comes together

The following examples from the film “Mean Girls” demonstrate the use of each part of story structure: 

  1. Exposition: The audience is introduced to Cady, a previously homeschooled teenager who is about to attend public school for the first time.
  2. Inciting incident: Cady decides with her new friends Janis and Damian to infiltrate “the Plastics,” a group of queen bees led by Regina George who rule the school.
  3. Rising action: Cady develops a crush on Regina’s ex-boyfriend Aaron Samuels and continues to infiltrate the Plastics; eventually, she is outed.
  4. Climax: Regina publishes a burn book and uses it to frame Cady and the rest of the Plastics. She is then hit by a bus.
  5. Resolution: Female students at the school finally resolve to support one another.

Story organization usually follows this structure, but the way it looks can differ across genres. In a science-fiction or crime movie, for example, rising action usually quickly establishes a conflict for main characters. Alternatively, in a romance, the rising action can provide the entire narrative of the main characters falling in love until the climax of the love plot. Regardless of the genre, however, rising action will always take place before the climax of the story.

Why is rising action important?

Scene from 'Mad Max: Fury Road'“Mad Max: Fury Road” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Rising action is crucial to a story because it:

  • Connects characters with conflict: Rising action establishes the connective tissue between characters and the main conflict of the story. That link allows the audience to learn more about the characters and their motivations as well as obstacles they’ll need to overcome. 
  • Builds tension: Rising action also lays the groundwork for the climax by building up tension and raising the stakes throughout the story. Rising action is important because it allows the script to follow traditional story structure.

Examples of rising action 

Here are three examples of how rising action fits within the overall structure of a film (spoilers ahead!).

  • “Romeo + Juliet”: Screenwriters Craig Pearce and Baz Luhrmann use a classic example of rising action to develop conflict and tension. The inciting incident that spurs the rising action is when there’s a gas station shootout between the Montagues and Capulets. This establishes that the families are warring and will go to great lengths to fight each other and protect their own. From here, the rising action takes two forms: The war between the families continues to rage on, and Romeo and Juliet fall in love despite it being forbidden. This rising action leads into two climax points: Romeo murders Tybalt, and Romeo and Juliet commit suicide. Luhrmann adapts Shakespeare’s use of rising action in a way that creates filmic high stakes and tension.
  • “Mad Max: Fury Road”: Director George Miller uses a literal visual depiction of rising action in the roadblocks and obstacles that the main characters, Max and Furiosa, must overcome. This rising action is catalyzed by the inciting incident when Furiosa leaves the citadel with Immortan Joe’s wives. The rising action scenes provide a tension-filled build-up to the climactic final race to the citadel. These range from various chases and action sequences that all ramp up in complexity and emotional weight. 
  • “Die Hard”: The rising action in this film starts when Hans Gruber and his men take over Nakatomi Plaza with John McClane inside. The action that follows throughout the movie builds tension and suspense, as McClane attempts to stop the terrorists from enacting their plan. This builds to the boiling point of the climatic roof explosion seen near the end of the film. From journeying through the floors of the massive building, to getting into gunfights in his bare feet, John faces continuous action as he attempts to stop the terrorists with nothing but his wits and survival instinct.

Tips for writing rising action

Scene from 'Top Gun: Maverick'“Top Gun: Maverick” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

  • Rising action should typically follow an opening act after a main character and the stakes are introduced. It should show the audience the obstacles and objectives that the character will face.
  • The rising action is usually commenced by an inciting incident—typically an event that sets up the main conflict and lays down obstacles for the main character(s).
  • Rising action should build toward the climax of the story. Create several narrative subplots to intrigue your reader or viewer. 
  • Use rising action to reveal character motives, beliefs, and internal conflicts. What conflict is keeping them from reaching their goals? How can you develop it further to build tension? Is the conflict somehow personal for them?
  • When possible, really drive the stakes by relating them to any external conflicts.

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