Exposition

Definition of Exposition

In literature, exposition is a form of writing that explains what’s happening or has happened in the story in a very matter-of-fact way. Exposition may present background information of the plot or characters, explain details about the setting, convey a sense of the historical context, and so on. Authors are often counseled to keep exposition to a minimum so as not to bore the reader, or at least to include exposition in such a way that it doesn’t bog down the story. However, exposition is a necessary part of almost all stories as a way to convey important information.

The philosophers Alexander Bain and John Genung named exposition as one of the four modes of discourse, along with description, argumentation, and narration. Each of these has its own unique purposes and forms, and is created and developed in different ways.

The word “exposition” comes from the Latin word expositionem, which meant “a setting or showing forth.”

What does “Show, Don’t Tell” Mean?

Most beginning writers come across the phrase “show, don’t tell.” This means that the majority of a story should be written in dramatic action and with sensory detail, rather than explained away to the reader in exposition. Readers feel much more involved in a story when they feel they can viscerally imagine the events that are occurring. It can feel condescending, on the other hand, for an author simply to “tell” the reader what is occurring and how to feel about it rather than let the reader experience it and create his or her own judgments. Consider the following two examples:

  • “He senses movement beyond the dark trees. Shivering in the damp air, he strains his eyes against the fading of the light. For a brief moment, two golden eyes shine back out at him, and he hears the whisper of paws against decaying leaves. His throat goes dry.”
  • “Peter was always scared of tigers, and it was a well-known fact that there were many tigers in the jungle where he was traveling. This made him especially fearful. One day when he was in the jungle he saw a tiger, and he was very scared.”

In the first example, the author presents sensory details that draw the reader in, whereas in the second example the author tells the reader all the pertinent information and the reader doesn’t experience any of the fear for him or herself.

While the phrase “show, don’t tell” is perhaps the most repeated piece of advice given to writers, there is some backlash against this. It is important that a writer knows exactly what to show and summarizes other parts that the reader doesn’t have to know every detail about. In short, the author must do some telling in a story, i.e., use some exposition.

Common Examples of Exposition

We often use exposition when we tell friends and family about our days. Exposition has a feeling of “this happened, then this happened, then this,” and so forth. The following sentences, which can be found in everyday language, are examples of exposition:

  • “You know who I’m talking about: Betty, the one who used to work at the library and always wears her hair in a bun.”
  • “My day was terrible. First some guy spilled coffee at me at Starbucks. Then I was late to my meeting and my boss yelled at me. Then I forgot to save my report before closing my computer and lost a full day’s work.”
  • “It was incredible visiting the pyramids in Egypt. They’re just so big and strange against the rest of the landscape. Archaeologists still aren’t completely sure how they were built.”

Some forms of writing that we encounter frequently, yet are not literary, are told completely in exposition. For example, newspaper articles, academic papers, and business reports are written almost exclusively in exposition.

Significance of Exposition in Literature

Though authors often try to limit the amount of exposition in a story, nevertheless exposition is very important in almost every novel and play ever written. It is not necessary in poetry, and is very infrequently found there, though sometimes a writer of a longer poem includes some moments of exposition.

Authors use exposition for many reasons. As the definition of exposition states, exposition is important for imparting key information. One key reason to use it is to skim over information that the reader needs to know to understand the plot but does not need to experience “first-hand.” Exposition is also important to fill in backstory and setting without dwelling on them too much. In fact, if a story contained no exposition and only sensory details then the reader may not know which of the dramatized moments are more and less important. Exposition is also an important aspect of mysteries and thrillers when the denouement comes and the author must quickly fill in the reader about what exactly happened.

Examples of Exposition in Literature

Example #1

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule, it may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house, somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson’s lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchers in the old church-yard of King’s Chapel.

(The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

This excerpt is from the very beginning of The Scarlet Letter. In Hawthorne’s day it was quite common for the early parts of novels to contain a good deal of exposition. It is more common now for authors to start with a “hook,” i.e., to drop the reader into the middle of the action. However, many authors decide to start their stories with a broad explanation of the setting and the characters that the reader is about to encounter.

Example #2

I will reconstruct for you as far as possible. I am inclined to think that Miss Howard was the mastermind in that affair. You remember her once mentioning that her father was a doctor? Possibly she dispensed his medicines for him, or she may have taken the idea from one of the many books lying about when Mademoiselle Cynthia was studying for her exam. Anyway, she was familiar with the fact that the addition of a bromide to a mixture containing strychnine would cause the precipitation of the latter. Probably the idea came to her quite suddenly. Mrs. Inglethorp had a box of bromide powders, which she occasionally took at night. What could be easier quietly than to dissolve one or more of those powders in Mrs. Inglethorp’s large sized bottle of medicine when it came from Coot’s?

(The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie)

Famed mystery writer Agatha Christie used many exposition examples in her stories. Since her mysteries are so complicated, a large part of the end of each novel includes a long amount of exposition in which her detectives (either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple) explain exactly what happened at each stage of the crime and investigation.

Example #3

Harry had been a year old the night that Voldemort—the most powerful Dark wizard for a century, a wizard who had ben gaining power steadily for eleven years—arrived at his house and killed his father and mother. Voldemort had then turned his wand on Harry; ha had performed the curse that had disposed of many full-grown witches and wizards in his steady rise to power—and, incredibly, it had not worked.

(Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling)

J. K. Rowling ran into an interesting problem as she got further into her seven-book series about Harry Potter. Many of her readers had been with her since the very first book, but as her popularity grew there were plenty of readers who were entering the series for the first time in the third or fourth book. In this excerpt from her fourth book, Rowling must briefly explain the origin story of Harry Potter’s core conflict so that readers who hadn’t encountered the series before would meet the main villain of the story—Voldemort—and understand why Harry is so important in his world. She must do this in a way that presents all the key information without boring her readers who are already very familiar with all of this information. Many serial authors encounter the same issues and deal with them through brief moments of exposition.

Test Your Knowledge of Exposition

1. Which of these statements is the correct exposition definition when used as a literary term?
A. A piece of writing meant to convey information or explain.
B. A piece of writing that includes mainly sensory detail.
C. A large display of artwork.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Why are writers given the advice “show, don’t tell”?
A. It’s a good idea for writers to include pictures along with their words.
B. Writers should never give any information outright to their readers.
C. Readers experience the story more viscerally when presented with sensory detail rather than summarized information.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following passages from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an example of exposition?

A.

And then the chair was facing Frank, and he saw what was sitting in it. His walking stick fell to the floor with a clatter. He opened his mouth and let out a scream. He was screaming so loudly that he never heard the words the thing in the chair spoke as it raised a wand. There was a flash of green light, a rushing sound, and Frank Bryce crumpled. He was dead before he hit the floor.

B.

Harry was used to getting onto platform nine and three-quarters by now. It was a simple matter of walking straight through the apparently solid barrier dividing platforms nine and ten. The only tricky part was doing this in an unobtrusive way, so as to avoid attracting Muggle attention. They did it in groups today; Harry, Ron, and Hermione…went first; they leaned casually against the barrier, chatting unconcernedly, and slide sideways through it…and as they did so, platform nine and three-quarters materialized in front of them.

C.

There were rocks littering the lake bottom. He dived and snatched up a particularly jagged one and returned to the statue. He began to hack at the ropes binding Ron, and after several minutes’ hard work, they broke apart. Ron floated, unconscious, a few inches above the lake bottom, drifting a little in the ebb of the water.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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