Writing the exposition of a story – the narration introducing key scenarios, themes, characters or settings – takes skill. The reader needs enough information to be curious and continue. Here are 5 examples of effective exposition, the reasons why they’re effective, and tips we can deduce:
1. Introduce curious information about your characters
‘Exposition’ in storytelling means the additional information, most often provided through narration, that makes readers familiar with the world of your story. This can be events preceding the main events of your story (backstory), details about the workings of your world (such as how a police station runs in a police procedural) or information about characters.
Introducing curious, intriguing details about characters early is one way to start building your story immediately. Margaret Atwood begins her speculative fiction novel Oryx and Crake (2003) thus:
Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of a heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.
There are several reasons why this is good character-based exposition:
- We’re told a pivotal character’s name, and it’s intriguing: ‘Snowman’ is not a typical human name. Because identity and memory later prove crucial themes in this post-apocalyptic tale, it makes sense Atwood introduces her character by his adopted name
- We learn something about a character’s emotional life: Why would Snowman ‘so like to believe he is still asleep’? We guess there is something causing him displeasure or unhappiness
- There’s information about the setting: Why are there barricades?
In one paragraph, Atwood’s exposition raises questions about names, the reasons underlying a character’s emotions, and their environment. It’s a good hook.
2. Be imaginative in how you introduce character background
The beginning of a story doesn’t necessarily have to be epic or lyrical in tone. There are no ‘rules’ other than to be interesting. Zadie Smith begins her 2005 novel On Beauty thus:
One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father:
Hey, Dad – basically I’m just going to keep on keeping on with these mails – I’m no longer expecting you to reply, but I’m still hoping you will, if that makes sense.
Smith creates an immediate sense of intimacy with her characters by including this email correspondence. It’s not a traditional ‘once upon a time’ beginning or slab of historical exposition.
Yet it tells us plenty of character background: We know Jerome’s father is likely an academic (the .edu in his e-mail address). Jerome’s email address by contrast is less professional, implying a traveller (‘Jeromeabroad’). The email provider is some free, non-professional service. The content of the e-mail’s first lines implies either estrangement or simply that the father is not good at keeping up communication.
The exposition is effective because:
- It subtly suggests interesting character information: The father’s occupation, the son’s lifetyle
- The exposition shares a core emotional detail of character: Jerome’s persistent attempts to engage his father
3. Create unknowns readers urgently want answered
The tone and mood of the exposition of a story will depend to some extent on genre. In a nail-biting thriller or murder mystery, you may want to start with high tension from the first line.
Paula Hawkins’ 2017 bestseller, Into the Water, does exactly this, beginning with a chilling murder scene:
The men bind her again. Different this time: left thumb to right toe, right thumb to left. The rope around her waist. This time, they carry her into the water.
We don’t have information at this point about who Libby is, though we can guess she’s the captive in question. ‘Different this time’ implies continuing action – the story starts at the middle of a climactic moment.
As exposition, this is effective for a tense thriller because:
- There is a dramatic, compelling event without explanation: Who are the men? Why are they doing this?
- We want to know the fate of the bound woman: We’re invested from the start in a character’s fate
Exposition thus establishes key points of character and event, leaving unknowns. These don’t have to be life or death, however, even in a thriller, because even unknowns of lesser intensity create intrigue. You could describe a detective interviewing a seemingly innocuous suspect, or a character racing to catch public transport. Whatever you choose as exposition, make sure there’s a hook – a lure that keeps your reader’s focus.
4. Build story exposition using dramatic contrast
If you’re writing a story about mind-blowing adventure and wonder, there’s nothing to say you must include these elements from the first page.
Often, strong exposition begins with the seemingly ordinary and the bizarre and wonderful encroaches, little by little.
Douglas Adams takes this approach to exposition, for example, in his quirky, comedy sci-fi classic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979).
The novel opens with setting exposition, creating a mundane impression of the protagonist Arthur Dent’s ordinary life:
The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means – it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.
This mundane house description is effective because it is so ‘normal’ by contrast to what follows, from encounters with pan-dimensional beings to interplanetary travel.
J.K. Rowling does similar by beginning her fantasy series Harry Potter with Harry’s fairly ordinary life with his aunt and uncle. This environment contrasts dramatically with the wizard world Harry discovers in the first novel, with its hidden alleys and secret train platforms. The contrast makes the wonder and detail of the magical world all the more awe-inspiring for both character and reader.
5. Start with vivid place or a strong narrator’s voice
Many great novels begin with setting exposition that gives a keen sense of place. Immersive setting gives us context for characters’ lives and memories. This is how Steinbeck begins a number of his novels. For example, East of Eden (1952) begins thus:
The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the centre until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.
I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer – and what trees and seasons smelled like – how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odours is very rich.
Note how Steinbeck roots his story firmly in the narrator’s memory of a place before focusing in more on his first person narrator’s particular sense impressions.
The Salinas Valley is the primary setting of the novel (though parts are set in Connecticut and Massachusetts), so the setting exposition fits.
The nostalgia of the first person narrator creates a sense of history, of an epic, lyrical sweep of time. The opening chapters continue to detail the arrival of immigrants to the Salinas Valley and the hard time they have farming it. Throughout, the detailed setting exposition gives place a character of its own. The nostalgic tone also introduces the themes of memory and emotional attachment that remain strong throughout the book.
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Cover source image by Liana Mikah