I’m nearly through reading Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools, which is proving tremendously useful in upping my writing game right now, and which may possibly be the best book on writing I’ve ever read in terms of both insights and practical application. The book is written to apply equally to most kinds of writing: fiction, journalism, memoir, blogging, etc.
One of the 50 writing tools Clark describes is entitled “Place gold coins along the path.” I realized on reading the section that this was something I greatly valued in writing and that I instinctively enjoy doing in my own, but I had never thought consciously of it as a technique. Having it laid out in this clear way makes it easier to understand where and how I should use it, for instance where I might want to stop and create a rewarding moment in a particular part of a story.
A gold coin is anything delightful to the reader. It can be a powerful line or quote, a delightfully witty exchange, an unexpected insight, a thrilling plot turn, a gorgeously-sketched setting, a moment of utter hilarity, or anything else that provides unexpected value or enjoyment. Whenever you’re reading and you get to a part that makes you say “Oh hell yeah,” that’s a gold coin.
Gold coins are a treat to the reader, a reward for reading that helps create trust, enjoyment, and commitment to the book or story. Clark recommends finding ways to include them regularly as the writing progresses, like gold coins dropped here and there along a forest path. He also points out that a reader who encounters a few of them early in a piece will begin to expect them to appear regularly–which is to say, to have confidence that the piece will be worth reading through to the end.
This helps me understand why I so often disagree with the advice “Murder your darlings.” When it applies to self-pleasing material that doesn’t do anything for the reader, darlingcide is great advice. When we’re talking about some little gem of a moment in the story that may not necessarily serve any standard purpose, such as building character, plot, or theme, it could be a doomed darling, or it could be a gold coin. If it’s not going to actively detract from the story and is something the reader might really enjoy, my thinking is that makes it a gold coin. Of course, the ideal is to offer gold coins that reward the reader and advance the piece.
Photo by Tjflex2