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Writing

David Baldacci’s 7 Tips for Writing Action Scenes

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

Whether it’s a high-octane battle, an intricate fight sequence, or just a character on the run, action is what grabs the attention of your readers. A good use of action can be a compelling way to draw in your audience, get their adrenaline pumping, and keep them reading to see what will happen next.

Action can also be used to reveal aspects of a character’s personality, as well as their motivations. With over 100 million of his books sold, best-selling author and Lifetime Literary Achievement Award Winner David Baldacci gives his tips for writing action.

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David Baldacci Teaches Mystery and Thriller WritingDavid Baldacci Teaches Mystery and Thriller Writing

In his MasterClass, bestselling thriller author David Baldacci teaches you how he fuses mystery and suspense to create pulse-pounding action.

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David Baldacci’s 7 Tips for Writing Action in Novels

For David, thrilling and believable action comes from understanding the real-life consequences of you novel’s action elements and then rendering them with clear description and sensory detail. Although you want your story to be exciting and compelling, action scenes require a dose of reality to avoid becoming cartoonish. Here are some professional tips to help improve how you write action:

  1. Do research. In order to write compelling action, it is sometimes necessary to go outside your own experiences. This may involve certain events or violent incidents happening to characters that have never happened to you. If you do your research and find out how it really feels to fall off a two-story building, or what it’s like to be in a helicopter crash, you can write action scenes that give the reader a sense of realness.
  2. Show consequences. It’s not enough to just describe something violent happening to a character. Show what happens after. Don’t just describe the way someone gets shot; tell the reader what happens as a result of it. How much blood do a character lose? What level of pain do they experience? How would a bullet wound affect their mental state? You want to give enough details of the action so that it can be easily envisioned by your audience.
  3. Choreograph scenes. Consider the layout of your action scenes and see if all the moments flow together. If one of your characters is physically fighting another, don’t just throw in action-packed phrases that sound good—describe all the moments as if you were watching two people fight in real life. David will even go through the motions as if he were his characters in order to get a feel for the reality.
  4. Be visual. Describe the important details. Even if all you’re writing is a quick chase scene, taking your time to flesh out significant aesthetics can round out the world you’ve created and deeply immerse your reader. Consider what your characters see, hear, feel, smell, and taste in the midst of an action scene. Creating a heart-pounding moment doesn’t mean it has to be fast. Slow things down and allow the reader to savor the scene. Take a moment to describe a punch, or the sound of a bomb, or the way a building collapses. Your hero can be stuck in an elevator, frantically searching for an escape, but when you add in the sound of screeching gears and the cries of fellow passengers, your reader will feel like they’re there.
  5. Make them react. Note the emotional feelings behind a physical scene. Which feelings are driving their behavior? What happens when they’re hurt by someone they love? A punch can be so much more than a punch if it means something for your character: Let’s say your hero gets attacked by someone who was like a father to him, and the blow breaks his spirit. You can’t assume that the reader knows what that devastation feels like. Be sure to show your character’s reaction.
  6. Use authentic emotion. Make sure the reactions you give your characters are appropriate for them, for both during and after the action. The feelings of these characters while in an action sequence should be in line with the traits you’ve established for them thus far.
  7. Get unreal. It’s okay that not every action scene you write is completely realistic—it is fiction, afterall. However, if something outrageous happens, there needs to be some sort of grounded reaction to it. For example, if you really need your main character to jump out of an airplane after he’s been stabbed and shot, and you think he might actually be able to do it, let the characters around him react with the surprise and disbelief that your reader will likely be feeling.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including David Baldacci, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, and more.

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