Rising Action Examples (Plus Tips for Writing Your Own)

Abi Wurdeman
April 23, 2024

Rising action seems like a simple enough concept. Your protagonist sets out on a mission and meets with an increasingly difficult series of complications leading up to the ultimate obstacle in the climax.

Nothing too wild or woolly there. One might even call it common sense, as far as storytelling goes.

But if you’ve ever actually sat down to write a novel or plot this section of a story, you know that understanding rising action and writing rising action are two very different things.

There’s a reason writers refer to this chunk as the messy middle or, more succinctly, the muddle. Things get jumbled. You’re balancing multiple story elements, reader expectations, evolving characters, and a lot of pressure to always be escalating, escalating, escalating.

Not to mention, rising action takes up a huge portion of your story. It’s easy to freeze up when you realize you’ve got to keep building suspense for 50,000-70,000 words.

Now that I’ve properly overwhelmed both of us, allow me to ease the tension with some good news.

While nothing will ever make writing rising action easy, I can offer some guidelines that provide a clear path forward. You’re about to learn just about everything you need to know to nail this part of your story, including:

  • What rising action is
  • Why it’s a make-or-break aspect of your story (no pressure)
  • Tips for nailing it
  • Common mistakes to avoid

And, as the title of this article promises, you’ll get some examples of rising action to clarify these concepts and inspire your own story. 

Ready to cross the threshold to adventure? Let’s go then.

A Tidy Li’l Definition of Rising Action

A person jumps off a large rock formation on a bike.

Rising action is the part of your story where the protagonist pursues their goal. More specifically, rising action begins after the inciting incident and continues all the way to the climax.

In case you’re not familiar, the inciting incident is the event that sets a story in motion, like when the Beast imprisons Belle’s father (Beauty and Beast), and she has to decide how to fix the situation.

The climax is the point in the story where tension is at its highest and the protagonist is forced to make a difficult and terrifying decision, often one that demonstrates growth. An example of a climax would be when Gaston leads an angry mob to the Beast’s castle and Belle rushes there to protect him.

So in Beauty and the Beast terms, everything that happens between “Take me instead” and “Kill the Beast!” is rising action.

I know. That’s a lot of story. 

How Rising Action Fits in a Narrative Structure

Rising action goes by many names depending on the story structure you use.

If you use Freytag’s Pyramid, it’s called rising movement or, well, rising action.

In the Hero’s Journey, the rising action encompasses all of act two, from Crossing the First Threshold to the Ordeal.

Same deal with Save the Cat! Every beat in act two is part of the rising action, from Break Into 2 to Dark Night of the Soul.

Confusingly enough, the three-act structure includes a story beat called “rising action,” but the rising action as we’re defining it in this article actually includes the midpoint, plot point two, and pre-climax as well.

Whichever plot structure you use, this section of your story is all about building tension through a series of challenges, failures, and false wins. It’s also where you show your reader what your main character is really made of.

How Rising Action Serves Character Development and Character Arcs

Time for more fun with definitions!

Character development refers to the gradual reveal of character details over the course of a story. For example, when a flashback clarifies why a protagonist is terrified of enclosed spaces, that’s character development.

Character arc refers to a character’s transformation over the course of a story, whether they change for the better, worse, or refuse to change at all.

As an author, you’ll accomplish both of these things—revealing truths about your characters and showing their growth—primarily through the rising action.

Rising action begins when the main character decides to pursue a specific goal. The pursuit of that goal requires them to leave their ordinary world, whether that means physically venturing beyond the Shire or stepping outside their normal behavior to engage in a fake dating scheme.

They’ll encounter unfamiliar obstacles, make new friends and adversaries, and navigate challenges they’re unprepared for. These things are bound to reveal a person’s true nature (character development!) and cause them to reexamine what they value and who they want to be (character arc!). 

Rising action isn’t just about moving the story forward toward the climactic scene. It’s about pushing your character to become who they need to be as they go toe-to-toe with the final boss.

Characteristics of Rising Action

Two brown goats butt heads.
Tension and conflict are everything in rising action.

Rising action can look wildly different from story to story, genre to genre, plot structure to plot structure.

In a thriller, it might be a series of fast-paced and increasingly dangerous missions. In a romance, you’re looking at a succession of increasingly intimate moments defined by the push and pull of fear versus longing.

But no matter what type of novel it is, compelling rising action includes these key characteristics:

An Active Protagonist

When your main character first steps out of their ordinary world and into the world of adventure, their choices will largely be in response to the unfamiliar things happening around them. 

So at first, they might be more reactive than proactive. But eventually, they’ll know enough to lead the way. And even when they’re in reactive mode, they should still be making decisions, including a few bad ones.

If everything just happens to your characters during rising action, there’s not much room for character development or growth. Plus, it’s easier to build tension when your protagonist is personally responsible for whatever happens next. 

An Antagonist

The antagonist is a character or force actively standing between your protagonist and what they want. Your story might have multiple antagonists. It might even have an antagonist who doesn’t actually want to thwart your protagonist; it’s just an unfortunate or unintended side effect of pursuing their own goal.

Antagonists are essential to the rising action because they give the protagonist a force to push against. They often serve as foil characters, highlighting the hero(ine)’s best or worst qualities by contrasting those traits. 

The best antagonists manage to target the protagonist’s weaknesses, forcing the main character to confront their own shortcomings.  

A Jarring Introduction to a New World

A child with a wide open mouth reaches out in shock.

Rising action should never feel like business as usual. Your character has officially abandoned their comfort zone.

Surprise them with unfamiliar rules, customs, or perspectives. Introduce new relationships, both positive and negative. Put them in situations where they have to use skills they don’t have yet. 

Speaking of which… 

A New Skill Set

Rising action should be packed with events that force the protagonist to develop a skill they didn’t have before. Depending on the story, this might be an external skill like archery, an internal skill like courage, or—ideally—both.

This pays off in the climax when that character calls on their new ability to save the day. Or destroy it, if you’re writing a negative arc.

A Lot of Clinging to Old Ways

Of course, you can’t have characters immediately and joyfully start bettering themselves. There’s no tension in that. Not much relatability, either.

That’s why it’s important to write a lot of resistance into your rising action, too.

See, even though this character is in a new situation, they’re still thinking like their old selves. That’s what people do. We resist change and new ideas, usually because we’re clinging to a flawed philosophy based on past trauma. (K.M. Weiland calls this “The Lie Your Character Believes,” by the way, and this article can help you nail it.)

So while the events of rising action challenge a character to grow, you’ll often see that same character first try to do things the way they’ve always done them, usually to disastrous effect.

Ever-Growing Tension

To absolutely no one’s surprise, rising action rises. The risks get riskier. The tension gets tensier (just roll with it). Hopefully, it all keeps readers engaged to the point where they’re playing the “one more chapter” game for twenty chapters straight.

To pull that off, you need a compelling main conflict. This is usually an external conflict between the protagonist and the villain, nature, society, or whatever.

There should also be an internal conflict, which is the battle the protagonist fights within themselves. This might be something like a moral dilemma, a crisis of identity, or a good old-fashioned fear that falling in love will lead to the kind of heartbreak they can never recover from.

The internal and external conflicts should complicate and heighten one another continuously. That’s a guaranteed tension-builder. You’ll see what I mean when we get to an example of rising action in a bit.

Another way to heighten the tension is to raise the stakes. The stakes are whatever your character stands to gain or lose in this conflict.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a mystery in which a detective wants to solve a murder. Then there’s a second murder, suggesting that if the sleuth doesn’t figure this out fast enough, the killer will strike again. The stakes have officially been raised. 

By continuously heightening the conflict and raising the stakes, you have a great chance at keeping your audience engaged during the rising action.

Rising Action Example

A person sits outside beside a worn yellow wall and reads a book.

Is it becoming clear why it can be tough to write rising action? There are many moving parts here, and they’re all crucial.

It might help to visualize how all the characteristics we just went over come together in an actual story. So let’s take a close look at how the rising action plays out in one very popular novel.

(Heads-up: this section has spoilers.)

The Hunger Games

The inciting incident in The Hunger Games occurs when Katniss’s younger sister, Prim, is selected for the Hunger Games. Because Katniss’s whole goal in life is to protect and care for her family, she volunteers to take Prim’s place. That’s where the rising action begins. 


  • Katniss learns that the boy who once took a risk to feed her family (Peeta) will also be playing, which means she’ll eventually have to kill him. This heightens her internal conflict between her mission to survive for her family’s sake and her resistance to taking an innocent life. She doubles down on her plan to take on the Games alone, focusing on nothing but her own survival.
  • The Games begin and Katniss witnesses both the other tributes' ruthlessness and the Capitol's cruelty. Each obstacle is a reminder of how vulnerable she is and the fact that she cannot survive this without eventually taking a life. She continues to fight independently, determined to trust no one, connect with no one, and get through this alone.
  • She forms an allyship with Rue, who turns out to be a refuge from the cruelty of the games. Katniss begins to wonder if Peeta is an ally, too.
  • Rue is killed, deepening Katniss’s fury toward the Capitol, her primary antagonist. While she’s still fighting to survive for her family’s sake, a new motivation is emerging. She doesn’t want to let the Capitol win.
  • The Capitol announces that two tributes from the same district can win, which means Katniss and Peeta can win together. For Katniss, it isn’t really them versus the other tributes. It’s them versus the Capitol.
  • Peeta is badly injured. If Katniss abandoned him, she could better protect herself. She chooses to stay and is in the most vulnerable position she’s ever been in leading up to the climax.

It’s all there. A new world full of surprises. The demand to quickly adapt and acquire new skills. A protagonist who stubbornly sees a cooperative approach as dangerous, even as the evidence piles up that this battle is bigger than the arena. The suspense grows as more tributes die, the Capitol grows more ruthless, and Katniss’s only remaining ally becomes a liability.

Talk about tension.

Bonus Tips for How to Write Rising Action

A person sits with their feet propped on a table, writing in a notebook on their lap.

At this point, you know all the essential ingredients for compelling rising action. You’ve seen an example of these concepts in action. You can even reference one of the story structures I mentioned earlier for a beat-by-beat blueprint for building this part of your story.

At this point, I just have a few more quick pointers that will help you write the kind of rising action that makes a book impossible to put down.

Give Your Character Compelling Motivation

The goal is what your character wants. Their motivation is why they want it. For example, Katniss wants to win the Hunger Games (goal) so she can continue to provide for her struggling family (motivation).

A compelling motivation is important to the rising action because it’s a key element of those stakes you keep raising. You’ve got to give your readers a reason to believe that your character would keep going as the situation becomes more dangerous.

You can learn more about creating compelling motivation here

Make Their Strengths and Weaknesses Crystal Clear

What is your protagonist’s superpower? What’s their greatest shortcoming? What are they most afraid of?

Establish these details clearly and you’ll be able to get your reader on the edge of their seat just by creating an obstacle the protagonist isn’t equipped to overcome. This information also helps you construct a clear arc demonstrating the character’s growth.

Let Them Get Themselves Into Trouble

Seeing as how this is a  journey of growth, go ahead and let your characters mess up during the rising action.

Maybe they try to execute a new skill before they’re ready and make a mistake that has devastating consequences. Or maybe (probably), they resist growth out of fear and cling too hard to a perspective that only hurts them.  

Common Mistakes to Avoid

A traffic cone is lit up by red light in a dark hallway.

Finally, because no one likes stumbling blindly into mistakes, let me give you a heads-up about some of the most common missteps when it comes to rising action.

These are the kinds of errors that can make a reader give up on a book, so look out. 

Coddling the Protagonist

I know how easy it is to make this mistake. I’ve had to talk myself into torturing my protagonist many times. But it’s important because the misery your main character goes through is what keeps the reader engaged and forces that character to grow.

So let them face terrifying things during the rising action. Make them wait a hundred pages for a solution to a problem and forty pages for an answer to a burning question. Let them fail. Let them fail so badly it wrecks the most important relationship in their life.

Give something to learn from and a reason to reach for redemption in the climax. 

Creating an Unworthy Antagonist

It might seem logical to make the antagonist lesser being so the protagonist looks more impressive by comparison. But that makes for some pretty dull rising action. Your reader always knows the hero(ine) will prevail.

You want a formidable antagonist. In fact, both your protagonist and reader should have reason to believe the antagonist is more powerful than your main character. For a big chunk of the book, they probably should be. Let them win a few rounds during the rising action. Stack the odds against your hero(ine). 

It’ll be all that more impressive when they take that sucker down in the climax.

Failing to Fulfill the Promise of the Premise

In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder refers to this section of your story as the part where you fulfill “the promise of the premise.” 

That is to say, if you plan to sell your story as an enemies-to-lovers romance that takes place in Cancun, your rising action had better feature attractive people cleverly sniping at each other on catamarans. 

If the enemies become lovers on page sixty and the rest of the book is about their honeymoon in Montana, your readers will feel hoodwinked.

Rising Action, Meet Climax

Before I send you off to enthrall readers and traumatize characters with your own rising action, we should discuss where all this is leading.

As I mentioned before, your rising action runs straight into your story’s climax. The climax is the point of highest tension, which is why we do all that work to keep intensifying the external and internal conflicts and raising the stakes.

This moment in your story is also the culmination of everything your character has learned over the course of the rising action. This is where they bust out those hard-earned skills to defeat the villain. It’s where they make the bold and terrifying decision they’ve been resisting, whether that means storming the castle or saying “I love you.”

The climax is when your reader sees how much your character has changed. And that’s why the rising action is so important. The rising action makes the climax satisfying, believable, and unforgettable.

If you’re thinking this is a lot to plan and plot, you’re absolutely right. That’s why my final tip for you is to use Dabble’s Plot Grid to lay it all out. It looks like this:

A Dabble Plot Grid showing Scene Cards for scenes from Pride and Prejudice alongside columns for characters, locations, and more.

You can add infinite columns to track any and every aspect of your story, from character arcs to rising stakes. It even works in reverse; the Plot Grid automatically populates with Scene Cards as you write your novel, so discovery writers can analyze the beats of their rising action after they’ve knocked out a first draft.

Not a Dabbler yet? No problem. You can start a 14-day free trial right here. That gets you access to every one of Dabble’s features. You don’t have to enter a credit card to get the journey started.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.