If you’ve ever cringed while reading a book (or watching a movie) because the characters are clearly just repeating information for the benefit of the audience, you’ll know just why exposition in literature is so important to get right. But it’s a tricky line to walk: too little exposition and your audience won’t understand a thing about what’s happening. Too much exposition runs the risk of readers complaining that your book is boring and badly-written.
This post will help you define just what exposition is — and how you can write it in a way that captures readers’ attentions.
What is exposition in literature?
Exposition is a literary device that introduces key background information to the reader. This might include anything from a character’s backstory to a description of the setting. Note that it should not be confused with the exposition in the three-act story structure, which refers to the entire first stage of a story (where, similarly, important details are established).
Though exposition is necessary for nearly every single story, it’s a hard thing to get right. Indeed, you might already be familiar with the infamous “information dump,” which is essentially poorly-executed exposition that becomes walls of text that your reader hastily skips past. At its worst, exposition that’s badly written will make your audience put down your book altogether.
To avoid such a scenario, exposition should always be pertinent to the story itself. As Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.” We can (and should) apply this guideline to exposition as well. It might be tempting to spill everything you know about the world and characters that you’ve lovingly created — but while you might know the world of your book down to the precise direction in which a blade of grass grows, readers won’t care if it’s not relevant to the story. Specifically, the conflict.
The importance of conflict and exposition
In his book, The Art of Fiction, essayist and author John Gardner advised, “No important information in the exposition should be irrelevant to the action that ensues.” John Yorke echoed a similar point in Into the Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them:
All good exposition is disguised by making it dramatic – by injecting conflict. Desire, in story structure, should always be countered by an opposite desire, and this in turn creates the conflict the drama needs. Exposition works when it’s a tool a character uses to achieve their desire. If this desire is confronted with opposition, conflict is generated and exposition becomes invisible. The greater the conflict, the less visible the exposition.
If the million-dollar question here is how to present information (that your characters should already know) in a natural and organic manner to new readers, conflict is the answer. Tying exposition into conflict will drive the central premise of the story forward while establishing the important pieces of information that you need in order to tell the story. Luckily, there are many ways to do this, from dialogue to narration.
Thinking that this is easier said than done? For a look at how authors have approached writing exposition in literature in the past, here are 19 exposition examples from famous works.
What are some exposition examples in literature?
As you probably know, language can be used in a million possible ways to convey a point. That said, authors generally depend on a few common ways to insert exposition into the text of the story:
- Exposition through dialogue
- Exposition through narration
- Exposition through internal monologue
- Exposition through special devices
Without further ado, let’s get into these exposition examples in famous works of literature.
Exposition through dialogue
Dialogue is one of the most organic ways to introduce exposition. In particular, exposition through dialogue is a prime example of the #1 writing rule, “Show, don’t tell.” Instead of telling readers the key detail that a group of boys are stranded on an island because of a plane crash, the author can show that through a conversation (as you’ll be able to see soon).
However, it’s important that your dialogue doesn’t sound too forced when you’re trying to impart information to the reader. If you’d like to learn more about the mechanics of dialogue (and how to write it correctly). Let’s take a look at how some authors reveal key expository details through dialogue.
Authors can set up situations through a few lines of dialogue:
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
— Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (establishing the entrance of Mr. Bingley to Netherfield)
“This is an island. At least I think it’s an island. That’s a reef out in the sea. Perhaps there aren’t any grownups anywhere.”
The fat boy looked startled.
“There was that pilot. But he wasn’t in the passenger cabin, he was up in front.”
The fair boy was peering at the reef through screwed-up eyes.
“All them other kids,” the fat boy went on. “Some of them must have got out. They must have, mustn’t they?
— William Golding, Lord of the Flies (explaining the plane crash that brought the boys to the island)
Through dialogue, authors can “show” the relationship between characters, instead of “telling” it:
Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,
And thy best graces spend it at thy will!
But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,–
[Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind.
How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun.
— Shakespeare, Hamlet (establishing the relationship between Hamlet and King Claudius)
Exposition through narration
Exposition through narration is the most standard way to think about this literary device. By nature, the narrator chooses what to reveal and what background details are important enough to be said in the text.
Now, how the exposition is revealed might differ depending on the point of view used in the book, which you’ll see in the following exposition examples. Take heed as you explore this technique yourself: exposition through narration is the biggest perpetrator of the infamous “information dump,” which is a beginner mistake to avoid.
Let’s take a look at how an omniscient narrator (who knows everything and can see into every character’s minds) might handle exposition:
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him.
— JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (explaining Bilbo Baggins’ background)
About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.
— Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (setting the grounds for Fanny Price’s arrival at Mansfield Park)
He was old enough, twelve years and a few months, to have lost the prominent tummy of childhood and not yet old enough for adolescence to have made him awkward. You could see now that he might make a boxer, as far as width and heaviness of shoulders went, but there was a mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil.
— William Golding, Lord of the Flies (introducing Ralph in the book)
Now here are some exposition examples used in books that are narrated in third-person limited:
Catelyn had been anointed with the seven oils and named in the rainbow of light that filled the sept of Riverrun. She was of the Faith, like her father and grandfather and his father before him. Her gods had names, and their faces were as familiar as the faces of her parents. Worship was a septon with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song. The Tullys kept a godswood, as all the great houses did, but it was only a place to walk or read or lie in the sun. Worship was for the sept.
— George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones (establishing Catelyn Stark’s backstory and religious tendencies)
Of all the unusual things about Harry, this scar was the most extraordinary of all. It was not, as the Dursleys had pretended for ten years, a souvenir of the car crash that had killed Harry’s parents, because Lily and James Potter had not died in a car crash. They had been murdered, murdered by the most feared Dark wizard for a hundred years, Lord Voldemort. Harry had escaped from the same attack with nothing more than a scar on his forehead, where Voldemort’s curse, instead of killing him, had rebounded upon its originator. Barely alive, Voldemort had fled…
But Harry had come face-to-face with him at Hogwarts. Remembering their last meeting as he stood at the dark window, Harry had to admit he was lucky even to have reached his thirteenth birthday.
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (explaining the events of past books in the series)
As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity.
— George Orwell, 1984 (explaining who Emmanuel Goldstein is)
Lastly, a first-person narrator can easily slip in exposition to establish key details about themselves or their story:
Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece—all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round—more than a body could tell what to do with. The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.
— Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (establishing Huck Finn’s backstory)
I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister,—Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.
— Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (establishing Pip’s backstory)
Mom pulled into the circular driveway behind the church at 4:56. I pretended to fiddle with my oxygen tank for a second just to kill time.
“Do you want me to carry it in for you?”
“No, it’s fine,” I said. The cylindrical green tank only weighed a few pounds, and I had this little steel cart to wheel it around behind me. It delivered two liters of oxygen to me each minute through a cannula, a transparent tube that split just beneath my neck, wrapped behind my ears, and then reunited in my nostrils. The contraption was necessary because my lungs sucked at being lungs.
— John Green, Fault in Our Stars (explaining why Hazel Lancaster needs a tank at all times)
My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this Middle Western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (establishing Nick Carraway’s roots)
I resolved, in the depth of my heart, that I would be most moderate—most correct; and, having reflected a few minutes in order to arrange coherently what I had to say, I told her all the story of my sad childhood. Exhausted by emotion, my language was more subdued than it generally was when it developed that sad theme; and mindful of Helen’s warnings against the indulgence of resentment, I infused into the narrative far less of gall and wormwood than ordinary. Thus restrained and simplified, it sounded more credible: I felt as I went on that Miss Temple fully believed me.
— Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (establishing the state of Jane Eyre’s childhood)
Exposition through internal monologue
Internal monologue is exactly what it sounds like: text that gives readers a direct glimpse into a character’s inner thoughts and feelings. As you might have guessed, it’s another way through which authors can insert exposition.
Remember when Kurt Vonnegut said that a sentence ought to do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action? Well, exposition through internal monologue is particularly useful for the former, as we’ll show you now.
Exposition shown through internal monologue can establish key expository details while advancing character development, as we can now see into the character’s mind:
The elevator doors close just as Luisa Rey reaches them, but the unseen occupant jams them with his cane. ‘Thank you,’ says Luisa to the old man. ‘Glad the age of chivalry isn’t totally dead.’
He gives a grave nod of acknowledgment.
Hell, Luisa thinks, he looks like he’s been given a week to live.
— David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (establishing the character of Luisa Rey)
There was only one occupant at the moment, obviously the young English lady referred to by the conductor. She was tall, slim and dark—perhaps twenty-eight years of age. There was a kind of cool efficiency in the way she was eating her breakfast and in the way she called to the attendant to bring her more coffee which bespoke a knowledge of the world and of travelling.
She wore a dark-coloured travelling dress of some thin material eminently suitable for the heated atmosphere of the train. M. Hercule Poirot, having nothing better to do, amused himself by studying her without appearing to do so.
She was, he judged, the kind of young woman who could take care of herself with perfect ease wherever she went. She had poise and efficiency. He rather liked the severe regularity of her features and the delicate pallor of her skin. He liked the burnished black head with its neat waves of hair, and her eyes—cool, impersonal and grey. But she was, he decided, just a little too efficient to be what he called “jolie femme.”
— Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express (establishing the character of Mary Debenham)
Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct, she thought, walking on. If you put her in a room with some one, up went her back like a cat’s; or she purred.
— Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (establishing the character of Mrs. Dalloway)
Exposition through other devices
Finally, you might see authors introduce key story details through some special devices — namely, other forms of media, such as newspaper clippings, letters, or emails. This kind of exposition helps establish a sense of immediacy, as readers are able to experience the piece of information for themselves.
Newspaper clippings allow readers to read a key piece of information for themselves:
Harry held the paper up to the candlelight and read:
BLACK STILL AT LARGE
Sirius Black, possibly the most infamous prisoner ever to be held in Azkaban fortress, is still eluding capture, the Ministry of Magic confirmed today.
“We are doing all we can to recapture Black,” said the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, this morning, “and we beg the magical community to remain calm.”
Fudge has been criticized by some members of the International Federation of Warlocks for informing the Muggle Prime Minister of the crisis.
“Well, really, I had to, don’t you know,” said an irritable Fudge. “Black is mad. He’s a danger to anyone who crosses him, magic or Muggle. I have the Prime Minister’s assurance that he will not breathe a word of Black’s true identity to anyone. And let’s face it — who’d believe him if he did?”
While Muggles have been told that Black is carrying a gun (a kind of metal wand that Muggles use to kill each other), the magical community lives in fear of a massacre like that of twelve years ago, when Black murdered thirteen people with a single curse.
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (explaining why Sirius Black is a menace to society)
Letters function in much the same way, letting the audience experience a piece of information at the same time that the characters do:
Howards End, Sunday.
“Dearest, dearest Meg,—I do not know what you will say: Paul and I are in love—the younger son who only came here Wednesday.”
— E.M. Forster, Howard’s End (explaining a key incident in the book)
Looking beyond exposition
When you’re writing your novel, remember that the exposition is just one part of a much bigger whole. It must combine smoothly with the story structure, action, and character development in order for your novel to come to life in the reader’s eyes.
What’s more, there’s no need to get it perfect the first time around. That’s what editing is for!