Writery Bits: Rise and Fall

MCMWednesday, February 3, 2021

Writery Bits are little nuggets of writing insight I occasionally share in the hopes that someone out there finds them useful. They're mostly things I've learned the hard way over the years, so consider this your shortcut if you need one.

Rise and Fall

If you know your Save the Cat structure, you're aware that there's this pattern that happens near the end of any story: the hero is finally getting things right and everything looks good, then they have a tremendous fall (dark night of the soul), and then they rise from the ashes to save the day.

Rise, fall, rise. Pretty simple, and most people understand it — but maybe more as a trope than a logical sequence. I've seen a bunch of writers dismiss that dynamic as a rule to be broken, but they're looking at it from the wrong angle. It's not a prescribed rule meant to create cookie-cutter plots, it's an actual tool that you can (and should!) use as much as you can.

Let's look at it backwards: you want your character to win, to have a victory, to come out on top. The bigger that victory (no matter what the underlying stakes are) the better the audience is going to feel. They can't just win, they need to have a momentous win. But if you're telling a small-scale story where this "win" is, say, not losing their house — how do you take something so neutral and make it the peak of your happiness graph?

That's where the fall comes in. Your peak is only a peak in relation to the valley that precedes it. You want your hero to climb out of that pit of despair and achieve greatness, so you need to dig that hole as deep as you can. If your "all is lost" is to incidental — say the cheque to the bank was lost in the mail, so they may lose the house after all — then the rise back to victory doesn't have the same impact. Instead, you need to lay on the badness as thick as you can make it: someone stole all their money, the bank manager is corrupt and they missed the deadline. You want your hero in a hole so deep that it almost seems impossible that they'd climb out of it — because when they do, it will feel so good to the audience.

OK, so now we've got a rise and we've got a fall right before it, so we're giving our audience emotional whiplash, which is good. But just like the valley gives the peak more definition, another peak before the valley helps the badness feel worse. Our hero has been fundraising and against all odds, it looks like they might just save their house. They have a big event where the whole neighbourhood shows up to support them, and they finally feel like they belong. It's smooth sailing from here to the conclusion...

And then you drop the valley on them, and it feels so much worse. And because the audience is still reeling from that sudden drop, the perceived awfulness of the fall is more pronounced, and hurts more — and so when the character climbs back to victory, it feels even better.

This is why you have rise/fall dynamics: because they create the contrast needed to amplify emotions. And they don't need to be on a macro level, either: in your big boss scene at the end of the story, create ripples of rise/fall moments as the hero fights to win. "We're almost at the engine room!" just before they get knocked off-course. "Use the shut-off key!" before the key falls down a vent. The moment where the bad guy is inches way from killing the hero, only to lose in a sudden reversal? Micro-uses of rise/fall dynamics.

So, in summary, consider this: whatever the situation, wherever you are in the story, look at what you want to accomplish in a given moment, and see what you can do to add a rise/fall to it. It's quick and easy and it hooks readers like nothing else.

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