How to Write The Buildup: Rising Action and Crisis

How to write the buildup

Arguably, the hardest part of writing a novel is when the author reaches the “buildup” phase of the story. This is often called “the marathon of the middle” because it is (and feels like) the longest part of writing a book.

It can be hard for a reader to keep turning the page when reading some books. Often, this has nothing to do with the story, and everything to do with the writing.

It’s either too slow, where nothing of note happens. Or it’s too much, where the writer tries to hold the tension for too long.

Finding the right balance can be difficult.

It’s during the buildup where a book can lose its way. But using rising action and crisis effectively will help develop your characters whilst pushing the story forward.

This is what’s needed to keep your readers interested.

Using rising action and crisis

Good writing is about creating conflict and tension to engage a reader; making them yearn to know what happens next.

This is done by increasing the stakes as the story unfolds throughout the buildup phase of the story arc.

To avoid the story being a snooze-fest or feeling like a car being constantly red-lined, we need to have a range of gears to work through.

Throughout the buildup, we should look to use two gears effectively: rising action and crisis.

Changing gears in the buildup
Changing gears in the buildup

Most good books use these two gears several times before they reach the narrative’s climax.

It could be done through the characters completing small challenges throughout their journey, or an investigator stumbling across clues that will eventually lead to solving the crime. But genre aside, they need to be there to keep the reader curious as to what happens next.

Remember, writers don’t make characters brave, for example. The rising action forces the characters into a situation where they are scared. Then, the crisis allows them to bravely overcome the problem.

And this isn’t unique to any specific genre or character trait. We can use rising action to set a scene tailored to extract a particular trait. Then, we use the crisis to demonstrate that trait and show the growth of the character.  

In my opinion, a great example of this can be found in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

**Spoiler alert… I will talk about elements of this book so look away if you’ve not read it**

J.K Rowling created a tournament that had multiple rounds. And each round had its own rising action and subsequent crisis – all relating and building up to the climax of the overall story.

What is rising action

Immediately after a story’s introduction and inciting incident, the writer starts to shape the path of the characters and main storyline.

Unlike a race horse, we don’t tend to bolt out of the gate. Instead, we reveal elements of what’s to come, bit by bit.

In doing so, we aim to pique the reader’s interest by making a promise – “Something is about to happen, so stick around.”

Rising action - step by step
Rising action – step by step

When writing a novel, the first hurdle for our characters to overcome is normally the smallest. It’s just big enough to demonstrate the abilities of our protagonist and their supporting characters.

Let’s take a look at the Goblet of Fire for this point.

We know Harry is a skilled young wizard. But when the prospect of him taking on a dragon becomes a reality, we are faced with rising action in the form of a challenge.

The reader will want to know how Harry will beat a dragon with only his wand. Here is your tension.

The writer then adds even more tension to this situation by having the young wizard mobbed by the press, and everyone (including the teachers) openly worrying for him.

But in order to raise the stakes, the writer added conflict. Harry is also openly shunned by his group of friends. They are angry and jealous of him.

Harry is truly alone in facing this challenge.

What is crisis

Crisis is the moment of truth – the pinnacle of the rising action. But note… it is not the climax of the story.

Often, crisis is when the time for action is upon the character and they are faced with the “do or die” moment, so to speak.

If written well, the reader will devour your words and not realise they have read through half a dozen pages without looking up.

Rising action - just one more page
Rising action – just one more page

Using the same example from Harry Potter, we see rising action reach crisis when Harry’s friends become so worried for him, they decide to help. The pettiness of childish feuding is put aside as they all acknowledge the impending danger.

This does two things: It shows the reader there are bigger issues to deal with, and it signals the rising action element is over and the crisis point has arrived.

If rising action is choosing between the red wire or the blue wire, crisis is the moment the wire cutters come out.

Keep building your buildup

Rising action and crisis are small peaks that can be used to develop your characters throughout the buildup phase of the story arc.

Each time they face a challenge or overcome a crisis, they grow and become better equipped to deal with the climax of the story.

Again, referring back to the Goblet of Fire, Harry has to overcome a few different challenges that force him to develop as a wizard, and grow as a person.

Each challenge is different and makes the reader wonder how he can overcome such odds. And this is something every writer can do in their story.

The buildup on Plot mountain
The buildup on Plot mountain

Take a romance novel for instance. It would be a pretty uneventful story if the pair find each other and fall in love without overcoming something.

There has to be some kind of conflict or crisis for them to face in order for the reader to become invested. And when the reader thinks its all fine and dandy, an ex-girl/boyfriend shows up to throw a spanner in the works.

Or a private conversation is misheard by either partner and they fly off the handle. How will they ever recover?

Equally, if a detective enters a crime scene, looks at the evidence and immediately arrests the perpetrator, the reader would feel cheated.

Throw in some cat-and-mouse… is the cop on the right track? Was the DNA a red herring? Is there a mole in the department leaking the information?

Rising tension and crisis are the reason why readers keep turning the page. And they are the reason why our characters evolve into what is needed.

Finally

The buildup phase of a story arc is your chance to take the reader on a journey. Along the way, the reader will witness the characters evolve through challenges.

Your rising action should set your characters up to overcome a crisis that will ultimately help them be victorious. And the crisis should be significant enough that the reader becomes invested in the outcome.

And to add more flavour, find a way to make them relevant to your sub-plots. This keeps the sub-plots following the overall story, and reminds the reader not to forget them.

Each story will be unique in its requirements. There is no rule that says you must have two, three or four crisis events. It will be dictated by your story.

But remember, there is a fine line between not giving the reader (or characters) enough, and over-egging the pudding.

On the one hand, we could have a story that goes from A to B to C, and we never get to appreciate the development of the characters. On the other, we could be overwhelmed by too many moments of rising action and crisis, and eventually think, “Come on! Get on with it.”

Regardless of how many events your characters face, they are all encompassed within the buildup of the story.

Whichever genre you write in, take a look at some of your favourite books and try to identify the rising action events. Highlight them and try to understand their relevance to the main story.

Doing this will help you create some excellent peaks and valleys throughout the buildup phase of your novel. This will keep your reader hooked.

Good luck

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