Oh. My. Word! Then What Happened?


Today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is for “rising action.”

Here’s the actual definition:

What happens after the beginning, or exposition? That would be the rising action.

It’s Stage 2 of a story: the part that builds up to that big moment readers know is going to happen, whether it’s a declaration of love or a dramatic confrontation or some kind of eureka moment.

It doesn’t matter the genre or length of a story either. If it has a plot, then it’s going to have to include rising action in some way, shape or form.

Take something as simplistic as this version of the three little pigs, which I pulled off of shortstoriesshort.com:

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs. One pig built a house of straw, while the second pig built his house with sticks. They built their houses very quickly and then sang and danced all day because they were lazy. The third little pig worked hard all day and built his house with bricks.

A big bad wolf saw the two little pigs while they danced and played, and thought, “What juicy, tender meals they will make!” He chased the two pigs, and they ran and hid in their houses. The big bad wolf went to the first house and huffed and puffed and blew the house down in minutes. The frightened little pig ran to the second pig’s house that was made of sticks. The big bad wolf now came to this house and huffed and puffed and blew the house down in hardly any time. Now, the two little pigs were terrified and ran to the third pig’s house that was made of bricks.

The big bad wolf tried to huff and puff and blow the house down, but he could not. He kept trying for hours but the house was very strong and the little pigs were safe inside. He tried to enter through the chimney, but the third little pig boiled a big pot of water and kept it below the chimney. The wolf fell into it and died.

The two little pigs now felt sorry for having been so lazy. They too built their houses with bricks and lived happily ever after.

For the purposes of this telling, the beginning would be that first paragraph there, where the three little pigs are first introduced, their personalities are established and their situation is described.

Move on to the second paragraph, then, and it’s all rising action. Every single bit of it.

While a plot’s Stage 2 varies from story to story, which means that the villain can make an appearance on page 1, this particular tale just so happens to wait until the rising action to introduce the villain, the big bad wolf.

It also establishes the official drama, which can just as easily make a first appearance right in the beginning. But it’s always – always! – the rising action’s job to build it up to the breaking point.

Thanks to this particular rising action, we learn:

  • The big bad wolf has it out for the little pigs because he wants to eat them.

  • He’s a really good huffer and puffer.

  • Straw and sticks are no match for him.

This all begs the questions: Can the brick house stand up to his exceptional breath control? Are the three little pigs going to get out of this alive?

Now, the rising action doesn’t give you an answer. That’s not its job. In fact, its whole purpose is to do the very opposite and make you fear for the protagonist’s sanity, or happily ever after, or mission or reputation. Perhaps even his very life!

It’s meant to prompt you to keep reading lines or flipping pages, all while making you more and more invested in the protagonist as a person (or, in the example above, as a pig). If the storyteller does his or her job right, then by the time the rising action is over, you’re deeply committed to seeing – even craving – a certain outcome by the time it dumps you, shaking and trembling, at the feet of the narrative’s climax.

Which, yes, will be the subject of next week’s Definition.

For now though, just remember that rising action is all about making your readers commit to your story by pushing your character to the brink of disaster, whether emotional, psychological, spiritual or physical.

Make him, her or it sweat. And your readers too, while you’re at it.

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