Exposition is a device found in storytelling in which the writer introduces the reader to sometimes crucial and some times extra, background information that has some bearing on the story. It is one of many devices that can apply to all forms of writing including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, prose poetry, and drama. Each of these genres of writing is capable of containing “background information”. It is not just literature that contains exposition. It is also found in movies, television shows, short films, and more.
The success of the exposition parts of a story hinges very much on the skill of the writing. It is very easy to overwrite or underwrite the exposition. A reader might find themselves overloaded with information about a place or person that does not in the end improve one’s overall experience of the text. On the other hand, characters or events might come and go from a story without making a mark on those reading the story. This might be a symptom of underwriting the exposition.
What Information is in the exposition?
When writers craft the exposition they inform the reader about other characters, character traits of those characters, information about the setting, and past events that influence the story. There are many more categories of details that one could come up with, especially as the content of work varies along with the intended audience.
Types of Exposition
There are several different ways that writers can create exposition. These include through narration, such as in The Hobbit, through dialogue, internal monologue (aka the character’s thoughts), and through other elements such as strategically placed newspaper clippings or open books.
Purpose of Exposition
Without exposition non of the details of a story would exist. Therefore, the major events and actions wouldn’t make sense. Consider it this way, without learning about a character’s background whether that’s their parentage, how they were raised, or their hopes and dreams, it is hard to care about what happens to them. The same can be said for places and events. It is difficult to be moved by a conflict when there is no information about the two sides or how they came to be there in the first place.
Examples of Exposition
Example #1: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
A classic example of so many techniques in literature, Romeo and Juliet provide the reader with a powerful example of how necessary exposition is. Imagine reading the story of these two lovers without knowing anything about their family backgrounds. What is the story of Romeo and Juliet without the family feud, the duels, and the deaths? The exposition in this story, some of which occurs offstage or off the page depending on how you’re experiencing it, makes the audience care about the two characters. The audience comes to root for the two lovers despite their family differences. The story of these two characters is developed through narration, such as that provided at the beginning of the play, and through dialogue.
Example #2 The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit is quite a well-known and well-loved book that depends heavily on Tolkien’s skillfully crafted exposition. The narrator of this story is omniscient, meaning that they can see into all the character’s minds and relay the details of the surrounding events. The book informs the reader about Bilbo’s personality, where he lived, and those who lived around him. Through the use of clever and sometimes humorous language, a reader can get a sense of the tone of the hobbit’s life. This book is an example of exposition that is created through narration.
Example #3 The Star Wars Films
All Star Wars fans know that these movies start with a scroll of text. It covers the screen, running from top to bottom until it starts to disappear into the distance. These short sentences, usually just a paragraph or two worth, tell the reader most of what they need to know before the movie begins. These are things that occurred or started to occur in other movies. Or, things that happen between the end of one film and the beginning of another.