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Posted, Sep. 14, 2004
Updated, Sep. 17, 2004


QuickLink: A70721

Writing Tool #23: Place Gold Coins Along the Path
Learn how to keep your readers interested by placing gold coins throughout your story.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Place gold coins along the path.

How do you keep a reader moving through your story? Don Fry tells this parable:

Imagine that you are walking on a narrow path through a deep forest.You walk a mile and there at your feet you find a gold coin. You pick it up and put it in your pocket. You walk another mile, and, sure enough, you see another gold coin. What will you do next? Will you walk another mile in search of another coin?

Like our person in the forest, the reader makes predictions about what's down the path of the story. The inverted pyramid trains readers to predict that information will become less important as you read on. When readers read chronological narratives they begin to wonder what will happen next.

Think of a gold coin as any element in a story that rewards the reader for reading that far. A good start is its own reward, of course. And crafty writers know enough to put something shiny at the end, a final reward, an invitation to return to the work of that writer. But what about the territory between beginning and end? With no gold coins for motivation, the reader may drift out of the forest.

"The easiest thing for a reader to do," argues Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Gartner, "is to quit reading."

A gold coin can appear in a story as a small scene or anecdote: "A big buck antelope squirms under a fence and sprints over the plain, hoofs drumming powerfully. 'Now that's one fine sight,' murmurs a cowboy."

It might appear as a startling fact: "Lightning ... is much feared by any mounted man caught on the open plain, and many cowboys have been killed by it."

It can appear as a telling quote, "Most of the real cowboys I know," says Mr. Miller, "have been dead for a while."

These three gold coins appeared in a prize-winning story on the dying culture of the cowboy, written by the great Bill Blundell for The Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that takes the act of rewarding the reader seriously, and sometimes not so seriously.

Which brings me to my favorite gold coin of all time, a passage from a story written in 1984 by Peter Rinearson for The Seattle Times. The gold coin appeared in a long chapter in a long series about the creation of a new airliner, the Boeing 757. The chapter on engineering, for example, included endless details about the passenger door, how it contained 500 parts and was "held together by 5,900 rivets."

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Just when my interest in the engineering began to fade, I came across this passage:

After its stop in Montreal last September, the 757 flew on to England with a load of Eastern and Boeing officials.

On the way, a duck hit one of the cockpit's No. 2 windows, not an unusual incident.

"It's usually not a big deal," said Les Berven, an FAA pilot who was co-piloting the flight. "All it did was just to make him into jelly and he slid down the side of the window."

The window didn't break-- but then Boeing knew it wouldn't because the window had gone through a series of "chicken tests."

Boeing is a little touchy about the subject of chicken tests, and points out they are required by the FAA. Here's what happens:

A live 4-pound chicken is anesthetized and placed in a flimsy plastic bag to reduce aerodynamic drag. The bagged bird is put in a compressed-air gun.

The bird is fired at the jetliner window at 360 knots and the window must withstand the impact. It is said to be a very messy test.

The inch-thick glass, which includes two layers of plastic, needn't come out unscathed. But it must not puncture. The test is repeated under various circumstances -- "the window is cooled by liquid nitrogen, or the chicken is fired into the center of the window or at its edge. "We give Boeing an option," Berven joked. "They can either use a 4-pound chicken at 200 miles an hour or a 200-pound chicken at 4 miles an hour."

No one who reads about the chicken test thinks about air travel or Colonel Sanders the same way again.

While the authors of books or screenplays know the value of dramatic or comic high points in a story, journalists are at a disadvantage. Their work is so top-heavy that even an eager editor will do the wrong thing for the right reason:

"That's a great quote," says the admiring editor to the writer. "Let's move it up."

"Readers will learn a lot from that anecdote. Let's move it up." And so it goes.

While moving the good stuff up honors the material, it may dishonor the story. The result is a kind of bait and switch.The reader winds up with three or four nifty paragraphs, followed by the toxic waste that drifts to the bottom.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox
Workbench:

  1. Talk with your editor about the concept of gold coins. Together, review some of your stories to see if they are too top-heavy. Look for missed opportunities to create a more balanced structure.
  1. Carry the concept of gold coins into your reading and movie watching. Study the structure of stories looking for the strategic placement of dramatic or comic high points.
  1. Take a draft of a story you are working on and mark it to identify the gold coins. Draw a star next to any story element with a particular shine. Now study their placement and consider moving them around.
  1. See if you can begin to recognize gold coins during your reporting. When you see one or hear one, report it more thoroughly so it can have the best possible effect in your story.

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