6 Ways to write an effective Exposition (with examples)

In our earlier post on the questions to consider while Plotting, we briefly spoke to you about what plotting entails when you are writing a novel.  In this five-part series on the structures of plots we bring to you what goes into plotting and why it is an extremely important literary element.

The plots of traditional stories are believed to follow a certain pattern. German playwright and novelist, Gustav Freytag is credited with analyzing the structures of stories. He proposed that the plot of story goes through the following dramatic arcs:

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising Action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling Action
  5. Denouement

The same can represented as a pyramid

In this first post we talk to you about the first dramatic arc – Exposition and six ways to write an effective exposition. In subsequent posts, we will demystify the other arcs.

Structure of Plots – Part 1. What is Exposition?

Exposition is introducing your reader to your story.  It’s saying, “Hello Reader, meet my character” or “Hello Reader, here’s that haunted house where everything is going to happen.”

Exposition comprises of the choices you make, as a writer, to set the scene and initiate readers to your story. It is about conveying intitial and necessary information.

6 WAYS TO WRITE AN EFFECTIVE EXPOSITION

A. EXPOSITION THROUGH CONFLICT

Excerpt from The Trial by Franz Kafka

Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.

Introducing your reader to the conflict, taking him/her straight to the story is an effective way. You don’t have to reveal anything more than what the conflict is. It serves as hook. In the above instance, the story begins with the main character’s arrest. Two policemen turn up at his home and arrest him. We are not told why he is being arrested and the character himself has no idea! Spoiler alert: The reason for his arrest is never revealed yet, as the story progresses, so much intrigue has been created that readers keep reading.

B. EXPOSITION THROUGH DIALOGUE

Exceprt from Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

(Spoken by Dumbledore to Harry)

“Voldemort… took your blood believing it would strengthen him. He took into his body a tiny part of the enchantment your mother laid upon you when she died for you. His body keeps her sacrifice alive, and while that enchantment survives, so do you and so does Voldemort’s one last hope for himself.”

Notice how important information is introduced through dialogue. This is an extremely effective way because characters constantly interact with each other. So, if you encounter a situation where you need to provide information but are unable to do so in narration simply because it feels out of place, it might be an option to create an opportunity for dialogue and to then reveal the information through dialogue.

C. EXPOSITION THROUGH THOUGHTS / SOMETHING A CHARACTER HAS TO SAY ABOUT HIS/HER LIFE

Excerpt from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

There was no possibility of taking a walk THAT DAY. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, where was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door excerise was now out of the question.

I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly windy afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddenned by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John and Georgina Reed

This way is effective when you want your readers to understand the state of mind of your character. Jane Eyre was treated very badly by people she called family and she was in a fragile state of mind for the longest time. So if a character’s state of mind or being is central plot point you could consider this sort of exposition. This story is often considered the original coming-of-age story.

D.EXPOSITION THROUGH CHARACTER INTRODUCTION

Excerpt from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

Now don’t we like this character? J Of course we do. With an attitude like that? So, go ahead and introduce your readers to your character’s spunk! That’s a great way.

E. EXPOSITION THROUGH KEY BACKGROUND INFORMATION (THROUGH NARRATION)

Excerpt from The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen

Many years ago there lived an emperor who loved beautiful new clothes so much that he spent all his money on being finely dressed. His only interest was in going to the theater or in riding about in his carriage where he could show off his new clothes. He had a different costume for every hour of the day. Indeed, where it was said of other kings that they were at court, it could only be said of him that he was in his dressing room!

I’ve chosen a children’s story told in a traditional manner to make my point, the point being that good old narration with the key facts is also a great way to bring about an effective exposition. Good narration never goes out of fashion.

F. EXPOSITION THROUGH LETTERS, NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS, MEDICAL PRESCIRPTIONS, BILLS,

NEWSPAPER CLIPPING From The Blind Assassin by Margret Atwood

The Toronto Star, May 26, 1945

QUESTIONS RAISED IN CITY DEATH

SPECIAL TO THE STAR

A coroner’s inquest has returned a verdict of accidental death in last week’s St. Clair Ave. fatality. Miss Laura Chase, 25, was travellingwest on the afternoon of May 18 when her car swerved through the barriers protecting a repair site on the bridge and crashed into the ravine below, catching fire. Miss Chase was killed instantly. Her sister, Mrs. Richard E. Griffen, wife of the prominent manufacturer, gave evidence that Miss Chase sufferred from severed headaches affecting her vision. In reply to questioning, she denied any possibility of intoxication as Miss Chase did not drink…

This epistolary tool helps to provide a lot of information. Notice how all necessary information about a character’s death, reactions to that death from close relatives as well as details of close relatives and the death itself is presented. Diary excerpts, letters etc too are known to be used.

REMEMBER!

Expositions usually include:

  1. Who your characters are:  Can include names, Profession, a particular like or dislike/ character traits – things that will help your readers get familiar with your character. Remember that your readers are following the trajectory of your characters. They will be rooting for your main character (usually) and good expositions help create good first impressions
  2.  Where they are : A sense of the place where something is happenning or where something is going to happen
  3. Time: You remember the famous, “Once Upon a time” opening line? Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children too begins in a similar way. Consider this:

I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date. I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came.

As you can see from the opening lines, readers are introduced to a character who talks about his birth, his place of birth and time of birth. Almost immediately we know that this is very important information (“there is no getting away from the date…” and “time matters, too”) and get a sense of the setting – the day of Indian Independence is very clear from the above lines.

Novels have longer expositions than short stories owing to sheer length and the fact novesl require greater time investments from readers than short stories. Expositions of novels might run into a few pages.

(Note: In the above example, I used only the opening lines to make my point. This is not the entire exposition from the novel.)

WORD OF CAUTION WHILE USING EXPOSITION

Writers sometimes instinctively tend to give too much information to the readers. The rule of the thumb is, “act first, explain later.” Get the action going, you don’t have to explain everything! Invariably there will be plenty of opportunity to explain why something was done. Don’t turn exposition into an information dump!

Are there other great ways to write an effective exposition? Let us know by way of a comment!

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

3 thoughts on “6 Ways to write an effective Exposition (with examples)”

  1. mila E. Isles

    Your explanations of the six ways have really paved the way to understand exposition writing. They are guideposts in starting to write expositions. They are very helpful to students and professionals
    , too.

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