Writing anything, be it a movie script, a novel, a short story, or a play, is all about clear communication. The means of conveying information to the reader (or viewer, listener, etc.) requires several different modes of communication. And one of the trickiest is exposition. But what exactly is the exposition of a story?
Exposition of a story (or in a story) is the means of providing the audience with important background information that either advances the story, invests the audience in the characters (thereby creating emotional stakes), or provides clarity to avoid confusion.
Every story has exposition, and the best writers are the ones that know how to provide background information in an unobtrusive and subtle manner. There are many ways to do this, and we'll discuss them all in this article.
- How Exposition Differs From Plot
- The Importance of Exposition
- What Artful Exposition Looks Like
- An Example of Good Exposition
- The Ways to Convey Exposition
- for Writing Exposition
Table of contents
- What is Exposition and How is it Different From Plot?
- Exposition is Essential
- The Balance of Artful Exposition
- What is an Example of Good Exposition?
- How to Convey Exposition
- A Few Tips for Writing Exposition
What is Exposition and How is it Different From Plot?
The meat of expository writing is often at the beginning of a story. It's not hard to see why this is. You need to set up your story with things including setting, characters, and even world-building in some novels.
In fact, science fiction and fantasy stories often have a lot of exposition at the beginning because the world or time in which the story takes place is so different from our own. This can be tricky, because it can bore readers in those ever-important first few pages. We'll discuss more on this challenge later.
For now, just keep in mind that exposition doesn't just happen at the beginning of the story. A good story should have bits of exposition woven throughout.
So, exposition is backstory, location, time, and character factors. Plot, on the other hand, is all about what happens during the story. Plot and exposition are intertwined, but it's important to make the distinction.
Plot is conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement — otherwise known as the resolution, where all the plot points come together. Exposition is the backstory that allows the plot to happen, helping to build the emotional stakes and making sure the reader isn't confused about the story as the plot progresses.
Exposition is Essential
Exposition is essential because it adds texture, understanding, and context. It's also used to make clear character motivations. All these factors add up to make the reading experience enthralling and pleasurable.
Put another way, you can't have a good plot without some exposition, and exposition without plot might as well be a dry news story detailing the five Ws and not much more. This is why expository writing is so important.
The Balance of Artful Exposition
The problem of relaying important information to the reader in an entertaining and creative way is something that writers of novels, television shows, and movies all face. Exposition, when done improperly, is also called an “info dump,” and it can bore readers to tears.
Luckily, you can learn to use exposition in creative and engaging ways throughout your narrative to keep your readers entertained while conveying important information about the characters, story, and world.
Robert Jordan was a master of this in his Wheel of Time series, conveying information simply through the differences in thought patterns and dialogue of different characters. You could learn much about their cultures just by listening to them speak, or what they chose to value.
Had the same conveyance of information happened in a less interesting setting, i.e just telling us the worldbuilding, it could bore some viewers, causing them to zone out or simply switch to a more engaging read.
What is an Example of Good Exposition?
Since many writers struggle with exposition at the beginning of a story, let's take a look at the first lines of a book with great exposition.
“I was arrested in Eno's Diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.”
-From Killing Floor, by Lee Child
The exposition in this first paragraph is simple, to the point, and packed with information. The first line is the key. The reader immediately wants to know why this character is getting arrested. But the exposition sets the scene, telling the reader that the character has just gotten into town and hasn't had breakfast, so presumably he's been traveling for a while. And yet he's getting arrested.
We eagerly read the exposition because our curiosity has been piqued by that first line. This is one of the tricks of conveying information. You tell the reader only what they need to know, and no more. And there are several ways to do this well.
How to Convey Exposition
Changing up the way you convey exposition throughout your story is a good idea. It keeps things fresh and helps keep the story moving without getting bogged down in paragraphs of expository narration or stilted dialogue.
These days, most authors use indirect exposition, which is a way of drip-feeding the reader important background info instead of spending chapters or paragraphs explaining things through direct exposition.
1. Through Narration
Narration is the most straightforward way of providing background information to the reader. Though the type of narrative exposition is dependent on the type of narration you, as the writer, choose for your story.
An omniscient narrator, for instance, will be able to provide background information on all the characters, whereas a first-person narrator (like the example above) will only be able to provide limited background information based on his or her experiences and knowledge.
Narrative exposition can be used for both direct and indirect exposition, but many new writers end up doing an “info dump” when using this form of narrative conveyance. Still, that doesn't mean you shouldn't use it whenever the scene calls for it!
2. Through Inner Monologue
Exposition via internal monologue is great for revealing character motivation and emotions. We get a glimpse into the main character's mind, and it can provide us with insights and backstory in a personal way that's hard to do any other way.
Like other types of exposition, this is best used only once in a while for most novels. A thought here and there can go a long way to bringing the reader along and getting them invested in the character.
3. Through Dialogue
Expository dialogue can be a useful and unobtrusive way to share backstory with the reader. The rule with good exposition is that if it takes the reader out of the story, it needs work. This is why, when done well, dialogue is a great option for exposition.
Perhaps the best examples of expository dialogue are found in the novels of George V. Higgins. A crime writer who came to prominence in the 1970s, many of Higgins's stories were largely told through dialogue between characters. Not only are the conversations in his novels authentic (he captured the way Boston criminals talked almost flawlessly), but they are incredibly effective at hitting the plot points in an unobtrusive and natural way.
In his books, Higgins manages to use subtext as an art form, having faith that the reader will be able to figure out major plot points from implicit rather than explicit conversations.
For examples on how to convey exposition through dialogue well, read a couple of Higgins's novels. Just be warned: they're not for the faint of heart.
4. Through Epistolary Means
Story exposition can also be expressed through the use of epistolary means. Things like letters, newspaper articles (or headings), bills, medical prescriptions — anything written in your story's universe is fair game to help you get important backstory details across.
Stephen King often makes use of epistolary exposition in his novels, as do many other authors. Typically, the main character comes across letters or news stories that provide information and backstory. The literary equivalent of a television on in the background of a movie, epistolary exposition can be used artfully when used sparingly.
5. Through Flashbacks
Flashbacks are another means of exposition. When inexperienced writers hear the words “show, don't tell,” a flashback scene or chapter is often the first thing that comes to mind when they need to provide some backstory to the reader.
And while a scene sharing backstory is sometimes preferable to stopping the plot for narrative exposition, it can sometimes confuse the reader and take them out of the story.
Like all other forms of exposition, it's good to use this one sparingly. And it's always good to ask yourself if there's a better (and quicker) way to inform the reader than through a flashback.
A Few Tips for Writing Exposition
Now that you know the top ways to convey exposition, let's look at a few quick tips on how to write it effectively.
1. Only Share What is Absolutely Necessary
When it comes to exposition, less is often more. Don't be afraid to give the reader only enough to keep from getting confused. They don't need to know the character's entire backstory. Instead, they only need to know what's relevant to the scene in question. No more, and no less. And they probably don't need as much as you think they do.
2. Dialogue is Your Friend
Even if you're not using dialogue as a form of exposition, you can still use it to great effect. Sprinkling lines of dialogue throughout narrative exposition that you must get across is a good way to keep the plot going, and the reader intrigued. This has the added benefit of being easy on the reader's eyes.
3. Start With What's Unique
The Killing Floor exposition example above is a great glance at starting with what's unique. When you know you have to fill the reader in with exposition, try to start with something intriguing, as this can help lead them through the rest of the exposition — especially if you dole it out to them in little bits!
Try to think of a novel you've read that doesn't have exposition. Of course, every novel has some. But if you can't remember what it was or how the author snuck it in, that's a novel worth studying. Good exposition is sly, masquerading as part of the plot structure. Ideally, you shouldn't know you're reading exposition when you come across it.
Like any other writing skill, exposition just takes focus and practice. And I hope that, with the tips and examples shared in this article, you now have a better understanding of what it takes to write good exposition.