In fiction, context is everything. As a writer, you can’t jump straight to the conflict of your story without giving your reader a little background on your characters and their world. Actually, You can totally do that; it’s a technique called In Medias Res, and I wrote an entire article about it here, but we’re not talking about that today. We’re going to answer the question: what is exposition in a story.
We’ll start with the definition of exposition in a story.
Exposition is the part of a story that sets the scene and provides background information on the characters. It can be helpful to think of exposition as the “setup” of a story.
In other words, it’s the part that comes before the main action begins.
Exposition can include information about the characters, their backgrounds, the setting, and the conflict. This information helps set the stage for the rest of the story.
Exposition can sometimes be a challenge to write in an exciting way, but it’s essential to hook your reader from the very beginning. After all, if they don’t care about the characters or plot, they won’t stick around for long.
What is the purpose of the exposition?
Exposition is often thought of as dry and boring, but it doesn’t have to be. Exposition is simply the part of the story where the reader discovers the setting, the characters, and the conflict.
Exposition is crucial because it allows the reader to understand the story’s context and get to know the characters. You can write this portion in several ways, but one of the most effective is to write scenes that are action-packed, witty, or chalked full of foreshadowing.
A boring exposition will lose the reader’s attention. So, when writing the setup, try to make it exciting and fun. We’ll talk about some tips on doing just that in a little bit.
When is the exposition in a story?
Exposition is usually found at the beginning of a story before the rising action begins. However, it can also occur later if new information is introduced.
The exposition can take many different forms, from a simple description of the setting to a more complex explanation of the backstory. In some cases, authors deliver setup through dialogue between the characters.
An author can also deliver exposition through narration or exposition dumps (where the narrator just tells you what’s happening). It’s up to the author to decide how much setup is needed to make the story understandable and enjoyable.
The importance of exposition in storytelling
Exposition is the part of the story where the author reveals background or backstory. This part of the story is also where the writer can set up a conflict. It’s vital in storytelling because it helps set the scene and provide context for the events later in the story.
A reader can bond with the story’s main cast during the setup. This section is the foundation of the relationship a reader will build with a character. The writer will later leverage this relationship to create tension as the character encounters a conflict.
A reader must care about a character in order to worry about them and root for their success. This tension is the only way for a reader to engage with a plot in any meaningful way.
Setup also gives readers important information about the story setting. Readers will get to know what boundaries and difficulties are present in the world of the story.
Without exposition, readers would feel confused and disconnected from the story. While too much setup can be cumbersome, a skilled author knows how to use exposition to create a rich and engaging tale.
By deftly weaving exposition into the fabric of the story, an author can create a work that is both entertaining and informative.
Five ways to improve exposition in your writing
Exposition is an essential part of any piece of writing, but it can be challenging to get right. If done poorly, that part of the story can feel forced and contrived, bogging down the plot and preventing the reader from becoming immersed in the story’s world.
However, there are a few simple techniques that can help make exposition feel natural and organic. So, let’s go over them!
- Use dialogue
Instead of having a narrator dump information on the reader through exposition, have the characters mention important details in casual conversation. This technique will help to make the setup feel less like an “info dump” and more like a natural part of the story.
Read more about dialogue here.
- Use character actions & behavior
Rather than simply telling the reader about a character’s history or motivations, show it through their actions. Suppose you want to show that your character and their father have a terrible relationship. In that case, you can show the character ripping up a photo of the two together. In short, follow the adage- show, don’t tell.
- Use vivid language to describe a setting.
You can write, “Billy lived in a small, run-down house on the edge of town.
Or, you can say, “Billy lived on the outskirts, near the edge of the pinewood forest. His house consisted of a dingy living space with matted carpet, empty minifridge, and a microwave plugged into a corner outlet. A rear bedroom housed a half-inflated air mattress. Crumpled in the corner was a crocheted afghan blanket inherited from his mother and a quarter-inch thick pillow that held a yellowed stain the size and shape of Billy’s face.”
Now, which description tells us more about Billy?
- Start with an action sequence or cold open.
A cold open is a thrilling or comedic action scene at the beginning of a story unrelated to the main plot. It is often used to introduce the story’s setting, characters, or mood. Cold opens are used in television and film, but they are also found in novels and short stories.
A cold open throws readers into the action and hooks them immediately. A cold open is the promise of action before the slower exposition phase. This type of opening is what author Dan Simmons calls the “Ice Monster Prologue.”
- Keep it focused
Finally, don’t forget to keep the exposition focused on its purpose. An exposition should reveal information about the story, not simply entertain the reader. Make sure every element of the setup serves a specific purpose in advancing the plot or fleshing out the characters and setting. If it doesn’t contribute to these goals, cut it out.
How long is the exposition?
The exposition can be as long or as short as the author desires. Still, the author must give enough information so that the reader understands what is happening and who the characters are.
The story would be difficult to follow without exposition and would likely lose its readers. Therefore, exposition serves an essential purpose in storytelling, and its length should be tailored to fit the needs of the particular story.
Fair warning, though- the longer it takes to get to the conflict, the more likely you will bore your reader. So, stay focused on the purpose of this story beat- to provide context.
However long an exposition is, its goal is always the same: to provide readers with enough information to understand what is going on in the story.
Where does exposition fit in the Dramatic Structure?
The exposition is the first part of the dramatic structure, followed by rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Even stories that don’t use the standard dramatic structure will begin with some exposition.
Exposition in other story plots:
In the hero’s journey, structure exposition is represented in the “ordinary world” phase.
Dan Harmon refers to his exposition simply as “you” in his eight-part Story Circle.
In other screenplay structures, the exposition is sometimes called the “hook.”
Examples of Exposition in literature
Exposition in the story of Daedalus and Icarus
In Greek mythology, the story of Daedalus and Icarus is a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris.
Daedalus, a master craftsman, is tasked with inventing a way to escape from the island of Crete. He constructs a pair of wings made of feathers and wax and tests them out by flying around his workshop.
However, during the exposition, he warns his son Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, as the heat will melt the wax and cause him to fall. Later, Icarus ignores his father’s warnings and flies too close to the sun. The wax melts, and he plunges into the sea and drowns.
The story of Daedalus and Icarus is an excellent example of exposition in storytelling. It sets up the conflict (Daedalus imprisoned on Crete), introduces the characters (Daedalus and Icarus), and provides essential information about the plot (how Daedalus plans to escape).
Exposition in the Story of an Hour
In The Story of an Hour the exposition introduces the main character, Louise Mallard, and her husband, Brently. The exposition also reveals that Louise is suffering from a heart condition and is not supposed to get upset.
However, when Brently dies in a railway accident, Louise does not mourn for him as one would expect. Instead, she feels relief and joy at the prospect of being free.
The exposition sets up the conflict between Louise’s desire for freedom and her expected role as a dutiful wife. It also foreshadows the eventual resolution of the story, in which Louise’s newfound freedom is cut short by her death.
Exposition in To Kill a Mockingbird
The Exposition in To Kill a Mockingbird is provided mainly through the lens of the narrator, Scout Finch. As a child, Scout is highly perceptive but relatively naïve, and she often does not understand the implications of the things she sees and hears. This allows her to provide exposition in an innocent and straightforward manner without fully comprehending the gravity of the situation.
For example, early in the novel, Scout overhears her father, Atticus, discussing the case he is working on with another lawyer. She does not understand what they are saying. Still, her innocent retelling of the conversation provides exposition that is crucial to understanding the plot.
In this way, Harper Lee uses exposition to deliver an engaging and informative story.
Exposition in Romeo and Juliette
The opening scene of Romeo and Juliet is exposition-heavy, introducing us to the Capulets and Montagues, as well as establishing the setting in Verona. We learn that there is a long-standing feud between the two families and that the Prince has decreed that any further fighting will be punishable by death.
As the scene progresses, Romeo mopes around, pining over his unrequited love for Rosaline. His friend Benvolio tries to cheer him up, but Romeo is inconsolable. Suddenly, Tybalt appears, looking for a fight. A scuffle ensues, and Romeo steps in to try and stop it. The Prince arrives on the scene and orders everyone to disperse.
Despite the lightheartedness of the opening scenes, exposition is key to understanding the conflict of the story.
Examples of Exposition in movies and film
Exposition in Tangled
Exposition in Encanto
While exposition may not be as flashy as a climax or as exciting as rising action, it is still crucial to most stories. This plot point gives readers the context they need to enjoy the rest of the story. Exposition allows an audience to develop a bond with the characters and understand the stakes of the conflict.
If you’d like to learn how all these different plot segments work together, check out my article on the three-act structure.
Or, check out the workbook I wrote on using the hero’s journey to write your story!
But that’s all I got for you today. As always, keep writing!
Continued reading on exposition:
How to Write Exposition that Hooks Readers – NowNovel.com
Exposition: How to Use it in Stories– The Write Practice
5 comments on “What is Exposition in a Story?”
Excellent info and examples as usual, John. Thank you.
Thank you, KM! Always nice to hear from you!