Rising Action in Literature

This plot technique keeps readers engrossed in a story

What Is Rising Action?
Colin Anderson/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Have you ever kept reading well into the night because you just couldn't put a book down? The rising action of a plot refers to the events that provoke conflict, build tension, and generate interest. It adds that edge-of-your-seat element that motivates you to keep reading until you reach the story climax.

Rising Action in Action

You can find rising action in many stories, from a complex novel to a simple children's book.

For example, the rising action in "The Three Little Pigs" takes place as the pigs set out and begin to make their own decisions. Readers can surmise that two of the pigs are asking for trouble when they choose flimsy materials to build their houses. Little suspicions such as these (along with the wolf lurking in the background) build suspense: with each page, readers come to understand that these characters are headed for disaster. Things get more and more exciting and tense each time the wolf blows down a house. The action builds to the ultimate showdown between pig and wolf.

In literature, the rising action encompasses the decisions, background circumstances, and character flaws that lead a story from the opening exposition through the drama and run-up to the climax. The primary conflict can be an external one, such as a clash between two men trying to exert their dominance at work, or it can be internal, as in the case of a college student who realizes she wants to leave school but cringes at the thought of telling her parents.

Rising Action in Black and White

As you read a novel, pay attention to clues that predict trouble down the road. It could be anything from the appearance of a character who seems shady and untrustworthy, to the description of a clear morning marred by one dark cloud on the horizon. 

You can practice identifying rising action by considering how the tension builds in the following tales:

  • " Little Red Riding Hood"
    • What is the first sign of trouble? Were you a bit unnerved when you learned that this innocent child would walk through the dangerous forest alone?
  • "Snow White"
    • In the original version, this story contains the ultimate evil character: the wicked stepmother. Her presence signals trouble to come. And that magic mirror adds another layer of intrigue to the story.
  • "Cinderella"
    • Cinderella also finds herself tormented by an evil stepmother. Her first meeting with the prince foreshadows the complications to come, while the clock ticking closer to midnight on the night of the ball creates real tension.
  • "Hansel and Gretel"
    • What's with all the evil stepmothers? And who doesn't suspect that a confectionery cottage is too good to be true?

It can be easy to see the suspense building in the short stories from childhood. But if you consider how subtle clues informed and cautioned you, you can find the same types of signs in more sophisticated books. Think about the suspenseful moments that build in each story to get a better sense of the development of rising action in the novels you read.