There are many types of exposition in stories, in literature, film and other media. Exposition introduces your reader to important and intriguing details of your story – who, what, why, where and when. Read 9 exposition examples that show how to introduce characters, settings and scenarios memorably:
What to look for in exposition examples in fiction
As you read the examples in this article, ask:
- Who is being introduced (and what do we learn about them that seems significant?)
- What is interesting or suspenseful about the place or situation we’re thrown into?
- Why is this information being shared, why might the author telling us this specific information?
- What do we learn about where the action or conversation is unfolding, if anything?
- What elements of time, era or duration (the ‘when’) does this expository part of the story reveal?
9 exposition examples (and their lessons)
- Use expository dialogue to build scenarios
- Create clear history or time and place
- Write setting exposition that vivifies your world
- Introduce significant locations
- Use character exposition to reveal key information
- Describe relevant backstory if necessary
- Pinpoint precise and intriguing action
- Weave in themes overtly or indirectly
- Expose the unexpected
Let’s explore these ideas further with examples of expository paragraphs and their effects:
Use expository dialogue to build scenarios
‘Exposition’ is a useful term when we talk about dramatic structure. It refers to the expository or introductory element of a story.
Exposition in literature and other story media reveals. It tells us something that helps us as readers understand what’s going on or at least makes us curious to learn more about a place, situation or circumstance.
Stephen King’s classic horror novel The Shining (1977) gives a strong example of good story exposition. It shows how you can use dialogue for exposition to reveal a little about your characters and their immediate (or past/future) situation:
Dialogue as exposition: The Shining
King’s story opening gives us plenty of character exposition and setting exposition. Yet he does this without info-dumping. Info-dumping refers to when you jam a slab of expository information into a section of story so that it feels as though the author is thinking ‘here is everything I need to tell the reader, let me get this out of the way’.
Ideally, you want to weave exposition in naturally, barely showing the author’s hand. An exposition dump or ‘expository lump’ takes your reader out of the story.
In the opening chapter of The Shining, ‘Job Interview’, the protagonist Jack Torrance is interviewed by a man named Ullman for the winter caretaker position at the creepy Overlook Hotel:
Ullman had asked a question he hadn’t caught. That was bad; Ullman was the type of man who would file such lapses away in a mental Rolodex for later consideration.
“I asked if your wife fully understands what you would be taking on here. And there’s your son, of course.” He glanced down at the application in front of him. “Daniel. Your wife isn’t a bit intimidated by the idea?”
“Wendy is an extraordinary woman.”
“And your son is also extraordinary?”
King, The Shining (1977), p. 2.
King gives us character exposition via dialogue. We learn:
- Jack Torrance is married and has a son
- The position Jack’s interviewing for may be intimidating or daunting in some untold way
- Jack’s wife is extraordinary
- There is a question mark over whether his son is extraordinary, too
If you use dialogue for exposition, keep to information that is relevant to your plot. By page two of The Shining, we already know King’s setting is intimidating and have been introduced to the story’s main characters.
Create clear history or time and place
The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez blends personal and social history brilliantly in his novels.
His novel Cien años de soledad (translated as ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’) begins with historical setting exposition and expository character details that bend time:
Historical exposition: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Marquez’s story begins:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.
Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970), p. 3.
Note how expertly Marquez blends his main character’s past (and foreshadows his dramatic future).
Marquez moves seamlessly from describing an intimate memory of the Colonel’s father to describing their hometown, Macondo. We get a sense of its size and surrounds, as well as the promise of dramatic events in Colonel Buendia’s future (but not yet why they come to pass). It’s an excellent teaser.
Use your own characters’ present, past and/or future in exposition to flesh out their lives and create a vivid sense of time and place.
Write setting exposition that vivifies your world
Setting exposition, plot exposition and character exposition tend to be woven together. Authors bundle characters’ actions with details of time and place so that actions, thoughts and feelings have context. Context introduces and illuminates significant details in a story further.
Toni Morrison’s devastating, Pulitzer-winning novel about the cruelties of slavery, Beloved (1987) opens with clear setting exposition. It gives context to her world, making it vivid.
Morrison creates the haunted atmosphere of a home that holds a deeply traumatic history:
Setting exposition example: Historical scars in Beloved
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it.
Morrison, Beloved (1987), p. 2
Morrison uses personification (the technique of giving an inanimate object human-like character) to show her setting’s atmosphere.
The family home, like an embittered or raging person, is ‘spiteful’. Morrison’s exposition example shows how experiences and memories attach themselves to place, colouring how we relate to places like ‘home’. This brief setting exposition is rich with feeling and unsettling in its implications of a history of violence and loss.
Like Morrison, make your setting exposition characterful. Show the atmosphere of your setting, the memories, fears or joys it holds for your characters. Do your characters want to stay there forever, or run away like Howard and Buglar?
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Introduce significant locations
Setting exposition is useful for many reasons. Important places in your story may show your reader:
- Joys or frustrations in when and where your characters live
- Potential hurdles or obstacles your characters will have to overcome
- Your characters’ worldviews (such as how they feel about their world and society)
- Connections between places, such as where rooms, buildings, cities or states (and their inhabitants) are in relation to each other
There are just some of the expository setting details you may want to introduce to begin.
In short, what places matter to your characters and their story? What places bring shelter, fun, fear, pleasure, anxiety, confidence?
Example: Countryside seclusion in Runaway
Canadian author Alice Munro is a master of subtle, gradual exposition that gives away intriguing details without fanfare.
Here is the opening of her brilliant story ‘Runaway’ from the collection of the same title, (available to read for free here on The New Yorker):
Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill. It’s her, she thought. Mrs. Jamieson—Sylvia—home from her holiday in Greece. From the barn door—but far enough inside that she could not easily be seen—she watched the road where Mrs. Jamieson would have to drive by, her place being half a mile farther along than Clark and Carla’s.Alice Munro, ‘Runaway’, The New Yorker (August, 2003)
The exposition gives us significant location details:
- That the location is quite rural (‘the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill’)
- That Carla the protagonist lives with someone named Clark, presumably a partner
- How far away the returning character Sylvia lives
This first paragraph introduces us to elements of the rural, woodland setting (barns and small hills) while also giving details that will later become important (as Carla relies on Sylvia and Sylvia gets entangled in Carla and Clark’s tumultuous relationship).
Use character exposition to reveal key information
Character exposition reveals important or interesting information about your characters. Reveal your characters’ flaws, loves, hates, passions, goals and fears.
This is the groundwork for writing character development. Your reader first needs to know who your character is or was before they can understand how they have changed (or will change still).
Character exposition: Middle age in Cat’s Eye
Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye (1988) tells the story of an artist, Elaine Risley.
Elaine returns to her childhood stomping grounds in Toronto at the start of the book, for a retrospective of her art. This leads her to remember her childhood (via flashbacks) and the complex friendship she had with another girl, Cordelia.
Atwood writes vivid flashback scenes that show her characters’ natures. When the novel shifts from childhood flashbacks to the older Elaine, however, there is more exposition. Here, Atwood shows how Elaine feels about her life now, a little way into the story:
This is the middle of my life. I think of it as a place, like the middle of a river, the middle of a bridge, halfway across, halfway over. I’m supposed to have accumulated things by now: possessions, responsibilities, achievements, experience and wisdom. I’m supposed to be a person of substance. But since coming back here I don’t feel weightier. I feel lighter, as if I’m shedding matter, losing molecules, calcium from my bones, cells from my blood…
Atwood, Cat’s Eye (1988), p. 13.
This exposition example works because the introspection of the older Elaine fills in the gaps. We have a sense that she’s experienced a lot. Her more inward-looking, self-reflexive voice contrasts with the bright, emotionally starker scenes from Elaine’s childhood.
Showing gives the reader concrete examples. Yet well-written exposition also broadens the reader’s understanding of your characters. Where they’ve come from, and where they’re off to next. The moments of change and stasis in their lives.
Describe relevant backstory if necessary
There are countless exposition examples in fiction where the story opens with a concise description of an inciting incident.
The inciting incident is the event which set the story in motion. In mystery novels, authors often open by describing puzzling, dramatic events such as a murder, for example. In romance, the inciting incident is often the event that brings a romantic duo together for the first time.
Your exposition may also relate events that happened in the past. Or you can also experiment with time-cuts, presenting climactic events and then backtracking to the circumstances that led to them.
However, remember to keep backstory as concise as possible. Keep history lessons for moments where they are relevant to the unfolding action, or weave them by stages into more immediate actions and events.
Jeffrey Eugenides does this in his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993).
Example: Climactic events as backstory in The Virgin Suicides
The boys who live across the street from the Lisbon sisters narrate the story in first person plural. Now older, they try to make sense of the sisters’ teenage suicides.
We learn of the sisters’ suicides early, in the exposition of the first paragraph:
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.
Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides, p. 1.
This dark exposition gives us the core information: A group of sisters, the story’s central characters, all commit suicide. Yet it leaves us with the same question that perplexes the novel’s narrators: Why? The question of characters’ motivation.
Good backstory examples in exposition often do this. They tell us what happened, but make us impatient or curious to learn why.
Like Eugenides, you might use exposition to show the reader crucial events, the crux of your story’s main questions. Create curiosity so that the reader has every reason to seek further answers.
Get help developing and polishing your story from start to finish when you work with an experienced writing coach on your draft.
Pinpoint precise and intriguing action
Leading with action – particularly an action that is intriguing or out of the ordinary – is a common approach to exposition.
Specifics tell your reader much more than abstraction. You could say ‘Tom was an angry guy’ or show Tom losing his temper completely in a specific situation (the latter having the benefit of showing specifically what pushes Tom’s buttons).
Example of action exposition: A Court of Thorns and Roses
Sarah J Maas’s popular A Court of Thorns and Roses fantasy/romance series begins with a specific action. The protagonist is hunting in a forest, perched in a tree:
The forest had become a labyrinth of snow and ice.Sarah J. Maas, A Court of Thorns and Roses (2015), p. 4.
I’d been monitoring the parameters of the thicket for an hour, and my vantage point in the crook of a tree branch had turned useless. The gusting wind blew thick flurries to sweep away my tracks, but buried along with them any signs of potential quarry.
It’s clear from the precise opening action that the protagonist is:
- Hunting in a forest
- Waiting for quarry to appear
The action is intriguing as we don’t know whether or when quarry will turn up. Or why Feyre has to hunt in the first place (though the book’s blurb gives us an idea).
Weave in themes overtly or indirectly
Good story exposition examples show us there are many ways to skin a cat, as the saying goes.
You could fill your story with direct, unambiguous exposition, or tease out details slowly for your reader.
This will depend in part on your genre. Popular fiction tends to have faster pacing and exposition, whereas literary may be slower or experimental in how plot and character are revealed.
One way to find exposition for your story is to think about the themes associated with your story’s main subjects. Mine these for images and ideas.
Example: Thematic echoes in Human Traces
In the opening exposition in Faulks’ novel, one of the two main characters, Jacques Rebière, listens to a howling gale outside.
The narration touches on the idea of what it is to be young, to be human, and to be these things in turbulent circumstances (symbolized here, as it often is, by the weather).
This exposition echoes the novel’s later concerns (‘madness and consciousness’, as Alexander Linklater puts it in a review for Prospect Magazine, during the time of World War I).
Jacques Rebière listened to the sounds from outside as he looked through the window of his bedroom; for a moment, a dim moon allowed him to see clouds foaming in the darkness. The weather reminded him, often, that it was not just he, at sixteen years old, who was young, but all mankind: a species that took infant steps on the drifts and faults of the earth.Sebastian Faulks, Human Traces (2005), p. 1.
What expository images could introduce significant themes your story will explore further?
Expose the unexpected
Good exposition tends to leave out the obvious and uneventful.
For example, why is it considered a little clichéd for a character to wake up at the start of a story? Because if a character has been asleep, this naturally follows.
Now if a character wakes up and some detail from their dream appears in their waking world, this is unexpected. Or they wake up and there’s a UFO hovering on their front lawn. If your character wakes up and it’s just another ordinary day, consider rather starting the exposition where the ordinary is about to become unusual.
What unexpected circumstance could you create at the start of your story?
Example: Fingerprints in Letters from a Lost Uncle
Mervyn Peake’s whimsical Letters from a Lost Uncle is styled as an uncle’s letters to his nephew from a polar expedition.
Words and illustration combine to create the sense of the unexpected, the out of the ordinary and the accidental.
The illustration includes a representation of the uncle’s thumb print, as though he has accidentally smeared fresh ink on the page, with the caption ‘Oh Blubber take this thumb mark’.
I have decided to write you a letter. It is the first I have tried my hand at for many years. It will certainly be the last. I am sick of it already as a matter of fact. My fingers (which are cold as icicles) were made for triggers and harpoons more than for all this tap-tap-tapping on a little black machine.Mervyn Peake, Letters from a Lost Uncle (1976), p. 1
What story has some of your best exposition? Share in the comments.
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