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Arts & Entertainment

Constructing Chapters

David Baldacci

Lesson time 14:01 min

The first chapter of your book should be a touchstone. David talks about how to open with a “big pop” and how to reference that opening in the rest of your chapters.

David 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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[MUSIC PLAYING] - So many times, I've had writers come up to me at book events and book signings-- I have a book that I want to write. I just can't get started. You know? And the reason they can't get started is they're trying to figure out everything that's gonna be in this 140,000-word, 500-page novel before they sit down to write it. And they're totally overwhelmed by it. They just can't do it. And their fingers hover over the keys. You know, their hand is shaking with the pen. So they never write the first page. I always like to come up with-- I call it the big pop. And the big pop is, how is the novel gonna open? You know, because if you don't get that right, it doesn't matter what else you write after that because nobody's gonna bother to finish reading it. So the big pop is really important. So I need to understand intimately how that scene is going to unfold and how it's gonna drive the rest of the story. So it could be that, you know, somebody dies, somebody is killed, a plane crashes, you know, a government facility is robbed, somebody escapes from a prison. That's the big pop. And then it's my job to take that big pop and break it down, understand how I'm gonna construct that scene, how you will construct that scene. There was a book I wrote called "The Escape" where this guy that I needed to get out of that prison-- it's the USDB-- United States Disciplinary Barracks-- at Leavenworth. It's escape-proof. Nobody's ever escaped from it. You just can't escape from it. My job was, in the opening chapters, I needed him to escape from this prison. I've been out there. I mean, I see how it's worked out. It's a military prison. And for me, in my mind, there was only one way for this to happen, and that was the big pop that I came up with. So everything that I built around that opening scene in my outline, I needed to execute on. But all the different elements I built in that scene-- all of that was threaded into the rest of the novel. I got the big pop. It's almost like a little self-encapsulized short story. I'm gonna sit down and I'm going to write those first few chapters. And then all of a sudden, you're over that hump of, oh, my god, how do I do this. Because when you write those first three chapters, all of a sudden, you opened up all these possibilities for all these other plot threads. I've got this stuff here. He's escaping form prison. Who helped him? Who didn't help him? Why did he get out? What's he gonna do now? All of a sudden, there's all this stuff you can write about, and the problem of "I don't know how to start it" goes away. [MUSIC PLAYING] While I'm writing a novel, I constantly go back to the first chapter. Sometimes-- every time that I go back to the novel, I could be in the middle or near the end, and I go back to that first chapter. That's my touchstone. That should be a writer's touchstone. That's how you opened this compelling story to the world. So it's the most-- the first thing ...

Captivate your readers

David Baldacci has captivated readers across the world with gripping, suspense-fueled thrillers. Now the New York Times–bestselling author of 38 novels shares his techniques for crafting authentic characters, developing research-based plots, and navigating the world of publishing. Learn how to write a novel with red herrings, clues, and plot twists that will keep your readers turning the pages.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

David Baldacci went to the core of what it means to write. Is is a passion and a calling or isn't it?

Amazing MasterClass! David Baldacci is an awesome writer and a great communicator. He is generous in sharing his knowledge and tips on his craft.

It's hugely helpful to be inspired, but additionally, the concrete ideas that I can apply to my own writing, have changed my approach to my process. Invaluable.

GREAT TEACHER. Love the professionalism!!! I'm sure this was a huge part of what made you successful! Because at the end of the day, professional people want to work with professional people. Great class. Thank you Mr. Baldacci.


Katalin E.

I`m inhaling everything he says, like when I`m reading his books  Smart, pragmatic and to the point. I`m loving it

Rose M.

Starting can be overwhelming great to just start with the first chapter. I liked the mothership touchstone advice.

Noel H.

Excellent tips! and true statements about how one tends to freeze when starting a new.

Robert Lewis H.

The first line, the first paragraph is akin to the slap given to a new born...scream, shout, cry...I'm here and I have something to say. A story is born...


Sometimes I like easing the reader into the story by offering some description of a place in question, but I tend to lean towards openings that start off in the action. My current work in progress begins with an outcry as my protagonist and her group is surrounded by terrifying enemies. The first chapter kills off everyone but her which is what forces her to strive for survival and figure out why her tribe was killed in the first place.

Matt H.

I'm Dr. Martin Luther King jr's NEW lawyer...and we win our case, hands down, all across the board, no contest, absolute and final justice. Forever and ever, amen! Wonderful World History. Martin Luther King jr never had a fair trial...or any trial at all!! How about that. In the 50's and 60's, they had actually changed some laws around, making it illegal to prosecute and try the *** **** **** as an official terrorist organization. It was against the law. It was against the law, it was against the 1955. 1955. It's the year 2019, it's absolutely legal to try and prosecute the *** as an official terrorist organization and bring them to justice, for The Nobel Peace Prize. President Donald Trump signs an anti-terrorism bill/act/law, and they're done. That's !!!epicJusticeNOW!! He's an innocent preacher. He's an innocent preacher. A very innocent Baptist Preacher. It's time he has a very real and very fair trial. Since he had no trial at all. That's not a trial. This time he has a defense. A defense attorney, and this time turn it around and countersue the whole *** as an organized terrorist organization. He's an innocent preacher. "He's an innocent preacher." The *** **** **** is a terrorist organization, it's official. "It's time for Martin Luther King jr to get his fair trial. American." !!!epicJusticeNOW!! ~ The Nobel Peace Prize ~

Solomon's W.

The big pop is actually one of my strengths I think. I usually have a great time coming up with something in the beginning that hooks us. I can tell I need to have some idea of what's going to happen in the overall arc in order to continue since otherwise, I may run out of fuel because I don't really know where I'm going. I like discovering, but it helps to have some idea. And the big pop is so important for sure. I came at this more from a screenwriting perspective and the same (in my opinion) applies to film. Even if it's not an action film, having a strong opening just sets the mood and the tone of the film. If people aren't into it after establishing that big pop, you've lost them.

A fellow student

I am sorry but I don’t understand what David means when he’s speaking of a « big pop » in the first scene. Is it supposed to be a great deed by the protagonist ? Or is it a disaster that gets the story started even before the setup ? Could someone clarify if possible please ?

A fellow student

I like the analogy with movies, that a scene is expensive to shoot and must be rich. The stories I like best are those that accomplish several things at once. Looking now to see how I can layer my current scene.


I have a hard time in the era of mass shootings with the romantizing / entertainment value of murder. The books he describes seem gratuitous and are more of the societal problem than the solution. Violence with redemption is one thing, violence for popcorn entertainment is where we end up with guys shooting up movie theaters dressed as Batman characters.