Stuck in the middle with you: writing rising action
Let’s discuss an all-too-common plight for writers: You have a fantastic idea for a story. You know exactly how it begins, and you have a jaw-dropping ending all planned out. But–oh no!–you have no clue what goes in between.
This month, we’re asking the question: Why is it so hard to write the middle of your story?
The middle, also known as the rising action, makes up a majority of a story, yet it’s often the most challenging part to write.
If you’re one of the many writers participating in NaNoWriMo this month, you may have already encountered this issue. But rest assured, we have the information you need to better understand rising action and help you stick with a story, even when you’re not sure what comes next.
What is rising action?
Most stories follow this general narrative structure:
Also known as the 5 act structure, you can describe pretty much any story using these terms. The rising action is what comes between the exposition or inciting incident, which is what gets a story moving, and the climax, or the highest point of tension in a story. Rising action bridges the gap between these two points, gradually increasing the tension until it reaches its boiling point.
Building tension is one of the most important things a story must do, which is why rising action is so crucial to a story’s success. But sometimes, it can be hard to know if the rising action is actually rising.
These struggles can plague all writers, but pantsers, or people that write without an outline, are particularly affected. If you don’t yet know what you’re building towards, it can be hard to build real tension. The climax of your story should always be in the back of your head as you write the rising action.
Rising action: short stories vs. novels
One of the keys to getting better at writing the rising action is to learn how it functions in different types of stories. Length and pace will both influence the way you write rising action.
Rising action will behave differently depending on whether you’re writing a short story or a novel. In a short story, you have a limited amount of time to build tension and create a satisfying climax and ending. But in a novel, you have many more pages to fill, meaning your rising action will need to build more gradually to the climax.
In a short story, there is usually one plot line, but in a novel there are multiple. Each plot line will progress at its own pace, making the rising action less of a straight upward line and more of a sine curve, with lots of peaks and slopes.
Picture your story as the ocean, and rising action as a wave. In a short story, the rising action is like a tidal wave: one big surge that washes over the flood barriers. In a novella or novel, on the other hand, the rising action is made up of a series of waves, ebbing and flowing, gradually getting bigger until reaching the shore. And the pace of a story or novel will dictate how fast the waves are moving.
Tips for writing rising action
Some writers might not want to hear this, but if you’re struggling to get through the rising action of your story, try making an outline! Outlines can be as vague or as detailed as you want them to be. No matter how much you plan ahead, it can be helpful to see your idea on paper instead of letting it float around loosely in your mind.
You should also never feel trapped by an outline. If you make it halfway through the story and realize the plot point you outlined no longer makes sense, just change it! No one has to know but you.
A tried and true way to make sure your action is rising is to raise the stakes. You’ve probably heard that phrase many times, but it can be incredibly effective when you find your story is stalling.
Just remember that raising the stakes will look different depending on the story genre. A high stakes bank heist probably doesn’t belong in a romance novel (unless that’s your thing). You don’t need to put your characters in life or death situations to get readers’ pulses racing.
Don’t make it too complicated. Write your characters facing their worst fears, or put them in a position to lose something precious to them. A situation doesn’t have to be objectively high stakes, the stakes just have to be higher than before.
Lastly: don’t start your story at 100% intensity, because you won’t be able to increase it any further. The rising action needs to rise, after all!
About the author: Lindsey has a BA in English and creative writing from Brandeis University and recently completed the Columbia Publishing Course, nicknamed the "West Point of publishing." She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. For three years she was an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.