Updated: Jul 31, 2020
When you first open up a novel, you’re relatively clueless about its contents. Oh, you’ve seen the front cover and you’ve read the back-jacket description. But those only tell you so much.
They’re designed to only tell you so much.
You have to actually open up the book and read it to understand what’s going on: the characters involved… the setting they’re operating out of… their single-minded or various goals… and all the rest of that important stuff.
That information needs to be established. It’s only a matter of how. And from the author’s perspective, there are multiple ways to do so.
One of the most obvious is through exposition: the practice of laying it out straight in front of readers. Of telling them how it is.
Sometimes, there’s just no better way to do it.
Exposition is just one of “those” words that sounds more intimidating than it actually is. In fact, exposition is about as basic a storytelling component as you can get.
Some people might even call it somewhat beneath them – something they have to employ from time to time, holding their noses the whole time through.
In other words, there’s nothing to be intimidated about it.
Even so, I know I’ve used the word incorrectly a time or two before myself. So let’s give an official definition of story exposition before we go any further.
While some people will call the entire beginning of a story its “exposition,” that’s only because of what exposition is designed to do: which is set up or otherwise explain what’s going on or why through narrative detail.
At the same time, exposition can happen at any point within a story. Important past or present plot points might need to be established, setting may have to be mapped out, and characters could sometimes be better clarified in mere black and white rather than dialogue or prosey allusions.
Let’s look at a few examples for further clarification…
ThoughtCo.com gives a pretty decent example of exposition by citing the story of Cinderella.
Once upon a time, in a land far away, a young girl was born to very loving parents. The happy parents named the child Ella. Sadly, Ella’s mother died when the child was very young. Over the years, Ella’s father became convinced that the young and beautiful Ella needed a mother figure in her life. One day, Ella’s father introduced a new woman into her life, and Ella’s father explained that this strange woman was to become her stepmother. To Ella, the woman seemed cold and uncaring.
Notice a few things here, such as how it’s setting up basic plot details… the when – “Once upon a time” – the where (“in a land far away”), and the who: “a young girl” with very loving parents. None of it is pushing the plot along: It’s only explaining what’s immediately happening.
Should you want a first-person example, try this one on for size:
If you ask anyone else, they’ll tell you I’m a bum. That I’ve always been a bum and I’ll never stop being one. That’s what happens when you’re born on the wrong side of the street in a town like this one. And when you can’t seem to leave it, no matter how hard you try.
In this case, the “when” isn’t yet established, though it easily could be. But the who is “I.” The narrator. And the where is “the wrong side of the street in a town like this one.”
Not very specific, I know. But exposition doesn’t always have to be, just as long as it gives a good impression of what the plot will be working with.
You can probably now see why exposition is so often laid out in the beginning. Remember though that it can be placed anywhere throughout a story.
Sometimes too easily and too often, as we'll find out in a few days.
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on editing exposition here.