Good exposition examples: Narrating story background

Good exposition examples: Narrating story background

Good exposition examples | Now Novel

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

Stephen King’s classic horror novel The Shining (1977) gives a strong example of good story exposition.

Using dialogue for exposition: The Shining

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’m sorry?”
“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 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.

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 a sense of history 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’) 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.

Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970), p. 3.

Note how expertly Marquez blends his character’s past (and foreshadows 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 to flesh out historical details of their lives and surrounds to create a sense of place.

Story background and exposition quote - Lynn Abbey | Now Novel

3: Write setting exposition rich with atmosphere

Immersive settings help us to picture the scene where events unfold, heightening their impact.

Toni Morrison’s devastating, Pulitzer-winning novel about the cruelties of slavery, Beloved (1987) opens with clear setting exposition.

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.

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 home, like an embittered person, is ‘spiteful’. Morrison’s exposition example shows how experiences and memories attach themselves to place, 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. It’s all a matter of balance. [Develop effective settings using the ‘Core Setting’ and ‘World Builder’ sections of our outlining tool.]

Writing effective story exposition - Infographic | Now Novel
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4: Show your characters’ personalities in exposition

Where possible, show characters’ development. Your characters’ choices and interactions should show readers crucial information about them. Reveal their flaws, loves, hates, passions, goals, fears.

Story exposition in narration is often 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 (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 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…

Atwood, Cat’s Eye (1988), p. 13.

This exposition example works because the introspection of the older Elaine fills in the gaps, suggesting her development. Her more inward-looking voice contrasts with the bright, descriptive showing scenes from Elaine’s childhood.

Similarly, blend scenes that show events with briefer pieces of narrative exposition that condense information about your characters. Showing gives the reader concrete examples. Yet well-written exposition also broadens the reader’s understanding of characters’ natures.

5: Describe key events that took place before your novel begins

There are countless exposition examples where the story opens with a concise description of a key event that set the story in motion. 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 debut novel The Virgin Suicides (1993).

The 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 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 character motivation.

Mysterious exposition that makes us wonder about characters’ motivations is effective as a story’s hook.

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 further answers.

Get help developing and polishing your story from start to finish when you work with an experienced writing coach on your draft.

14 Replies to “Good exposition examples: Narrating story background”

  1. This is very timely for me as I’m struggling with a necessary piece of exposition in my latest draft. Unlike your examples though I’m at the end of the story, where I have an event from the past that is needed to explain to the reader where some of the characters’ motivations have come from. In my latest draft I’ve tried doing this by having two characters give differing accounts of a single event, which reveals (through their selective interpretation of what happened) more about their own character, too, in what they say.
    Not sure if I’ve cracked it in this draft, but hopefully it’s a way of making the exposition read as genuine and entertaining.

    1. That type of character-based reveal is one possible approach to exposition. It sounds like an interesting angle. Best of luck for revising and writing any subsequent drafts, Neil.

  2. I’m having a hard time with this. I thought I could sprinkle my back story without creating an entire chapter on the major event that sparked the conflict, but I realize now that if I leave it out, the antagonists’ motivation will not make sense

    1. Hi Marissa,

      If it’s a separate chapter, there’s no harm in having a whole chapter devoted to backstory. It’ll just need to be inserted in such a way that it’s clear to the reader that the events of the chapter take place in the past, rather than in the present time of the story (one way to do this is to have the place and date as a chapter title or subtitle). Hope that helps! Perhaps share the backstory extract on Now Novel for feedback from other writers?

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