In the 1900’s, a German novelist named Gustav Freytag came up with the plot pyramid, and his basic structure for organizing a story still stands today. In fact, it’s often taught in schools as a way to analyze plot.

Do you recognize this?

rising action increasing tensionI’m guessing you probably do! We usually learn this as a tool to analyze stories, but it’s just as important to writing stories as it is to analyzing them.

As I said last week when I wrote about the Inciting Incident, each element of your story, the beginning, the middle, the end, as well as each scene, and, if you’re writing a novel, the entire novel structure will have the five basic elements of story structure: the Inciting Incident, Rising Action/Increasing Complications, a Crisis Moment, Climax, and Resolution.

In any story, the Rising Action section is where authors pile the difficult times and obstacles onto your protagonist. When I think of writing “Rising Action,” it makes more sense to me to think of it as Increasing Complications.

This section is the longest part of your story. It makes up almost all of Act II and will usually be 50-60% of your story. It’s the scary middle part that can be pretty hard to write. You start off with a great idea and you know how you want your story to end, but then you have to get your characters there.

To make writing this section a bit easier, you can break this part down into two parts, especially in a longer piece like a novel. In the first half of the Rising Action/Increasing Complications section, the protagonist reacts to all the disasters you throw at him.

In the second half of the Rising Action/Increasing Complications section, the protagonist begins to take charge and act. But in both halves of this section, you still throw complication after complication at your main character.

The key to deciding exactly what to throw at your main character is that the complications must move  your character and your story forward. The decisions he makes must be irrevocable which means that he cannot go back and change them. After being faced with a disaster, your character makes a choice (the crisis moment or turning point) as to how he will deal with it. He then reacts or acts. In any case, his reaction or action must in some way change his circumstances so he can’t change his decision.

Let’s look at an example of Rising Action/Increasing Complications from YA lit.

  • In The Hunger Games,  complications begin for Katniss as soon as she’s chosen in the Reaping. She must go to the Capital where she has no control over what happens to her. Her mentor is a drunk. When she gets into the arena, she’s at the mercy of all the other tributes. The Turning Point happens when Katniss and Rue team up. She’s finally taking action instead of just reacting to the other tributes and her situation, BUT the complications keep getting worse. Peeta is injured. She’s dragged further and further into the romance “charade” to keep the ratings up. But, she cannot go back and change any of her decisions. All of them move the story forward, increasing the tension, and ultimately lead to her Crisis Moment and the Climax.

Each scene in a novel will be an incident of Increasing Tension, a moment when a character has a goal, but is faced with a conflict such as an obstacle or situation and they must react or take action which usually ends up in a disaster or some sort of unexpected outcome. As you build these scenes in the middle part of your story, you create the plot of your entire story.

Remember that each scene must have an Inciting Incident  which gives the character their goal for the scene, followed by Rising Action/Increasing Complications which is the conflict in the scene. The Crisis Moment is when they decide what they’re going to do, and the climax is the ultimate outcome.

The easiest way to remember to add Increasing Complications to your story is to continually throw conflict at your character but make sure the conflict moves the story forward by forcing your character to make life altering decisions.

To put this in action, read through one of your most recent stories and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have a clear conflict in each scene?
  • Does your character respond to the conflict in such a way that they can’t “go back” on their decision and change their mind later?
  • Does the conflict you’ve chosen move the story forward and in some way change the character’s attitude? outlook? Or situation?

If you answer “no” to any of these questions, think about how you might deepen the conflict. In so doing, you’ll automatically raise the tension and increase the complications in your story.

What is your favorite strategy for adding conflict and increasing the tension? Let us know in the comments below.