How to use Rising Action, Escalation and Switches
I am writing a one-hour script to be broadcast as 5 mini-episodes. For my first draft I wrote the whole play as one story. But the structure requires more discipline: each segment must tell its own little story, seamlessly advance the main story, and end on a cliffhanger. How do I keep the action moving to make my mini-episodes compelling stories in their own right?
To help me I have used with three classic screenwriting tools: rising action, escalation and switches. In this article I will talk about what I understand these things to be, how to implement them, and how to avoid some easy mistakes. How do you make the parts of your story as exciting as the whole?
What is Rising Action?
You usually want your story to get more tense, dramatic and exciting on the way to the climax. The action should rise. Start small, get bigger on the way to huge. Deliberately raising the stakes is good where it keeps your reader involved and engaged. It is bad when it distances you from the truth of your story: when your desire for rising action has the characters doing things they simply would not do.
You will find discussion of rising action in endless screenwriting books. I’ll try to avoid repeating too much Syd Field dogma, or wittering too much about five act structures and whatnot. The ideas I’m talking about in this article are just tools: ways to look at your story to help you solve things that aren’t working. They’re also rooted in a really conventional type of story. If your plot is good as it is, don’t screw it up just so you can incorporate a car chase!
That being said, when in doubt I don’t think you can go far wrong by saying that things should keep on getting worse for your character. She’s lost her job? Now she should lose her home. Lost her home? Time to lose the family. The family are gone? Oh look, now she’s wanted by the police.
The Battle Against the New
Here’s a typical way to start a story. Someone is living their ordinary life, although something is missing, when a surprising new problem arises that they must confront to return to their ordinary life. Joan Wilder is a lonely romance novelist whose sister is kidnapped. Jyn Erso is an outcast orphan forced by the rebel alliance to help find her lost father. Maverick is an ace fighter pilot sent to an elite academy even though his superiors don’t trust him.[i]
Your plot is made up of the actions, decisions and incidents arising from the protagonists efforts to solve the problem. Rising action requires that the impact and consequences of these actions should increase over the course of the story until you reach a climax. This is easiest to see in action movies: first a fist fight, then an airplane strafes the Eiffel tower, then a gun battle as nukes blow up the moon… you get the idea. But that can give the false impression that rising action just means bigger explosions. For the action to rise it must stem from the problem that drove your character, and rooted in that thing missing from their ordinary life.
How to make things worse.
For genuine rising action everything must be driven by the character. Harsh words from your girlfriend on screen have a much greater impact than a million people dying off screen. Blowing up a bigger building does not count as escalation, unless the bigger building was the place where the rebels had struggled through act 1 to build their rebel base. How do we apply this principle to our stories – to actually solve problems?
My five episodes needed to be roughly the same length (12 minutes). Once I had broken the play into parts I looked at each episode and started with one question: are things worse for the character at the end than at the beginning? If not, there is a strong danger the audience will get bored.
I ran into a problem straight way. The first episode starts with a space station on fire ( like to start with a bang), but at the twelve minute mark the protagonist is arguing about his employment prospects (I, erm, like a good contract dispute). Although it bruises my every lawyerly instinct, I confess fires are more exciting than contracts. So how do I increase the drama? Make the contract explode? Have the dispute during a car chase?! A CAR CHASE WITH EXPLOSIONS!!!
The key is the character. The fire is part of their job: the contract is the basis of their career. After the initial excitement I need to normalise the fire but exceptionalise[ii] the contract dispute. The key to rising action is not how big and explodey the action is (although explosions are exciting, so you want to watch that), but how much bigger the new event makes the protagonists problems. In this case, the fire makes things difficult, but the contract could change their life.
Having identified how the action rises across each episode (how the characters problem keeps getting worse), there are two techniques I can use to keep things moving to the climax: escalations and switches.[iii] These allow me to end each episode with a cliffhanger, an “oh shit” moment.
Escalation occurs when the problem fights back. The hero beats the assassin so the bad guy hires a team of bounty hunters. The doctor isolates the virus only to discover it has spread into the general population. The lover brings her paramour flowers only to discover the ex is back in town.
Basic escalation is simple: the character does something, and right afterwards things get worse. But effective escalation must be rooted in the motivation of the antagonist, who is the personification of the protagonists problem.[iv] This means thinking about your villain like a real character. Why do they hire a team of bounty hunters? Is that the best thing for them to do? Far too many stories are ruined because they escalate for escalations sake without considering if it makes any sense: “I gave your mother a brain tumour because mwa hah hah hah hah, and I’m telling you now because, mwa hah, mwa hah hah hah hah hah!”[v]
So, having considered how the end of each episode should make things worse for my protagonist, I also consider how their antagonist will escalate things in a way that makes sense as a solution to their own problems[vi]. If I’m getting really subtle, that same action should come from the antagonists own dramatic flaw. Thus the battle between protagonist and antagonist becomes a struggle between characters who possess their owns strengths and weaknesses. Almost as if they were real people!
A switch is where something good turns out to be bad. Switches still operate through incidents, actions and decisions to make things worse. The most successful switches come from your protagonist’s flaws. When Maverick buzzes the tower he thinks he is showing what a great pilot her is, but instead it undermines his position on the course and makes his instructor think he is reckless and untrustworthy: it looks really cool, it turns out to be really bad.
Much great drama revolves around a character who, when confronted with a problem, is initially unable to resolve it because of something about who they are. The climax of the story is not just about defeating the problem, but also overcoming this flaw (or failing to do so and being destroyed). Joan Wilder overcomes her anxiety to find love. Maverick overcomes his ego and learns to work in a team (I’ll be your wingman any time). Jyn Erso, erm, erm…. Ok, maybe not a great example[vii]. I think they were trying to show that Jyn had to learn to trust others and rise to fight for a greater cause. It doesn’t work for me because she was just too passive. The action rose around her rather than because of her: the action wasn’t rooted in her character and so it lost its way.[viii] But Darth Vader was awesome in that corridor.
So, ideally, not only does your action rise (things get worse for your character because their specific problem gets worse), not only do your antagonists escalate (fight harder for reasons consistent with their own goals), but both this should the protagonists efforts to resolve the problem are fundamentally undermined by his or her own flaws. This is revealed when the results switch: what they did to makes things better actually makes things worse.
A Five Stage Test
This may seem highly formulaic, and, as I said earlier, you should only start thinking this way if you find yourself with problems in your story and are testing for solutions. But in my case I have a highly formulaic problem: how to divide the story into strictly timed episodes that tell clear stories while keep the overarching story moving and exciting.
I’ve broken my process into five steps.
- Does each episode start with a problem drawn from the episode before that the protagonist must confront: a problem that is bigger and worse than the precedent?
- Does my protagonist’s solution draws on their flaw (in this case, that there is no point in listening to other people because they are all stupid.)?
- Does this seem to resolve the problem (providing a story arc for the episode)?
- Does this end up making things worse?
- Do the antagonists respond, in force, in a way that logically advances their own aims and sets up the problem for the next episode.
Applying this to Episode 1
My lead is an engineer on a space station [everyday life]. He wants a promotion so he can get off the station and go join Starfleet [desire], but his thinks his superiors are idiots who do not recognise his value [flaw]. A fire on station reveals essential components have been replaced with phoney parts and the whole station is in danger [event].
He goes to see his boss. She tells him if he can just keep the station together for a few days she’ll move up his promotion and get him off the station by the end of the week [Escalation]. Desperate to revive his career, he lies about the extent of the damage and makes the deal. [Action]. But when he goes to make the repairs he discovers it is worse than he thought. Will he cover up the problems, or come clean and ruin his career [switch]?
This is a very rough overview, but I hope you can see how grounding the rising action in the needs and flaws of the character helps make the decision at the end of the episode more high stakes than the fire at the beginning.
So, it’s that easy?
This process isn’t an answer to everything and it isn’t the only way to write a story. It has been a useful way to tighten up the five episodes within my broader play. There is a line of thought that working formulaically reduces creatively – I don’t know how credible that argument is but I’m glad I wasn’t using this approach explicitly during the first draft. However, as an editing tool, rising action, escalation and switches are all good ways keep your story moving. Let me know what you think!
[i] Romancing the Stone, Rogue One and Top Gun, respectively. Did you grow up under a rock?
[ii] I’m allowed to make up words.
[iii] These are my working definitions of the escalation and switch. Other writers may have other ideas.
[iv] Alliteration! ALLITERATION! EXPLOSIONS!!!!
[v] Yes, I’m looking at you, otherwise great Guardians of the Galaxy 2.
[vi] This is an important question to ask: would things work out better if they just stopped fighting and worked together? Then why the heck don’t they just do that! You’d better have a really good answer – if not, time to change the direction of the story.
[vii] But if somebody could make me a good sci-fi rom com starring Felecity Jones and Chris Pratt and some spaceships I literally wouldn’t need another movie ever again.