Exposition in writing can make or break a story. Exposition that’s artfully placed throughout the narrative with just the right balance of discovery and suspense can elevate an average novel or screenplay. Using too much exposition at once, or using it clumsily, will slow down the action of your story and make your readers lose interest in the struggles your characters are facing.
As a writer, you must entice, amuse, alarm and surprise your reader, foregrounding engaging themes and voices so that readers know when, where and why your story takes place. Exposition requires both creativity and research on behalf of the writer.
Narrative exposition is the insertion of background information within a story
This information can be about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc. In literature, exposition appears in the form of expository writing embedded within the narrative.
Exposition is one of four rhetorical modes (also known as modes of discourse), along with description, persuasion and narration.
- Expository writing is a type of writing where the purpose is to explain, inform, or even describe.
- The purpose of description is to re-create, invent, or visually present a person, place, event, or action so that the reader can picture that which is being described. The writer tries, not simply to convey facts about the object, but to give readers a direct impression of that object, as if they were standing in its presence. See: SHOW DON’T TELL.
- Persuasive writing is backed by facts, whereas opinion writing is supported by emotions. It is a type of non-fiction writing where writers utilize logical arguments, and carefully chosen words and phrases. Literature rooted in the fiction genre could also be categorized as persuasive writings
- The narrative mode encompasses the set of choices through which the creator of the story develops their narrator and narration. Narration includes both who tells the story and how the story is told. The narrator may be anonymous and unspecified, or a character appearing and participating within their own story (whether fictitious or factual), or the author themself as a character.
Worldbuilding is the part of the writing process that sets up where your story takes place. When you build a world, you include the landscape that your characters will inhabit, the tone of your story, its major preoccupations and themes, as well as the nature of its morality. Whether you’re writing a book, a film, or a video game, the imagined world you build should still feel like a real world, which means it must function with its own set of rules. Figuring out these rules takes time and attention to detail, but they will ultimately establish the basic structure of your universe. Masterclass
Indirect exposition is a technique of worldbuilding in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. This can be done in a number of ways: through dialogues, flashbacks, characters’ thoughts, background details, a fictional universe mostly commonly associated with works of fantasy and science fiction in novels, comics, films, video games and art, or the narrator telling the background story.
If you “tell” someone about an event, they’ll simply know the facts about what happened. If you “show” someone an event through specific details, they’ll feel like they experienced that event alongside the fictional characters who lived it. See ‘Show, Don’t Tell‘
- In the writing of Rudyard Kipling. In his stories set in India like The Jungle Book, Kipling was faced with the problem of Western readers not knowing the culture and environment of that land, so he gradually developed the technique of explaining through example.
Direct exposition occurs when the narrator or a character briefly pauses or delays the action of the story to introduce expository details.
Most works of literature, novels, plays, films, and TV shows use a combination of both direct and indirect exposition to convey important information to the reader.
- Prologues and epilogues are two tools writers can use to create exposition, providing readers with information that allows them to better understand the story or themes. A prologue is a short introduction and an epilogue may contextualize, reflect on, and/or briefly summarize the story’s main events, or may give readers information about what happened to characters after the end of the main story.
- Writers often use flashbacks and memories to convey important information about events that occurred before the beginning of the narrative.
- Writers can also use characters’ thoughts as an effective expository tool. Though this is similar to using a character’s memories to fill in important information for the reader, a character’s thoughts in the present moment can be used to indicate their opinions and worldview, relationships with other characters, and can even give readers important information about other characters. In theater and film, characters’ thoughts are often represented through monologue or dialogue. The words that characters speak—either in dialogue or monologue—are often used to communicate both direct and indirect exposition, and can convey important background information to the reader / audience.
- Non-fiction writers may quote media (such as books, newspapers, websites, text-messages, magazines, letters, or emails) in order to convey important information directly to readers.
The function of exposition
To create a setting, introduce characters, provide background information, and prepare readers / audiences / viewers for future events by revealing their nature and consequences.
Exposition locates readers / audiences / viewers in the world of the story: it establishes the “who, what, where, when,” and sometimes “why” of a plot.
Exposition gives you a way to show the readers the sort of conflicts your characters have faced in the past, what their hopes and desires are, and what sort of experiences—good and bad—have made them into the people they are today. This makes them feel more real to the reader.
4 ways to convey exposition in your story
- Narrative exposition is all the words you use to give the reader key details about what’s happening in any given moment, telling us what your character is feeling, how their bodies are reacting to what’s around them, memories that are dredged up in response to their surroundings, and questions they have about their world.
- Dialogue exposition is conversation between two or more characters. You can use their conversation to convey background information to your reader, too. This might be through your characters talking about something that’s happened, one character explaining something to another, or from them discovering something new together.
- Internal monologue exposition is where your character is talking to themselves inside their thoughts. In first person perspective, this will usually be a part of the narration. In third person perspective, however, the character’s thoughts will be distinct from the rest of the story.
- Flashback exposition is describing key plot points that have happened, your reader actually gets to see them happening. This can take the form of an isolated section of the story, such as a prologue or a separate chapter, or it can happen as a short deviation from the events happening in the present. Flashbacks always need to be triggered by something—usually something sensory. Specific sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures are deeply linked to our memories, and you can use those sensory stimuli to reveal information to your reader.
Examples of Exposition
- Shakespeare opens Romeo and Juliet with a prologue delivered by a chorus: Two households, both alike in dignity. In fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. The entire fourteen-line prologue reveals even the fact that Romeo and Juliet will ultimately die: the entire plot, and the character’s fate, is provided in the exposition of the prologue.
- In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s narrator uses dialogue to introduce Mrs. and Mr. Bennet, their relationship, and their differing attitudes towards arranging marriages for their daughters. “A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
- E.M. Forster begins Howard’s End with a series of letters from Helen to her sister, Meg. Helen is staying with family friends at a house called Howard’s End when she writes the letter that closes Chapter 1.
In the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window, written by John Michael Hayes based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story “It Had to Be Murder,” we are introduced to the world of a professional photographer who is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment and from his window we meet his neighbors via their daily habits, as well as the mise-en-scène of their apartments. This expository scene gives viewers a taste of the voyeurism that is to come, and drops hints about how each character will figure into the story.
- The animated film Up, co-written by directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, and Tom McCarthy, opens with a montage that guides us through main character Carl Fredriksen’s relationship with his wife, Ellie. In the span of just a couple of dialogue-free minutes, we experience the joy, love, and loss of the couple’s many years together. This scene is one of the best examples of exposition in recent film history.
Exposition is an essential part of every narrative—not just in the beginning, but throughout its entire journey
Exposition is a crucial part of a story because it serves as the foundation for the reader to understand why something that happens is important to the characters.
When your reader can relate to your characters, this gives you a better chance of keeping their attention until the end of your novel or screenplay.
Exposition gives your readers a wider view of the world you’re creating; adds depth to your characters and broadens your core story to include a greater range of space and time.
Poorly crafted exposition risks dragging down your story’s plot, effective exposition takes your fiction writing to a whole new level and makes the humanity within it feel even more real.
THE WRITE JOURNEY course offers building blocks in crafting Exposition and Worldbuilding and gives an in-depth exploration of the Visual Dynamics Of Character, The Language and Visual Dynamics of Film, and how to Excavate The Inner Life Of Your Story. It takes you through the process of exploring the Inner Life of your story by creating a scene outline to build and dramatize each story event and to fully explore the exterior and internal lives of your story.