Definition of Rising Action
Rising action is a series of episodes in a narrative which occur after the exposition and lead to the climax of the story. Rising action usually comprises the majority of the plot, as the author must include all necessary events and information in the rising action for the eventual climax and denouement to be significant to the reader.
The definition of rising action was created by Gustav Freytag as part of his analysis of dramatic structure. He theorized that Greek and Shakespearean drama followed a five-part pyramid formula in creating tension and story: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
Common Examples of Rising Action
Rising action examples can be found in stories that we tell each other, and even can be understood as parts of speeches and jokes. Most of the material leading up to the most exciting, climactic part of a speech could be considered rising action. Similarly, most of a joke leading up the punch line is also an example of rising action in miniature.
No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man¹s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.
—John F. Kennedy “We choose to go to the moon” speech, 1962
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
—Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream” speech, 1963
In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it.
—Elie Wiesel “The perils of indifference” speech, 1999
Here is a joke with the difference between exposition, rising action, and the climax labelled:
(Exposition) A gorilla walks into a bar and says, “A scotch on the rocks, please.” The gorilla hands the bartender a $10 bill.
(Rising Action) The bartender thinks to himself, “This gorilla doesn’t know the prices of drinks,” and gives him 15 cents change. Then the bartender says, “You know, we don’t get too many gorillas in here.”
(Climax/Punch line) The gorilla replies, “Well, at $9.85 a drink, I ain’t coming back, either.”
Significance of Rising Action in Literature
All novels and works of drama contain rising action. After the audience is introduced to the characters and the conflict (and what’s “at stake”), the author describes events in which the characters try to solve the conflict and interact with each other. This is a natural part of story-telling; if we learned of the end of the story first, there would be hardly any need to find out what happens before the end. The rising action in a story is what makes us care what finally happens.
Examples of Rising Action in Literature
Here are some famous works of literature with very short excerpts of what is, in fact, a large amount of rising action:
Resolute in his helmet, Beowulf spoke:
“Greetings to Hrothgar. I am Hygelac’s kinsman,
One of his hall-troop. When I was younger,
I had great triumphs. Then news of Grendel,
Hard to ignore, reached me at home:
Sailors brought stories of the plight you suffer
In this legendary hall, how it lies deserted,
Empty and useless once the evening light
Hides itself under Heaven’s dome.
So every elder and experience councilman
Among my people supported my resolve
To come here to you, King Hrothgar,
Because all knew of my awesome strength.
(Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney)
The Old English epic of Beowulf involves a hero, Beowulf, who arrives in a village called Heorot to kill the monster Grendel that has been ravaging Heorot. The poem has some exposition about the village and the succession of kings; the rising action begins as Grendel begins attacking the men in their mead hall and they try to fight back. It continues as Beowulf arrives and leads up to the spectacular battle between Beowulf and Grendel later in the poem.
ROMEO: Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear,
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.
(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)
In this short excerpt from William Shakespeare’s tragedy, we see the moment in which Romeo first sees Juliet. This is an important example of rising action in the play, as it sets into motion their illicit love and, ultimately, their deaths.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)
Though every play and novel contain a large amount of rising action, poems do not necessarily have any rising action whatsoever. Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” is a poem which does include rising action, as it is telling a small story. In this stanza, the narrator opens a shutter and in flies a raven who continues to menace him for the rest of the poem.
“If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you doin’ it?”
“For a number of reasons,” said Atticus. “The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.” […]
“Atticus, are we going to win it?”
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” Atticus said.
(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the narrator Scout asks why her father has chosen to defend a man in court who is very unlikely to win the case. This is an important aspect of the rising action, as we see more into Atticus’s motivations and belief systems about justice in the world.
ABIGAIL: I want to open myself! . . . I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him, I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!
(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)
Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible focuses on the events of the Salem Witch Trials. He expertly builds the events so that the reader can understand why girls like Abigail confessed to witchcraft. The climax later in the story is all the more tragic because we see how it could have been avoided earlier.
Test Your Knowledge of Rising Action
1. Which of the following statements is the best rising action definition?
A. The beginning of the story, which reveals background information and sets the scene.
B. The turn in the story, after which nothing will be the same.
C. The events during the majority of the story which lead to the climax.
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2. Which of the following scenes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet would be an example of rising action?
A. The prologue, which summarizes the story which is about to be enacted.
B. The balcony scene, in which Romeo overhears Juliet expressing her love for him.
C. The final scene in which Romeo encounters Juliet in a death-like state, and kills himself, thinking her to be dead.
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3. Which of the following terms is not a part of Freytag’s pyramid?
C. Rising Action
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