Stories have the power to transport us to entirely new worlds. But in most cases, a good story doesn’t start by just throwing the helpless reader into the middle of the action—they need some background first to understand what kind of world they’re getting into.
This background information is found in the exposition, or the part of the story where important details are established to help guide readers into a story.
One challenge in writing a compelling story is how to explain certain details without bogging them down with details.
What Is Exposition in a Plot?
In a basic plot structure, the exposition is the part of the story where writers introduce or explain important background information. This includes, but is not limited to, the following information:
- Time period
- Rules that regulate the world, particularly in fantasy and science fiction
Details of these elements may not be listed explicitly, but rather alluded to or implied. Perhaps dialogue between two characters reveals important background information about the protagonist. In this way, readers can get to know characters naturally.
Methods of Exposition
As a writer, you have many tools in your arsenal for writing an exposition. The most common methods of exposition for novels are the following:
The prologue is the part of a book before the first chapter. It shows things that happened before the story starts. Some authors do not advise writing a prologue, as many readers tend to skip over it.
Authors who have been successful at using prologues include J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Fellowship of the Ring begins with a lengthy prologue describing scenes from the history of Middle Earth.
This forms an integral part of understanding the story, and also alludes to scenes from The Hobbit, considered its prequel.
Backstory is an important exposition tool that will help readers understand the main character’s motivations, fears, and desires.
This can occur at any part of the book. Normally, writers would not use backstory to open up the first part of the book, as it tends to bog down the reader with lack of action.
Flashback or Inner Monologue
This is done by inserting a character’s thoughts into a scene, usually as something triggers a memory. When using this tactic, you have to be sure that the memory is brought up to serve a reasonable purpose.
This is one of the most powerful ways of presenting exposition, but also one of the trickiest. Because characters who live in the world you create already know the rules, it might sound stilted to have them talk about these details.
On the other hand, you don’t want readers to feel like they’re overhearing an inside joke that they don’t understand. It’s important to find the right balance for this method of exposition.
What Is an Example of Exposition?
Here are some examples of effective expositions in literature and film:
Example #1. The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
…The ceiling of her nursery was blue, with stars in it, as like the sky as they could make it. But I doubt if ever she saw the real sky with the stars in it, for a reason which I had better mention at once.
These mountains were full of hollow places underneath; huge caverns, and winding ways, some with water running through them, and some shining with all colors of the rainbow when a light was taken in. There would not have been much known about them, had there not been mines there, great deep pits, with long galleries and passages running off from them, which had been dug to get at the ore of which the mountains were full. In the course of digging, the miners came upon many of these natural caverns. A few of them had far-off openings out on the side of a mountain, or into a ravine.
Now in these subterranean caverns lived a strange race of beings, called by some gnomes, by some kobolds, by some goblins. There was a legend current in the country that at one time they lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or other, concerning which there were different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought too severe taxes upon them, or had required observances of them they did not like, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws; and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country.
This excerpt is from the very first paragraphs of The Princess and the Goblin. After introducing the princess, the writer immediately leads to an exposition about the goblins that live nearby—creatures that will end up being a crucial part of the story.
Example #2. Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter
With a frown Miss Polly folded the letter and tucked it into its envelope. She had answered it the day before, and she had said she would take the child, of course. She HOPED she knew her duty well enough for that!—disagreeable as the task would be.
As she sat now, with the letter in her hands, her thoughts went back to her sister, Jennie, who had been this child’s mother, and to the time when Jennie, as a girl of twenty, had insisted upon marrying the young minister, in spite of her family’s remonstrances. There had been a man of wealth who had wanted her—and the family had much preferred him to the minister; but Jennie had not. The man of wealth had more years, as well as more money, to his credit, while the minister had only a young head full of youth’s ideals and enthusiasm, and a heart full of love. Jennie had preferred these—quite naturally, perhaps; so she had married the minister, and had gone south with him as a home missionary’s wife.
The break had come then. Miss Polly remembered it well, though she had been but a girl of fifteen, the youngest, at the time. The family had had little more to do with the missionary’s wife.
The classic novel Pollyanna does not begin with an exposition; instead, the first scene presents a curious encounter in which Miss Polly is instructing her servant, Nancy, about a niece who is coming to live with her.
The author expertly weaves the backstory right into the part where Miss Polly rereads the letter she has just received, making it seamless and unobtrusive.
Example #3. The Parent Trap movie
In movies, the exposition is usually introduced with the camera panning over a city or wherever the story’s main setting is.
For example, the 1998 movie The Parent Trap begins with a musical presentation of a cruise ship, zooming in on the signing of a marriage contract to show a couple getting married. The scene continues to show the couple dancing and clearly in love in a photograph.
Then, the next scene pans over a camp setting and focuses on a young girl, Annie, as she gets off a limousine with her British butler.
The first scene forms the backstory of the twins’ parents, which will be unveiled later in the movie, while the next scene forms a quick exposition of Annie’s background as a respectable young lady coming from her English background.
The Importance of Exposition
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 book, and even becoming dedicated fans of your works.
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