Earlier today, I was updating the Google Doc that hosts my current Star Wars Roleplaying Game campaign. We're down to two active players (a third hopes to rejoin the game when life calms down a bit), whose characters (PCs) have recovered their missing weapons and are facing off for a second time against a starship's rogue security droids.
It's . . . still not going well.
Even though the players have been making sensible decisions, the dice keep going against them. The PCs rarely seem to hit the droids (and don't inflict much damage even when they do), while I'm getting rolls that are great for the droids but bad news for the PCs. Currently, the martial-artist PC is tangled up in a net and seriously wounded, and the peace-loving adviser PC is hiding behind a computer console and looking around desperately for anything that could help them.
As annoying as this is for both the players and me (it's no fun if all the PCs die in the first adventure!), it's an excellent technique for writing. As a story progresses, the main character gets stronger, more experienced, wiser, and so on. Therefore, the challenges this character faces also have to get tougher. Otherwise, the story becomes boring.
This might only seem applicable to fiction, but interestingly, it's important in nonfiction too. Life has a way of repeatedly pushing us out of our comfort zones, and as people, organizations, and situations progress and develop, their challenges become bigger and more complex. Here are some examples:
Walt Disney and his teams faced new kinds of struggles as they increased the scope of their projects, from creating short cartoons to making feature films to building Disneyland and Disney World.
Most parents would agree that raising toddlers and raising teenagers pose two completely different sets of challenges.
In many wars (such as the American Civil War and World War II), the fiercest fighting occurs near the end of the conflict as one side becomes increasingly desperate.
In other words, whether in real life or in fiction, most people and groups don't get to coast for long. They can, should, and do have periods of reprieve, such as the Roaring Twenties between World War I and the Great Depression or Frodo's time at Rivendell early in the Lord of the Rings series. These times give both the characters/people/groups and the readers a much-needed emotional break. But sooner or later, something always comes up to disturb the (relative) peace and forces the characters/people/groups to confront a situation they've never dealt with before or haven't dealt with in their current circumstances.
So as you write, make sure to incorporate "rising action" into your piece. If you're writing fiction, have the characters start their journey by encountering fairly easy obstacles. Inexperience might cause them to fail even these minor challenges at first. But as the characters' competence grows and they find success, their challenges should also proportionally increase to keep the audience's interest.
If you're writing nonfiction, this process works a bit differently. Look for the low- and high-stakes aspects of your topic, and use them to shape your piece. For example, in a biography, you could explain how each new challenge in the subject's life forced them to grow beyond what they previously were and could do. In a travel-magazine article about a certain city, you might start with recommendations for inexpensive or easily accessible attractions, then progress through increasingly pricey or hard-to-access options, and finally end on the high note of the best, most popular, and/or most expensive experiences available in that city.
Just as a roller coaster with several hills is typically more fun than a roller coaster with only a single hill, these alternating chunks of challenge and rest help us hold readers' interest and give them chances to catch their breath. If you're not sure how to incorporate this structure into your work, click here to book a call with me so I can help you figure it out.
(Thanks to Stephen Hateley for sharing their work on Unsplash.)