In the little town of Saint Ansgar, Iowa, where I’ve lived for 20 years, a conscientious Christian has posted a sign on the way into town that announces “The wages of sin is death.” Not exactly the greeting you might expect…
On the back of the sign, which you can’t possibly see until you leave town (unless you can spin your head around and drive at the same time – I can’t), is the rest of the story: “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”
The Bible verse (Romans 3:23) is one of my favorites. When read in its entirety, it has a beautiful message. But I hate the way the sign leaves me dangling. What if I don’t leave town for several days, two weeks, or a month? What if I leave town by a different route? What if it’s dark? I might never get to the good part. I might never know the rest of the story.
As a reader – of signs and books, I don’t like to be kept waiting too long. If the beginning of a book is too depressing or slow-paced, I might not keep reading long enough to get to the good part. If a climax builds too slowly or drags on for too long, I might stop caring before I get there. If a book contains too many cliff hangers, I’m going to be very frustrated, especially if I have to wait a year or two to finally find out what happens. Even in a series where each book comes to a complete end, with the next installment starting up with a new character or generation of the same family, I don’t like to be kept waiting too long. I forget pertinent details, names and relationships and connections between characters.
And what about those books that have multiple story lines about several different characters and so many sub-plots going all at once that by the time you get six chapters down the road and are finally taken back to the main storyline, you can’t even remember what was going on? Next time I pick one of them up, I’m going to read Chapters 1, 5, 9, 13, 17 and 21, then go back and hit Chapters 2, 6, 10, 14, 18, and 22… and so on. It’ll be much less irritating.
Am I the only one who gets impatient if I’m left dangling too long?
The third and final book in my Maple Valley Trilogy, Merry Go Round, was released about a month ago, and it’s been surprising to me how many people have bought all three books at once. “We’ve been waiting until the trilogy was complete”, they’ve claimed. “We hate having to wait between books, so we don’t even start a series until we can read the whole thing from start to finish.”
I wrote as fast as I could when I was working on Stormy Weather, Water Lily, and Merry Go Round, knowing that those who had started the series were clamoring for the next in line. My publisher worked with me as much as possible to get each subsequent book out quickly. I do understand where those readers were coming from, and am glad I could oblige without leaving anybody waiting for too long.
If the owner of the “Wages of Sin is Death” message is reading this, my advice is to get a second banner and post them like the old-fashioned Burma Shave signs… “The wages of sin is death,” and then a few yards up the road, a second sign with the hope-filled conclusion, “The gift of God is eternal life…” I don’t mind being left hanging for a few yards, but I don’t like to be left waiting for too terribly long, or the point is lost on me.
A little suspense is great, but don’t keep me on the edge of my seat forever. A nice, slow build up to a tender love scene is very sensual, but don’t dash my hopes too many times or I may not even enjoy the happy ending when it comes. As a reader and a writer, my opinion is that once you have the momentum going, it’s best to keep on climbing at as brisk a pace as you can manage.
And as for my neighbor, if you’re going to tell me the bad news, you’d better find a way to share the good news now – not later!