What is Rising Action in a Mystery?

rising action as a man leaps into the air

Rising action carries your story from the inciting incident of your mystery to the climax. Rising action uses a number of events to build on the conflict and increase tension, driving the story to a dramatic end.

Your mystery novel has one major goal—to find the villain. Once your detective reveals the villain, your story is over as far as mystery readers are concerned.

Your sleuth’s journey to the reveal comprises the rising action of your mystery. 

The Beginning

The beginning of your mystery introduces your sleuth. Your reader sees your hero or heroine in action and gets to know how they work. 

This section of your story is called exposition. You literally “expose” your detective so your reader has an opportunity to know them and develop an attraction to them as a character before the real action of the story begins.

The Inciting Incident 

Soon after you introduce your protagonist detective, something happens that triggers their involvement in the mystery. That something is called the inciting incident

At this point, your detective makes a commitment to solving the crime. 

The Climax

After your detective’s search for the truth, he or she finally arrives at who the villain is and reveals the villain to other characters and the reader. 

For mystery readers, this revelation is the climax of your mystery. The detective ends their search for the truth. 

Everything In the Middle is Rising Action

Between the inciting incident and the climax comprises the rising action of the story. For mystery writers, this is most of your story. In other words, rising action is the great, big middle of your book.

Rising action in mysteries is your detective’s journey toward revealing the truth. Although you may think of action as fight scenes, that is not the action that happens in a traditional mystery. Most of the “action” is cerebral. The focus is what your detective discovers and how that information brings them closer to the truth.

It’s easier to moderate how the action progresses if you think of it in two parts—the discovery and the narrowing of suspects. 

After the Inciting Incident Discover Information 

The first half of your story is all about your detective discovering the victim’s world. The action rises as your detective learns more and more about the victim and their world.

The detective knows little or nothing about the victim. A cop may be assigned a case. A cozy heroine may only know the victim as a friend of a friend. And, even if the detective knows the victim, the game is reset when they have to discover more in order to discover who the real villain is. 

This section of the mystery’s rising action involves collecting and interpreting evidence, finding clues, and discovering and interviewing suspects. 

As a writer, you introduce the key characters to the mystery and any subplots. And you create a big problem for your sleuth—whatever they do, they are no closer to finding the villain. 

At The Midpoint Regroup

At the midpoint, the main action is that your detective has to regroup. Everything that they’ve discovered so far gets them no closer to finding the culprit. Your detective is discouraged. They may want to give up.

Then something happens, usually rethinking what they’ve learned so far that gives them a new insight. Once again, you detective takes action based on the new insight.

After The Midpoint Narrow The Possibilities 

After the midpoint, your detective re-examines all the information they’ve collected so far. They begin taking action on the information, interviewing suspects for a second or third time, re-interpreting clues and evidence, and rethinking what they previously thought. 

All the action after the midpoint is geared toward narrowing the possibilities. Red herrings are dismissed. Suspects are eliminated one by one. The logical conclusion leads toward the one last suspect who is the villain.

Depending on your mystery subgenre, you may have a conflict that is an action scene. Often, this is a fight with the villain because the villain is cornered.

The rising action from inciting incident onward focuses on the puzzle of the mystery and how your detective, using their unique skills, arrives at the revelation of the villain.

The Climax Ends the Rising Action 

Once your detective reveals the villain in the climax, the mystery is solved. As far as mystery readers are concerned, the story is over. 

Bring your story to a quick conclusion so you leave your reader with a positive feeling about your story. 

Why Your Reader Loves Rising Action

Your reader is there to solve the mystery puzzle. Your challenge as a mystery writer is to keep the puzzle mysterious until the end. 

Rising action in a mystery works when you present puzzle pieces that seem unrelated. The rising action is all about making your mystery mysterious. Everything you do as a writer to create and hide clues and give your sleuth trouble when they interview suspects raises the stakes. Your goal with the rising action is to puzzle your reader. 

At the same time, you want to plant hints to the real villain. Your reader will look for those hints. Part of the mystery-writing craft is planting the hints but hiding them in plain sight. That’s the hidden rising action of your mystery. 

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