About halfway down any longer piece, readers’ interest and energy begin to sag. They start thinking about stopping. They need a lift to their spirits and expectations. So we put something wonderful just before the sag, a little bit that will refresh them, a reward for reading that far. We call these little gifts “gold coins” or “goodies” or “Oreos.”
Suppose you’re a witch, and you want to lure two children from one side of the forest into your hovel on the other side. You open a box of Oreo cookies, spreading them out, one every 50 feet along the path. The children find the first Oreo, share it, and spot the second one just up the path. They eat that one, and another, and so on until they end up in your oven.
That’s how you draw your readers all the way through a piece to the ending, by spreading the goodies. Inverted-Pyramid thinking would put the whole box of cookies at the beginning, and the children/readers would simply eat it there and never read beyond your second paragraph. We space the rewards to keep readers advancing.
A gold coin is something readers will enjoy, such as a terrific quote, a striking new character, a wonderful sentence, a telling detail, or an amusing anecdote. Quotes work especially well as gold coins, such as Dorothy Baker’s pronouncement that she intended “to turn over a clean breast.” She also swore never “to count her bridges before she burned them.”
A new character, saved until later, can pick up the narrative, such as Ruby Thewes, played by Renée Zellweger, in Cold Mountain.
In general, we avoid striking sentences because they momentarily stop the reader. But that striking quality is exactly what we want in a gold coin. For example, here’s a wonderful sentence from Adam Nicolson’s Seize the Fire: “A man-of-war would sail with a breeze so slight it could just be felt on the windward side of a licked finger.” (Boy, I wish I had written that sentence.)
Telling details are especially golden. When World War II broke out in 1939, the staff in the Louvre scrambled to pack and store their art treasures. Lynn Nicholas gives this ironic detail: “One curator was amazed to find her packers, recruited from two department stores, the Bazar de l’Hôtel and the Samaritaine, dressed in long mauve tights, striped caps, and flowing tunics, as if they had just stepped out of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian pictures they were about to wrap.” Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa. (New York: Knopf, 1994). And a splendid sentence too.
Here’s the ultimate anecdotal gold coin, known in the trade as “the Chicken Test.” It comes in the middle of an immense and very technical series on the design of the Boeing 747 airliner, written for the Seattle Times by Peter Rinearson:
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 matter how long or difficult a piece is, if you reach that anecdote, you will not stop reading.