Exposition is the backbone of any story. It is the part where you introduce your characters, setting, and plot to your readers. If done well, exposition can help set the tone for your story and engage your readers from the very beginning. However, if done poorly, exposition can be boring and confusing for your readers.
In this article, we will discuss the do's and don'ts of writing exposition in a story, give examples of exposition for context, and answer some frequently asked questions about exposition.
What is the exposition of a story?
Exposition is the part of a story that establishes the background and provides important information about characters, setting, and plot. It is usually presented at the beginning of your story to provide context and help set up the rest of the narrative.
Different types of exposition
Direct exposition is when the information is presented directly to the reader, usually by a narrator or character. This type of exposition can be effective if done well, but it can also come off as overly didactic and preachy.
Indirect exposition is when the information is presented in a more subtle manner. This can be done through expository dialogue, description, or even just hinting at something without explicitly spelling it out. Indirect exposition can be a great way to provide context and engage your readers without being too heavy-handed.
Direct vs. indirect exposition
When deciding which type of exposition to use in your story, it can help to consider how much information you need to convey and how best to do this without overwhelming the reader.
Generally, direct exposition is best used when providing basic background information that is important for the reader to understand. On the other hand, indirect exposition is better suited for conveying more complex information.
The Dos of writing exposition in a story
Make sure you provide enough information to get the story started
Exposition should provide all the necessary information to set up your story and engage readers, without being too long-winded or giving away too much. As your story unfolds, you can add more details to your exposition.
Make sure that exposition is relevant to the plot
Don’t include information just for the sake of providing background information; only include details that are directly relevant to the development of your story. Key background information should be included in your exposition, but any other details should be saved for later.
Use indirect exposition to avoid overwhelming your readers with too much information
Indirect exposition can be a great tool for providing important details without being too didactic or preaching to your readers. It gives them the opportunity to make their own inferences and come up with their own interpretations of the story.
Provide context for characters, setting, and plot with vivid descriptions and interesting dialogue.
The best exposition is the kind that comes alive on the page. Use vivid descriptions and interesting dialogue to draw your readers in and help them connect with your characters, setting, and plot.
The Don'ts of writing exposition in a story
Don't focus too heavily on backstory
Try to keep the exposition focused on the present and avoid getting too bogged down in backstory. This is expecially true for your main character ’s backstory, as readers will want to connect with the main character in the present rather than dwell on their past.
Don’t give away too much information
When writing exposition, it’s important not to give away too much information at once. Try to provide just enough context for the reader so that they can understand the story without giving away all the surprises and twists.
Avoid unnecessary details
When writing exposition, try to limit yourself to only the essential information that is needed for readers to understand what is going on in the story. Unnecessary details can drag out your exposition and make it slow-paced. Stick to using intriguing details.
Don’t be overly didactic
When using direct exposition, try not to be too preachy or pedantic as this can take away from the suspense of your story and turn off readers. Instead, focus on providing key points without giving away too much information.
Don’t info dump
Info dumping is when you give all the important information at once, usually in a single paragraph or page. This can make your exposition feel rushed and overwhelming to readers, so try to break up the information into smaller chunks that are easier to digest.
Don't overly use internal monologue
Internal monologue is the thoughts of a character in a story. While it can be used to provide exposition, too much internal monologue can make your story feel stagnant and one-note as readers will get bored with long passages of inner dialogue. Try to mix things up by including other forms of exposition such as dialogue or action sequences.
Ways to use exposition in a story
Using action or scenes to provide exposition can be an effective way to get readers invested in your story. Instead of info dumping, having characters act out their emotions or discuss their thoughts with other characters can help readers understand the motivations and conflicts at play within your story.
Dialogue is another great tool for providing exposition as it allows you to convey information in an interesting and engaging way. Using dialogue can give your characters more dimension as you can reveal snippets of their backstory without being too overt about it.
Symbols are a great way to subtly add depth and meaning to your stories. By using symbols throughout your story, you can provide additional context and background information without having to be too explicit about it.
Prologues can be a good way to provide exposition without having it slow down your story. Prologues can give readers a glimpse into the past or provide important context for the main plot of the story without bogging things down with too much detail.
The Lord of the Rings
In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien uses exposition to provide a brief history and introduction to the world of Middle-Earth. This allows readers to become familiar with all the different characters and locations that appear in the story so they can better understand what is happening in each scene.
In Harry Potter, J.K Rowling uses dialogue, action sequences, and internal monologue to provide exposition within her stories. For example, when Harry talks with Hagrid about his family background or Ron explains why he doesn’t like flying on broomsticks, these conversations help inform readers about important details without getting too bogged down in info dumping.
The Great Gatsby
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses symbolism to provide exposition. For example, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock is used to symbolize Gatsby’s dream and unrequited love for her. By using symbols throughout the story, Fitzgerald is able to convey important themes and messages without having to explain them directly.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much exposition should I use in a short story?
It depends on the short story and its length, but generally you should use just enough exposition to establish the setting, characters, and plot points. Too much exposition can slow down your story and make it feel overly didactic, so try to keep things concise and engaging.
What are the best genres to use exposition in?
Most genres can benefit from the use of exposition, but some genres such as fantasy and science fiction tend to require a lot of world building which will necessitate more exposition. Other genres such as romance and mystery may require less.
Should I use a separate chapter for my exposition?
It depends on the story and the size of the exposition. If you have a lot of important backstory or world building that needs to be conveyed, then it may be best to devote an entire chapter to it. However, if your exposition can be seamlessly integrated into other scenes and chapters, then there is no need for a separate chapter.
Overall, exposition is an important part of storytelling as it provides context and allows your readers to better engage with the story. However, it’s important to find the right balance between providing enough background information without overloading your readers with too many details. Hopefully, these tips can help you craft effective and engaging exposition for your stories!