Exposition in writing can make or break a story. Exposition that’s artfully placed throughout the narrative with just the right balance of discovery and suspense can elevate an average novel into a bestseller. Exposition that’s used poorly, however, can drag down a brilliant idea and turn it into something unreadable.
It’s no exaggeration to say that managing exposition is one of the most difficult skills in writing—even experienced novelists often need a pumped-up playlist and an extra-strong cup of tea when tackling this precarious, necessary evil of storytelling. But what is exposition, exactly, and how can you find the perfect balance for your story? Let’s explore how to use exposition in the best possible way to take your writing to the next level.
What is exposition in writing?
Exposition is a literary device that communicates key information to your reader. This can be information about your characters, the setting, important events, or historically significant events that contributes to your story.
For example, if your protagonist is a recently divorced woman, telling or showing the reader what led to the divorce before your story began is exposition. It’s something that isn’t actually happening in the plot, but that’s important for the reader to know.
In the classic story structure Freytag’s pyramid, exposition is listed as the very first stage of the plot. This is because most of the time, you need to try and get this necessary background information to your reader early on so that they can follow along with the rest of the plot. However, exposition can happen at any time. In the above example, you might tell the reader that the woman has just been divorced at the start of your story, but you might choose not to reveal the reason for the divorce until closer to the end. It’s up to you to decide how much information your reader needs to get oriented in your world and how much to withhold.
How much exposition does your story need?
Using exposition is a double-edged sword: too much, and your story gets bogged down with extraneous information. Too little, and your readers won’t know what’s going on.
The key is to include only as much information as the reader needs to follow your story. Unfortunately, this won’t be the same every time–that would make our job too easy! Some stories, especially shorter ones, will need very little for the reader to understand what’s happening in front of them. Others, particularly genre fiction, will need a lot more.
If you’re setting your story in a landscape that’s unfamiliar to the average reader—things like fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction—you’ll want to tell them as much as they need to understand your story’s world and why things happen there the way they do. This means telling them things like your magical or technological systems, any political structures that influence the plot, and any cultural or societal stigmas that will have an impact on your characters and the choices that they make.
In character-driven fiction, you’ll often need to give your reader some information about the relationships between your characters, why they formed the way they did, and what each character wants out of those relationships, as well as their individual wants and needs. These are all things that will help your reader understand why the events of your story unfold the way they do.
Exposition helps ground your readers in the world of your story. It helps them relate to your characters and feel more connected to their trials and triumphs as they follow them from beginning to end.
Direct vs. indirect exposition
Exposition comes through your story in two ways: directly and indirectly. Let’s look at the difference.
1. Direct exposition
Direct exposition is where you say something clearly to the reader, either through your narration or through dialogue. In direct exposition the story will usually be put on hold for a moment (or several) while you communicate some important piece of information. Most classic faerie tales and many stories from classic literature open like this. For example:
Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Little Red Riding Hood who lived with her mother in a cottage at the edge of a dark forest. Little Red’s grandmother lived on the opposite end of the forest, and every morning Red would cross the woods to bring her grandmother a basket of treats.
It certainly has a cozy, fireside quality to it, but it lacks immediacy. We feel as though we’re being told a story instead of living it. Direct exposition can also happen in the middle of a story. For example:
John stared down at the scrap of paper with the girl’s phone number on it. He hadn’t been on a date in more than two years, not since his last girlfriend left him for someone she originally thought was her cousin, but then turned out to be just her step-cousin and therefore completely unrelated to her. John’s friends had tried over the years to set him up with various co-workers and mutual acquaintances, but he’d never felt ready. The last one had been a model, and John’s friend Kevin couldn’t understand why…
Blah, blah, blah. I’ve almost forgotten there was a scrap of paper to begin with, i.e. the plot. Some of this might actually be important information for the story, but heaping it all in a pile all at once takes the reader away from what’s really happening. Instead, try breaking it into small manageable bites and conveying some of it indirectly instead.
2. Indirect exposition
You’ve probably heard that old reliable adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Indirect exposition is what they’re talking about. Indirect exposition gives the reader enough clues through the narrative, dialogue, and setting for them to absorb the information you’re giving them without you needing to state it outright. For example:
The morning sun was just reaching the tips of the fir trees as Little Red Riding Hood left her mother’s cottage. She adjusted the weight of the basket on her arm, making sure that the treats for her grandmother were safe, and started off down the path through the woods. Long shadows reached out to her.
This feels much more present and intimate. By gently working the information into the action of the story, the reader understands the same level of detail but feels like they’re right there alongside Little Red.
Indirect exposition is even more essential when you’re in the midst of your story. The goal is to convey information to your reader while allowing the action of the story to keep moving forward. For example:
John stared down at the scrap of paper with the phone number on it. That familiar feeling of dread curled up in the pit of his stomach, where it had been living since Charlotte left him two years ago. His fingers moved towards his phone, and he wondered how he was going to explain that he’d turned down Kevin’s friend from the Harper’s Bazaar shoot but took a chance on a strange girl he’d met at a bus stop.
Now we’ve covered all our important bases, but the story maintains its continuous forward momentum. Direct exposition is okay in small doses, but try to relay information indirectly as much as you can. It will vastly improve the pacing of your story and close the distance between your story and your reader.
4 ways to incorporate exposition into your story
There are a few different ways you can work exposition into your writing. Let’s look at where exposition can show up in your story.
1. Narrative exposition
Narration makes up the bulk of your story. This is the description, the action tags, all the words you use to tell the reader what’s happening in any given moment. As you’re describing what’s happening in your story, you can sneak in hints of what led up to that moment. This might be by telling us what your character is feeling, how their bodies are reacting to what’s around them, memories that are dredged up in response to their surroundings, and questions they have about clues you’ve left for the reader in the character’s environment.
For example, if you show your character walking into an old house at the beginning of your story, you can say something like, “It was the first time she’d been back in her childhood home since her brother’s death.” (Direct exposition.) Or, “If she unfocused her eyes, she could almost see her own ghost playing at the foot of the stairs, safe and warm in the belief that she and her brother would both have a chance to grow up.” (Indirect exposition.)
2. Dialogue exposition
Dialogue is conversation between two or more characters. You can use their conversation to convey information to your reader, too. This might be through your characters talking about something that’s happened, through one character explaining something to another, or from them discovering something new together.
If two characters are walking into the old house together, you could have one character say to the other, “I haven’t been back here since my brother died.” (Direct exposition.) Or, “Here’s where my brother and I used to record our heights every year. If he had lived just another few months he probably would have been taller than me.” (Indirect exposition.)
3. Internal monologue exposition
An internal monologue is where your character is talking to themselves, aloud or in their thoughts. In first person perspective, this will usually be a part of the narration. In third person perspective, however, the character’s thoughts will be distinct from the rest of the story.
We all talk to ourselves and sort things out in our heads all the time. In a story, you can use this in the same way as dialogue to convey new information to the reader. It’s also where a character processes what they’re feeling about a given situation.
For example, if your character is moving through their old house on their own, they might say to themselves, “I can’t believe Alan and I were ever this small. I thought that was going to be the year he outgrew me. If I’d known he wouldn’t have the chance I would have been a lot nicer to him.” You can intersperse your characters’ thoughts with details in your setting to show how the setting is affecting your characters and how they’re reacting to it.
Internal monologues should always be indirect exposition; the reason is that because when we’re talking to ourselves, we don’t naturally convey information in a very direct way. We turn things over in our heads based on what we already know and consider only the details we need to process those things. Your character wouldn’t say to themselves, “I haven’t been back here since my brother died”; they might say something like, “It feels like it’s been a lot less than twenty years. Everything still looks like home.”
4. Flashback exposition
Flashbacks are where instead of describing something that has happened, your reader actually gets to see it happening. This can take the form of an isolated section of the story, such as a prologue or a separate chapter, or it can happen as a short deviation from the events happening in the present.
For example, you might say:
Sunshine streamed through the skylight and illuminated the bannister where Alan had been playing that day. She looked up and remembered how scared she had been, yelling at him to get down and stop messing around. His confidence had just made her more angry, and more scared. She tried not to show her fear, but Alan had always been able to see right through her. He laughed at her and climbed up onto the bannister, arms outstretched, balanced precariously on a thin strip of polished wood. The sunlight poured through the skylight and illuminated his hair like a renaissance painting just before he fell.
Flashbacks always need to be triggered by something—usually something sensory. Specific sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures are deeply linked to our memories, and you can use those sensory stimuli to reveal information to your reader. In this example, the protagonist’s memory was triggered by the sight of sunlight on the wooden bannister. Through it she was able to show us what really happened.
All of these exposition methods can be useful in a story, but any of them will become cumbersome when used too extensively or exclusively. The best way to create exposition in your story is to use some or all of these methods together, building your backstory piece by piece.
Pros and cons of using exposition
Exposition is an important literary device in your story, but it has to be used with finesse. Here are a few of the risks and rewards of using exposition in your writing.
Pro: It opens up new worlds
Exposition is a marvelous tool when it comes to building imaginary worlds in your story. Whether your story is set in a fantastical faerie tale kingdom, a distant colony in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, or an alternative version of Victorian-era London, exposition introduces your readers to the most minute details of what makes your story world special and unique.
Con: Too much can drag down your pacing
The tricky thing about exposition is that it can slow your story way down. One of the biggest challenges in writing is taking the time to share necessary information with your readers, without losing sight of your main goal as a writer—which is to tell the story. Using too much exposition at once, or using it clumsily, will slow down the action of your story and make your readers lose interest in the struggles your characters are facing.
Pro: It brings complexity to your characters
Great stories are built out of dynamic, multi-layered characters, and the best way to accomplish this is to give your characters dynamic, multi-layered lives. Using exposition gives you a way to show the readers the sort of conflicts your characters have faced in the past, what their hopes and desires are, and what sort of experiences—good and bad—have made them into the people they are today. This makes them feel more real to the reader.
Con: It can distract from your story
Unfortunately, the temptation when using exposition can be to tell your readers too much, which pulls them away from the story you’re telling in that moment. As a writer, it’s great for you to know what your protagonist had for breakfast every day when they were five years old. But does that time of their life influence the choices they’re making right now? If not, your readers don’t need to know about it. It’s the same when you’re building fantastical worlds. Should you know how the people surviving together on a floating piece of space jetsam go to the bathroom? Yes, probably. Does the reader need to know? Only if it becomes relevant to the plot. When using exposition, streamline it to only what’s relevant to your story.
Pro: It’s relatable
Exposition is a great way to address any questions or uncertainties that your reader may have. You can use exposition in dialogue as a “stand in” for the reader to help make sense of anything that might feel out of place. This is a common tactic in mystery novels, where one character might not understand everything that’s happened, and so another character needs to explain it to them. In the classic “Sherlock Holmes” stories, Holmes often explains his thought process to Watson, who is usually just as confused as any of us would be. This accomplishes the double duty of giving the reader important information and helping Watson feel more believable and relatable as a person.
Con: It can take you out of the moment
The biggest risk when it comes to clumsy exposition is that it can pull your reader out of your story. Readers will be most engaged with your writing when your characters feel intimate and present and real. Exposition, unfortunately, can detract from that intimacy. For instance, you might say, “Sophie waved to her friend Julie as she entered the classroom. Julie had been her best friend for more than ten years, when they met on the playground back in primary school and Julie stood up to a bully who was making fun of Sophie’s ratty old clothes. Since then, they’d always done everything together.” The problem? People don’t actually think like this. This isn’t what’s going through Sophie’s head in this moment. Clunky exposition can put an unnecessary distance between your reader and your characters.
Sometimes you’ll need to sneak in little asides of direct exposition in your story, and that’s okay. Just make sure you don’t pile them one on top of each other, and you don’t lose sight of your goal: to keep the story moving.
3 examples of effective exposition in literature
Exposition is all about communicating the most possible information in the least amount of words, while maintaining the forward motion of the story. Here are a few examples of exposition from literature that show whole worlds in just a few moments.
1. Pick-Up by Charles Willeford
It must have been around a quarter to eleven. A sailor came in and ordered a chilli dog and coffee. I sliced a bun, jerked a frank out of the boiling water, nested it, poured a half-dipper of chilli over the frank and sprinkled it liberally with chopped onions. I scribbled a check and put it by his plate. I wouldn’t have recommended the unpalatable mess to a starving animal.
Without directly stating it, this paragraph tells us that we’re in a diner by the sea—probably somewhere in America. Right away we can tell that the point of view is from someone working in the diner, and the short, snappy quality of the sentences suggests a worker who has gone through these motions a thousand times before. The final sentence shows us the narrator’s personality, his view of his job, and his begrudging acceptance of his place in it.
2. The Juvie Three by Gordon Korman
Gecko opens the dryer door and staggers back from a blast of arid heat that sears his skin and bakes the moisture out of his eyes, nose, and mouth. He reaches in, burning his fingers on the metal snaps of at least thirty orange jumpsuits. The industrial-size equipment in the laundry room of the Jerome Atchison Juvenile Detention Center must be powered by volcanic heat, accessed straight from the earth’s core, Gecko reflects, trying to blink some tears back to his eyes. Strange that it would be hard to cry in a place like this. It took all his strength to hold himself back from bawling on day one, when they marched him through the tall gates topped with razor wire.
Here the exposition smoothly and deftly establishes the setting. “Orange jumpsuits” is the first clue indirectly dropped in for the reader, followed by the name of the place that our story is taking place. Not only do we know that we’re in a prison, but the “Juvenile” sneakily tells us something very important about our character—the fact that they’re very young. Using the heat and the reference to tears as a sensory point allows the author to drop in a brief, vivid flashback of the character’s arrival, which also suggests some more background on the character Gecko’s youth and vulnerability. Korman manages to say quite a lot in a very small space.
3. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Mike Bowman whistled cheerfully as he drove the Land Rover through the Cabo Blanco Biological Reserve, on the west coast of Costa Rica. It was a beautiful morning in July, and the road before him was spectacular: hugging the edge of a cliff, overlooking the jungle and the blue Pacific. According to the guidebooks, Cabo Blanco was unspoiled wilderness, almost a paradise. Seeing it now made Bowman feel as if the vacation was back on track.
This opening paragraph allows itself a moment to enjoy the view in peaceful harmony. It directly tells the reader where they are, but also manages to drop some subtle hints in along the way: a guidebook, suggesting that the character Mike is unfamiliar with the location, and the the idea that his vacation is “back on track,” which loads a lot of back story into a minuscule moment. It tells us that something has already gone wrong, but he’s feeling optimistic that things are going to get better.
Use exposition to sharpen your story
Exposition is an essential part of every story—not just in the beginning, but throughout its entire journey. By using exposition in writing you can give your readers a wider view of the world you’re creating, you can give your characters new depth and new facets, and you can broaden your core story to include a greater range of space and time. While poorly written exposition risks dragging your story down, effective exposition takes your story to a whole new level and makes the humanity within it feel even more real.