What do we mean when we talk about ‘exposition’ in stories? ‘Narrative exposition’ is important information that gives readers your story’s background (e.g. character backstory or historical setting). Read effective exposition examples from celebrated novels:
1: Craft vivid exposition using dialogue
Writers sometimes use ‘exposition’ as a synonym for ‘info-dumping’. Info-dumping, however, is when two characters share info both already know for the reader’s benefit. It reads false because in real life, people never say to each other ‘As you know, we were both born in Arkansas.’ Good exposition gives important story details without being hammy or fake.
Stephen King’s classic horror novel The Shining gives a strong example of the good kind. King’s opening gives us plenty of character and setting exposition without info-dumping. In the opening chapter, ‘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?” (p. 2)
King gives us character exposition via dialogue. We learn Jack has a wife and son. We also get setting exposition. King sows the idea of the hotel being ominous when Ullman asks if Jack’s wife will be intimidated. Further, Jack’s son does prove extraordinary, as his paranormal abilities and terrifying visions later reveal. King thus uses setting and character exposition to foreshadow the frightening developments in his story.
If you use dialogue for exposition, make sure it fills in information central 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 central characters.
2: Create the history of a place: Read historical exposition examples
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’) opens with historical exposition:
‘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.’ (p. 3)
Note how expertly Marquez blends his character’s past (and foreshadowing of his dramatic future) with history and setting. 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.
Similarly, use characters’ present and past in exposition (and even future) to flesh out historical details of their lives and merge this with description of your settings.
3: Write expository setting description with rich atmosphere
Creating an immersive setting is important. It helps us picture the scene where events unfold, heightening their impact. Toni Morrison’s devastating, Pulitzer-winning novel about the cruelties of slavery, Beloved, opens with clear expository setting description. Morrison creates the haunted atmosphere of a home that holds traumatic history:
‘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.’ (p. 2)
Morrison uses personification (the writing technique of giving an inanimate object human-like character) to show her setting’s atmosphere. The home, like an embittered person, is ‘spiteful’. The author creates a strong sense of the history of place. She shows how experiences and memories gather over time, colouring how we relate to places like home.
Like Morrison, make your setting exposition characterful. Show the atmosphere of your setting, the memories, fears or joys it holds for your characters.
4: Show your characters’ personalities using exposition
Where possible, show characters’ development. Your characters’ choices and interactions with others as your story unfolds should show readers crucial information about them. Reveal their flaws, loves, hates, passions, goals, fears.
Sometimes expository information is as useful as showing, however. You can share a characters’ outlook in a paragraph rather than a whole scene.
Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye 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 work. This leads her to remember her childhood (via flashbacks) and the complex friendship she had with another girl, Cordelia, a bully or ‘frenemy’.
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 uses first person narration in the present tense. For example:
‘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…’
This exposition example works because the introspection in these ‘present-day-Elaine’ passages contrasts with the vivid showing in scenes from Elaine’s childhood.
Similarly, blend scenes that show with briefer pieces of exposition that condense information about your characters’ personalities. Showing gives the reader concrete examples. Yet well-written exposition can summarize and strengthen or broaden the reader’s understanding of characters’ natures.
5: Describe important events that took place before your novel begins
There are countless exposition examples showing how to open a novel with concise description of a pivotal event that is the backbone of the story. In mystery novels in particular, authors often open by describing puzzling, dramatic events that the rest of the novel attempts to explain.
This is the case in Jeffrey Eugenides novel The Virgin Suicides. Boys who live across the street from the beautiful Lisbon sisters narrate the story in first person plural, as they (now older) try to make sense of the sisters’ teenage suicides. We read of the sisters’ suicides through exposition in 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.’ (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 motivation.
Through flashbacks showing the girls’ increasing isolation and rebellious behaviour, Eugenides shows the build-up to this event, even though the narrators never find a definitive reason for the girls’ actions and retain the bewilderment and trauma of this event.
Like Eugenides, use exposition to show the reader an earlier event crucial to your story. Sow curiosity so that the reader has every reason to seek answers to her questions.