Exposition

Definition of Exposition

Exposition is a literary device that is designed to convey important information, within a short story or novel, to the reader. Writers utilize exposition to provide essential backstory for characters, plot, and other narrative elements. This background information allows the reader of a story to emotionally invest in the narrative’s arc, characters, and action. Exposition also enhances the reader’s understanding of a literary work and encourages their connection to it.

Though exposition is a fairly straightforward literary device, writers must finely balance revealing too little in terms of information or sharing too much detail. Either extreme can result in confusion and frustration for the reader.

For example, in the short story “Death By Scrabble,” Charlie Fish delivers a great deal of exposition in the very first line:

It’s a hot day and I hate my wife.

This statement reveals a significant amount of information at the outset about the story’s atmosphere as well as the emotional state and mindset of the narrator. However, rather than alienating the reader with too much background information, Fish’s bold exposition entices the reader to continue reading the story to learn what events are to come and why the narrator “hates” his wife.

Common Sources of Exposition in Writing

As a literary device, the purpose of exposition is to provide background information about one or more characters, the story’s setting, plot events, or other narrative elements. In relaying this backstory, the reader achieves greater enjoyment and understanding of the story and its meaning. Here are some common sources of exposition in writing so that readers are given sufficient information:

  • description of setting (when and/or where the story takes place)
  • Dialogue/conversation among characters
  • Character’s expressed thoughts and/or observations
  • story’s point of view
  • Flashback
  • narrator’s direct description or telling
  • secondary sources of information (such as a letter, diary, newspaper, etc.)
  • overheard conversation and/or argument within a story
  • emotional state of a character
  • Character’s response to events and/or plot points in the story

Common Examples of Exposition in Well-Known Tales

All narratives require exposition so that the reader has enough information and context in order to understand the story. Folk and fairy tales, in particular, require exposition so that their unusual characters make sense and the fantastical plots have meaning. Without such expository information, the storylines would be inaccessible in terms of understanding. Here are some common examples of exposition in well-known tales:

  • Snow White: The queen is obsessed with being beautiful and consumed with jealousy over Snow White’s greater beauty.
  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear leave their home in the woods unlocked.
  • Cinderella: Cinderella is good and kind, unlike her stepsisters.
  • The Princess and the Pea: The “pea” is a test to determine the authenticity of a princess.
  • The Tortoise and the Hare: The hare is overconfident about winning the race.
  • Jack and the Beanstalk: Jack and his mother are very poor and have just one cow to sell for money.
  • Little Red Riding Hood: The title character is warned not to speak to strangers.
  • The Sleeping Beauty: The sleeping spell can only be broken by a true love’s kiss.
  • Chicken Little: It was an acorn that fell on the title character’s head.
  • The Emperor’s New Clothes: The “tailors” are charlatans.

Methods of Conveying Exposition

Writers have choices in the methods they use to convey exposition in a story or novel. Ideally, so that the reader’s experience is interesting and meaningful, a writer should not limit themselves to just one manner of relaying information. Here are the most common methods of conveying exposition:

Narration

Narration is a simple and direct method of conveying exposition. The narrator of a story or novel has the role of revealing information to the reader, including exposition. The type of narration influences the way such background information is relayed or dispensed. For example, an omniscient narrator can “see” everything in the world of the story as well as into each character’s thoughts and emotions, and can thereby provide any information about any character or aspect of the story at any time. A first person narrator, however, should only be able to convey any backstory or emotional information in a limited way.

Dialogue

Dialogue between characters is an effective method to convey exposition. An exchange of words can introduce important background information in a natural and unforced way within a story. Dialogue is an indirect way of incorporating critical details in expository writing. Conversation and even argument allows a writer to illuminate backstory and context for the reader to achieve greater understanding of the narrative, plot, characters, etc, in a story or novel. However, it’s essential for writers to avoid overusing dialogue as a method of exposition since this can overwhelm and/or bore the reader in addition to appearing forced and unnatural.

Internal Monologue

A character’s internal monologue is another effective method of conveying exposition. An internal monologue allows a character to express their innermost thoughts and feelings to the reader in a candid manner. This provides revealing elements and insight in terms of the character themselves, other characters, and perceptions of events in the story.

Examples of Exposition in Literature

In literature, exposition conveys information that advances the plot of a story and provides insight into characters. This literary device requires an artistic touch so that writers offer their readers enough necessary context for understanding a story without overwhelming them with tedious or inessential detail. Here are some examples of exposition in literary works:

Example 1: Sonny’s Blues (James Baldwin)

When he was about as old as the boys in my classes his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it; and he’d had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and a great gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now. He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin.

In Baldwin’s work of short fiction, the narrator provides necessary information about his brother Sonny so that the reader is able to understand the conflict and tenuous relationship portrayed in the story. Since the narration is in the first person, readers are offered exposition about the characters and events through the point of view of the protagonist. This establishes an intimacy in terms of the thoughts and feelings of the narrator. However, the expository information is also limited to the narrator’s knowledge, experience, and understanding within the story.

In this passage, the narrator reminisces about the physical characteristics of his young brother as well as Sonny’s perceived innocence as a child. This provides exposition in terms of who Sonny was, in his brother’s memory, and creates a stark contrast to who Sonny has become–an addict and convict. The narrator’s expository observation reveals information about himself in addition to Sonny. The reader learns from this passage that Sonny’s brother remembers him in detail and with fondness as a child. Yet, the narrator divulges that he doesn’t know what Sonny currently looks like. This gives the reader insight into the complex relationship between the brothers and the potential conflict to ensue in the story.

Example 2: The Giver (Lois Lowry)

“But why can’t everyone have the memories? I think it would seem a little easier if the memories were shared. You and I wouldn’t have to bear so much by ourselves, if everybody took a part.”
The Giver sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “But then everyone would be burdened and pained. They don’t want that. And that’s the real reason The Receiver is so vital to them, and so honored. They selected me – and you – to lift that burden from themselves.”

In Lowry’s novel, the reader is provided limited expository information as the story and significance of this fictional world unfolds. This enhances the suspense of the plot as well as the novel’s unexpected twists in action. The above passage is an example of exposition through dialogue between the characters of Jonas and The Giver. As Jonas asks more questions of The Giver, the reader develops a greater connection to and understanding of this society and the behavior of its characters. Through expository dialogue, the reader also becomes “The Receiver” of important information and experiences a parallel journey to that of Jonas through the novel. As a result, the story’s meaning and impact is even stronger.

Example 3: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

I was sad that nobody had come to my birthday party, but happy that I had a Batman figure, and there was a birthday present waiting to be read, a boxed set of the Narnia books, which I took upstairs. I lay on the bed and lost myself in the stories.
I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyway.

In Gaiman’s short novel, the narrator offers several internal monologues as exposition for the story. This is an effective use of the literary device in that these internal monologues provide insight into the narrator’s character, allowing the reader to connect with his thoughts and feelings. As the narrator re-tells the story of his birthday to himself and the reader, he reveals significant information about his backstory and how it has influenced who he has become. The narrator experiences emotional sadness at the thought that nobody attended his birthday party, a sentiment and experience with which many readers may identify. However, he also reveals his coping mechanism in turning to books and reading for connection, comfort, and safety. This exposition potentially resonates strongly with the reader who, in turn, may feel connection, comfort, and safety along with the narrator in the world of Gaiman’s literary work.