Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sprinkle gold coins in the middle

Your stories are important. But will anyone read them? All the way through? A few gold nuggets could make it happen.

Your potential readers have countless distractions and they all compete with your memoir.

Just think of it: the Internet, iPhones, movies, athletics, TV, hobbies, texting, exercising, magazines, Twitter, Facebook, friends, chores, other people’s books—and more.

Twenty-some years ago, I read one brief sentence I’ve always remembered:

(Peter Jacobi)

You cannot force anyone to read your stories, no matter how important they are. 

You know what it’s like to sit down with a book or magazine anticipating—even craving—a good read, only to be bored.

And you know very well that story does not have a divine right to be read. You feel no hesitation in dropping it and looking for something better to read.

You don’t want readers to do that with your stories. What can you do?

First, hook them with a killer lead.

Throughout your manuscript, make ‘em laugh, cry, and wait.

Your stories are important. To keep readers reading, pay special attention to the middle of your stories.

Keep them reading by “placing gold coins along the path.”

Don Fry coined that phrase. It goes something like this:

Picture yourself making your way down a narrow path in a thick forest. (I’m picturing one with tangled, soggy underbrush in western Washington’s rain forest.) You’ve been hiking a mile when you spot a gold coin on the ground. You snatch it up and put it in your pocket. You trek a mile deeper into the woods, find another gold coin, and slip it into your pocket. Think about it: Would you keep traipsing through the forest, hoping for another gold coin? Sure! Most of us would hike another mile for another gold coin. (from Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark)

“Think of a gold coin as any bit that rewards the reader,” says Roy Peter Clark, a master teacher of writing and one of my favorite mentors for decades.

“With no gold coins for motivation, the reader may drift out of the forest.”

Don’t let them drift out of your forest!

Don’t let their interest fade! Scatter gold coins especially in the middle of your stories!

Even the old Bard himself, Shakespeare, gave out gold coins in the middle of his plays.

Clark offers these ideas for developing “dramatic and comic high points,” gold coins to drop within your stories:

  • a small scene (the setting)
  • a relevant anecdote
  • a startling fact
  • a significant quotation

I can think of other ideas:

  • a quirky anecdote
  • a little-known fact
  • an intriguing historical fact
  • foreshadowing an important twist or turning point or crossroads in your story
  • raising a question
  • Can you think of others? Leave your ideas in the comments section below.

In his Writing Tools: 50 essential strategies for every writer, Clark offers practical recommendations:

  • Study other people’s writing and movies for strategic placement of gold coins.
  • If you’re doing research for your stories, recognize gold coins when you stumble upon them and be sure to use them in your stories.
  • Examine one of your rough drafts and notice gold coins—“any story element that shines”—and mark them with a star. Note their placement. Are they in the best place?
  • Study the middle of your story. Does it include significant gold coins—rewards for your readers? If not, write in some nuggets or move them from other parts of your manuscript.


  1. This is interesting to me because just yesterday I watched a teaching video by Lysa Terkheurst about "sticky statements." She defines them as short, pithy memorable statements that express to the reader what he's feeling, redirect his thoughts to God, and give him something to remember and share with others. She said you need to have those every so often, every couple of pages, in a book if you want your reader to keep reading. Interesting parallel to your "gold coins."

  2. This post is a pot of gold coins. Thank you. Another term for the "sticky statements" Betsy Cruz refers to is "velcro phrases."

  3. "Sticky statements," "velcro phrases," -- Super! I like Lysa's idea to whittle down a big thought/point into one short, pithy statement. That adds clarity in addition to creating something memorable for the reader. And thanks, Sharon, for your clever play on words! :)