Exposition (EK-spuh-ZI-shuhn) is a writing technique that discloses details about events, settings, or characters. Exposition is crucial to setting the stage, as it provides readers with essential background information like character backstories, past plot points, and historical context. Taken on their own, these pieces of information are called expository details.
Exposition is also one of four modes of discourse, alongside description, argument, and narration. These categories are sometimes called forms of discourse or rhetorical modes.
The word exposition stems from the Latin verb exponere, meaning “to expose” or “to explain.”
How Exposition Is Used
Exposition is most often found at the beginning of a story, when the setting, characters, and main plot are introduced. Every text—fiction or nonfiction—requires context to situate the reader, and the bulk of expository details tends to come at the start to give readers a foundation of knowledge that carries them throughout the story.
Texts that are nonlinear or begin in media res—in the middle of the action—often incorporate expository details throughout. Consequently, the reader’s understanding of the narrative develops with its progression.
Authors can access an arsenal of strategies for incorporating expository details into their work. Some of these techniques include:
- Dialogue, monologue, and narration: Speech is a quick way to inform readers—and characters—of crucial information without weighing or slowing the story down. Think of Mr. Gibbs in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl; he primarily exists to explain pirate lore and recount Captain Jack Sparrow’s backstory.
- Character thoughts: Thoughts and introspection can fill in significant details, like a protagonist’s opinion, backstory, relationships with supporting characters, and other information like personal motivation. Character thoughts are often linked to dialogue and monologue, particularly in works of drama, which rely on speech to communicate not just thoughts and opinions but the entire plot.
- Flashbacks and memories: These writing techniques are useful when a story starts in media res or must otherwise delve into the past to provide context. The Odyssey is one such example. The epic poem begins when Odysseus’s journey is already near its end, but it tracks back to reveal the details of his arduous trek.
- Media: In-universe media can reveal pertinent information that characters wouldn’t otherwise have access to, like a news or radio broadcast that alerts a vigilante hero to a crime occurring nearby. Nonfiction often pulls from real-world media—like books, interviews, news articles, and personal correspondence—to share background information or provide context for an argument.
- Prologues and epilogues: Prologues introduce a work, situating the text or its content in context. Epilogues can also contextualize the story, or they may summarize the main narrative or reveal what happened afterward. Prefaces, introductions, forewords, and afterwords serve similar purposes.
Direct and Indirect Exposition
However writers choose to include exposition, it tends to manifest in one of two forms: direct and indirect.
Direct exposition refers to the explicit inclusion of expository detail. A fairy tale may begin with “Once upon a time” before revealing where the story takes place and who the protagonist is. This background information directly informs the plot, letting the audience know what’s happening, when it’s happening, where it’s happening, and why.
Indirect exposition refers to the subtle inclusion of expository details. Sometimes called incluing, this strategy clues readers in to pertinent background information. Readers use these details to make inferences about the narrative and develop their own understanding of it.
Exposition and Worldbuilding
Exposition is a cornerstone of worldbuilding. Readers require some level of explanation to get properly acquainted with any new character or setting. This is especially true of stories for which writers invent whole worlds, complete with unfamiliar geography, social customs, languages, and so on.
Stories that spend pages explaining the setting, the characters, and their society can test the modern reader’s patience. Many tend to prefer when writers follow the “show, don’t tell” storytelling technique. This writing style relies on sensory details, feelings, and actions rather than exposition, summary, or description.
Showing tends to be more compelling, as it creates stories that are more immersive, rich, and lifelike. It lets readers experience the story for themselves and form their own conclusions rather than adopt the author’s. And because stories that show often sprinkle indirect exposition throughout, this helps the narrative maintain its tempo and keep the reader’s attention.
The Functions of Exposition
The act of reading requires an audience and a story. Exposition is the bridge that connects the two. It provides the context that is vital to understanding the story’s unique world, characters, and plot—the who, what, when, where, and why. It provides clarity from the get go, helping readers understand what’s happening and build connections with the characters.
Imagine exposition as an iceberg. Most narratives are backed by a wealth of history and lore, but a text is most effective when it reveals only the most essential information. The other details remain hidden, like the bulk of an iceberg submerged under water. This mystery keeps readers engaged and allows them to form their own conclusions, perspectives, and inferences.
Exposition often gets a bad rap because too much can grind a story’s pace to a halt. Readers likely won’t notice an appropriate amount of exposition because stories flow more smoothly when expository details are introduced organically. But they will certainly notice exposition that’s poorly executed. Writers must be careful not to inundate readers with too much expository detail, lest it weigh the narrative down.
Exposition in Other Media
Details that clarify context, background, or history are crucial to any form of media, meaning exposition plays a significant role in communicating information well beyond literary works of fiction.
Exposition in Nonfiction
Nonfiction works like academic monographs, technical writing, cookbooks, and journal articles all rely on exposition to explain ideas or inform readers of essential context. Food blogs are an accessible example of this. Recipes published online are often preceded by anecdotes that explain the recipe’s origins and its significance to the writer, which provides context for the dish’s history, why the writer’s sharing it, and perhaps why they recommend one cooking technique over another.
Exposition in Visual Media
Exposition also plays a role in visual media. Like literature, movies and TV shows can work prologues, epilogues, flashbacks, dialogue, and other writing techniques into the script.
But film and television have other, unique ways of including exposition, like extradiegetic text or title cards that appear onscreen to relay where a new scene is set or how much time has passed between scenes. Live action and animation can also use images or visual clues as exposition, like a school uniform or the front-page headline of an in-universe newspaper.
Voiceovers are another to communicate pertinent expository details, like the opening title sequence in the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which briefly explains that world’s history. Montages are another expository technique, such as the training sequence in Rocky or the brief history of Carl’s relationship with his wife Ellie in Up—both of which share key details without weighing down or slowing the story.
Examples of Exposition in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Exposition is crucial to works of drama. Depending on the structure of a play, the first act may be called the exposition (or the prologue), since it must set the stage for the plot. Readers and performers are privy to the stage directions that inform or guide the play, but most of its exposition is delivered through speech.
Take this dialogue from Act 1 of Macbeth:
From Fife, great king,
Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky
And fan our people cold.
Norway himself, with terrible numbers,
Assisted by that most disloyal traitor,
The thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict,
Till that Bellona’s bridegroom, lapped in proof,
Confronted him with self-comparisons,
Point against point, rebellious arm ’gainst arm,
Curbing his lavish spirit; and to conclude,
The victory fell on us.
These lines establish the tragedy’s background, revealing two important bits of information: Scotland has been engaged in war against Norway and Ireland; and Macbeth met the enemy’s attacks point for point, breaking their spirit and securing victory for Scotland. This establishes Macbeth as a powerful key player before he even appears onstage.
2. Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book
The Pillow Book, completed in the year 1002, collects the essays, poems, and observations of Sei Shōnagon, a gentlewoman in the court of Japanese Empress Consort Teshi. The text is widely regarded as one of the greatest examples of Japanese literature, but its significance would likely be lost on Western readers who are unfamiliar with Japanese history.
To help readers better connect with Sei Shōnagon’s writing, the 2006 Penguin Classics edition of The Pillow Book includes an introduction that serves as an expository essay on the book’s historical context:
Sei Shōnagon lived at the height of the Heian period. ‘Heian’ roughly translates as ‘peace and tranquility’, and nicely expresses the nature of this long, sunny period in Japanese history, stretching from 794 to 1186, when Japanese culture flowered and came into its own. This flowering grew from the fertilizing contact of the native culture with that of China, but by Sei Shōnagon’s time the direct impact of that powerful foreign civilization had largely been absorbed and contact with China had virtually ceased, although its culture was still a potent presence in civilized Japanese life.
This paragraph clarifies a few key points, such as when Sei Shōnagon lived, what the Heian period was, and how this period relates to Japan’s broader history. It also reveals that Sei Shōnagon lived in a time of change, as Japan was forming its own cultural identity, though China’s influence was plainly evident.
Introductions, prefaces, and forewords are common in nonfiction and works translated from foreign languages, as they provide important details that situate a text in its original context in a way that helps readers understand the work.
3. Scott Westerfield, Uglies
Uglies is a dystopian science fiction series that follows Tally, a girl on the cusp of her 16th birthday. At that age, Ugly teenagers undergo cosmetic surgery to become Pretties, whose physical appearances all conform to society’s aesthetic ideal. As the first book in the series, Uglies must provide expository details that build out the world, like these:
The mansion was full of brand-new pretties—the worst kind, Peris always used to say. The lived like uglies, a hundred or so together in a big dorm. But this dorm didn’t have any rules. Unless the rules were Act Stupid, Have Fun, and Make Noise.
This excerpt juxtaposes Uglies with Pretties to help readers understand the rules of this dystopian society. If Pretties live without rules and are even encouraged to party and revel in indulgence, then readers can infer that Uglies must follow rules and mind their behavior to appear appropriately composed, obedient, and unobtrusive. In revealing that Tally’s world is built on unequal standards, this passage sows the seeds of narrative conflict.
Further Resources on Exposition
Well-Storied.com takes a detail look at the “show, don’t tell” writing technique—and shares tips on how and when to use it.
This article lists 15 clever examples of exposition in film and TV.