Charting Your Story’s Rising Action

Rising Action is the part of your story that begins after the inciting incident and ends at the story’s climax. (Read a great post by Susan about the inciting incident here.) As Erin explained in her fabulous post about cliffhangers, (that you can read here) after the inciting incident, “the character faces a series of increasingly challenging obstacles.” Here is the graph of this basic story structure that Erin used in that post.


What I want to write about today is the importance of that section of the graph between the first two dotted vertical lines, the section labeled “Growing Obstacles.” This is where rising action takes place. Rising action is crucial to drawing the reader in and keeping her turning pages. As a writer, you want the graph of the tension in your story to resemble the one above, rather than, say, a graph of Facebook’s stock price. (See the graph below, courtesy of businessinsider.com.)

You probably already know all about the importance of rising action. (I’m sure you know you don’t want the tension in your story to drop like Facebook’s stock!) What I hope to provide through this post is one method that can be used to identify and correct problems you may be having with this aspect of your story. This is a technique that I have devised to help me view my own conflict visually and identify sections where tension is lagging. It’s intended to be used in the revision process, as a purely diagnostic tool. (I certainly don’t believe that the “art” of writing can be replaced by numbers and charts! But I do believe that this tool can help identify problems in a muddled first draft.)

Step 1 – Take your draft and break it down into scenes. Number your scenes according to the order in which they appear in your story – the first scene is 1, the second scene is 2, etc..

Step 2 – Assign each scene a value based on its level of tension. (It helps to keep the values in a specific range, such as 1-30 or 1-50.) Remember, “tension” can exist in many forms. Think in terms of your character’s comfort zone. The further he or she is outside that comfort zone, the higher the tension. Assigning these values can be tricky, especially since your protagonist may adapt to the rising tension and seem fairly comfortable in very perilous circumstances by the middle of the book. As you look at each scene, imagine your character as he or she existed before the opening of the story. For instance, Harry Potter, as he existed at the beginning of Book One, would have felt an immense amount of tension upon facing the three-headed dog, though the character has grown quite a bit by the time that scene occurs and seems to handle the stress fairly well. Still, assign the scene a value based on the tension that would be felt by the character as he existed at the opening of the book.

Step 3 – Open up a new workbook in Excel. In each row, type the value you’ve assigned to the tension in that scene. (For example, in row 1 type the value you assigned to the first scene, in row 2 type the value you assigned to the second scene, and so on.)

Step 4 – Create a line graph of your list of values using Excel’s graphing feature.

Step 3 and 4 (alternate) – If you don’t have access to Excel or are unfamiliar with its features, you can use a simple sheet of graph paper to plot the values and create a graph of your rising action. Use the horizontal axis for your scene numbers and the vertical axis for the tension values you’ve assigned to each scene.

For this post, I made up a set of values for an example, assigning each of 44 scenes a value between 1 and 35.  The resulting chart is below:

As you can see, this exercise reveals some issues with the level of tension in this example, beginning around scene number 31. If you charted the tension of your own story and got a graph that looked like this one, you would be instantly clued in that you needed to find ways to keep the tension building after that 31st scene.

Keep in mind that all stories are different. Sometimes an author may intentionally back the tension off a bit to prevent the reader from burning out before she gets to the ultimate confrontation and the climax of the story. Don’t assume the only successful graph will look exactly like the one at the top of this post. However, it is generally accepted that rising action is an important element in maintaining interest and building momentum to a satisfying conclusion.

How about you? Do you have any methods or techniques that help you ensure that your conflict keeps growing and the tension continues to build? What do you think of this method for visually charting your story’s tension? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

     

20 Responses to Charting Your Story’s Rising Action

  1. Natalie Aguirre Sep 10 2012 at 6:25 am #

    I haven’t tried this, but it sounds like a great idea. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Julie
      Julie Sep 10 2012 at 9:54 am #

      Thanks Natalie! This is just a tool to help a writer resolve issues. You may never need it! I hope it helps you if you ever decide to try it. 🙂

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Sep 10 2012 at 6:34 am #

    I’ve never been one for developing a story outside of the story, so things like outlines, character sheets, and tension charts are not tools I use. My preference is to stay inside the character, find out what would be the next hurdle for him to be faced with, and then face him with it. Like a rollercoaster, the downs are as important as the ups, going down is scary and thrilling, but being down and rising again is restful for the reader.
    Another element to consider is multiple characters, each of whom can carry the rising tension of a scene, rather than all the load being on one guy. You’d have multiple charts, overlaid on each other, with at least one of them rising in each scene. (Ensembles are also useful for sequels, so the MC’s HEA doesn’t have to be disrupted to make the next book’s plot work.)

    • Julie
      Julie Sep 10 2012 at 9:59 am #

      Hey Marc! This is really meant to be a diagnostic tool – the kind of thing you can turn to if you are working through an early draft that maybe seems a little flat. And yes, I totally agree, the downs are as important as the ups!

  3. jodimeadows
    jodimeadows Sep 10 2012 at 9:48 am #

    Hey, pretty snazzy! Thanks!

    • Julie
      Julie Sep 10 2012 at 10:00 am #

      Hey Jodi! Glad you like it! 🙂

  4. JQTrotter Sep 10 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    This is a brilliant idea! I’m going to do it next time I’m going to bookmark this page so I can do this next time I’m revising. Thanks for sharing.

    I’ve done something similar, where I break down the action that happens in each chapter in bullet points in a chapter outline but I think seeing it in Excel (which I’m glad I have) will be more effective.

    • Julie
      Julie Sep 10 2012 at 10:46 pm #

      So glad you are going to give it a try! If nothing else, it forces you to give your draft a very close read. Good luck with it! 🙂

  5. Rowenna Sep 10 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    I love that you describe the escalation in terms of tension rather than merely how “intense” the obstacles are. So often the climactic elements of a good story aren’t just because the obstacle is “bigger” (sometimes it’s technically less “difficult”) but because the tension is higher or the stakes for that character (or our attachment to those stakes) is greater. I’ve never been quite comfortable with the advice to just keep making the conflicts “bigger” because sometimes it’s more about the connection we as readers feel to characters and perceive that characters have with one another or to their goals.

    • Julie
      Julie Sep 10 2012 at 10:48 pm #

      Rowenna, great point. Sometimes “big” obstacles overwhelm a story. Subtle increases in tension can be just as effective. It all depends on the story. 🙂

  6. Bess Sep 11 2012 at 3:16 pm #

    Cool idea! Too late for a question? I read the inciting incident post that also talks about the second turning point for the MC. Does the tension spike or decrease at that second turning point, typically? It sounds, from what I understand, as a point before the climax where the MC is tested in some way and might be followed by a flatening of tension until it’s time to prepare for the climax.

  7. M. Dee Sep 12 2012 at 1:17 am #

    Being an engineer and a complete geek, I love the excel chart idea. I will definitely use it for my scenes and see if I have something like the traditional story arc I think it’s a good way to see visually how your story is structured. Loving it!

  8. Alexa (Loves Books) Sep 12 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    I’ve never thought about doing this, but it pleases the little OCD part of my heart. Thanks for the suggestion!

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  12. Hamed May 17 2013 at 8:11 am #

    Amazing post!
    It’s a standard method, right? So I’m going to use it to analyze stories that I’d read and try to understand how this method works and more importantly how tension camouflages.
    I have a question though; does this method only works for action or thriller genre or it’s a general kind of law?

    And can I say something? Why should you involve mathematics in this? Can’t we just accept that writing has nothing to do with numbers? 😉

    With a heart full of joy and a brain full of letters not numbers, Hamed

  13. Julie Eshbaugh
    Julie Eshbaugh May 17 2013 at 9:19 am #

    Hi Hamed! It’s great to hear from you! To answer your questions, I would say it’s a general law that the tension should rise and fall in a certain way, but this method of checking it by assigning numbers to the level of tension in each scene is my own method. I don’t know if it will work for every genre and it may not work for every person – especially those who don’t like numbers. 😉 But give it a try! I hope it will reveal some things to you. 🙂

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