What Is Exposition?
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Exposition comes from the Latin, meaning “a showing forth.” One of four rhetorical modes of communication — the others are description, narration, and argumentation — it is the part of a story where the narrator provides necessary background information to readers so that they can understand narrative events as they unfold as well as character motivations and conflict. Writers try to be sparing with”blow-by-blow” exposition, preferring to reveal a little at a time or show how the character has been affected by the past through their present encounters.
Exposition also plays an important role in film. When preparing a script, screenwriters often write detailed biographies for each of their main characters. These backstories may never appear in the film directly. For instance, a character living in Los Angeles may go over to her bookshelf and turn over a snow globe. In the prepared backstory, the character might have grown up in a snowy climate and miss it. Or her father may have died in a skiing accident. While that information is never revealed, the snow globe is nevertheless an expository.
How Do You Identify Exposition in Writing?
Exposition appears in a variety of different ways:
- A narrator may simply describe events leading up to the present in monologue form.
- Two or more characters may have a dialogue that reveals expository details.
- In classic movies, spinning newspapers reveal a string of headlines, telling the viewer the events leading up to the film.
- A montage or quick succession of narrative actions that show motivation and character traits.
Exposition can occur anywhere in a narrative; it doesn’t have to be at the beginning. Sometimes, in fact, an expository detail at the end of a story helps to shed light on the central theme. In Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the reader learns that Bartleby worked at the Dead Letters Office only after his death. This expository detail helps to shed light on Bartelby’s dehumanized state throughout the story.
Examples of Exposition
1. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne’s husband, Chillingworth, comes to town while Hester is standing on the scaffold with her baby. Chillingworth’s dialogue with the townspeople fills the reader in on necessary expository details.
2. At the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, the viewer learns all they need to know about Dorothy’s motivation for leaving home through her interactions with the folks in Kansas before the tornado.
3. In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa reveals expository details throughout the first section of the story as he struggles to accept the fact that he is an insect and can no longer continue with his human activities.
4. James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues uses the brothers’ reunion and drive through the old Harlem neighborhood as a chance to provide expository details.
5. The Godfather’s exposition takes place very quickly at the beginning of the film, when Michael explains the family business to his girlfriend, Kay, at his sister’s wedding. The viewer is then prepared to understand the stakes of having Don Corleone do anyone “a favor.”
6. A newspaper story about a political candidate provides exposition to show readers the candidate’s background and experience.