While at the planetarium learning about the space race with my gf, there was this really great and awkward moment. The presenter was clearly nervous, despite (because of?) having a miniscule audience. He was explaining in far too much detail how a planetarium works. Now, I don’t mean interesting stuff like a history of planetariums and their equipment. No. This was stuff like, “these are the doors that you just came in and will leave through. They go back into the museum.” Upon entering the magical cave of stars, did we lose all sense of the place that we had literally just stepped out of? “There are buttons on the arm of your chair. We won’t be using them. If we were using them…blah, blah, blah.” (Yes, that is an exact quote. ) I sat there wondering why this was happening and when it would end.
Finally, he asked if anyone had any questions. We were all relieved when no one said anything because this meant that the interesting part could happen. However, our presenter was determined to engage us and turned to a small child that may or may not have said anything. “Did you have a question?” The child obliged the presenter: “When does the movie start?” This kid had pretty much nailed it.
Sometimes, the intro to a book does the same annoying thing as our planetarium presenter. It wastes our time. By intro, I mean both the actual intro that some books, particularly classics, receive as commentary on their novel, as well as intros in a more general sense–first few chapters, etc.
With the first kind of intro, you often have someone mansplaining the book to you–even if they are not a man. They tell you what to think and when to think it. They also include plenty of spoilers, just in case you haven’t read your brand new book yet. Still, I read them. Occasionally, they are awesome and illuminating…more often, I am just plowing through and wondering how much longer until the novel starts. There isn’t a whole lot that these old-timey writers can do about this, burdened as they are by already being dead. It’s just something that happens to them and signals that they are kind of a big deal. We gave you an introduction because no one can read your brilliance unguided! You are such a great writer that you are now unintelligible to the masses! Congrats!
The second kind of dragging intro is the writer’s fault. It is what happens when they don’t trust the reader to piece anything together on their own or when they are simply super control freaks. You must know all of these things before I will let you into my world! But pounding us with background info is exhausting and tedious.
If you are writing a realistic novel set in Sweden in the 1980’s, I understand that you will need to offer up some factual data for an American audience. However, giving us a chapter out of your nearest Swedish textbook will not be your best bet. Instead, give us little clues and sprinkle in the info. It’s okay to let something crazy happen right off in the first few sentences and then go back in and tell us the pragmatic details of the government or exports, etc.
Whatever you present, whether it is literature or planetarium shows, you want to make sure that everybody is having a good time right off. If you are lucky enough to have an audience that is super psyched to be in on this thing (I was very eager to learn about the space race), don’t lose that momentum. I think that is basically what the kid was telling this guy. We’re here and we are excited; let’s not explain how the doors to the museum go back into the museum. Duh. We know. And if we really didn’t know, hearing about it is so dull that we likely didn’t listen and still don’t know. Same thing with literature. If the introduction is boring, nobody will learn the facts you so meticulously detailed. So there. Now that that’s been said, I can relax.
By the way, planetariums are the best. Why aren’t you going more often? You should probably go. Now.