Phrases like “once upon a time”, “a long time ago”, “at the time when”, “in the land far, far away”, “once there was a”, etc. are some well-known examples of expositions. They are traditional ways to begin a story, and have been used in many folk tales.
The plot of a story usually starts with an incident which sparks a chain of events in the story. For example, let us say a man meets a woman one fine day and falls in love with her. She refuses his advances, but he persistently tries to persuade her. The story describes his efforts to win her heart, and the story ends with the woman finally accepting his feelings for her. This is a simple story, but leaves the readers with a question as to why the woman did not accept the man in the first place? Was there something that had happened in her past that restrained her from falling for him? It would have been much easier for the readers to understand her actions if the writer would have told them about her past.
To save the readers from this trouble, a writer usually writes the information about the characters’ past, in the exposition of the story. Considered as one of the four rhetorical modes or modes of discourse, the exposition is an introduction of a story which presents important background information like the characters’ back stories, the setting, events that had taken place prior to the plot, etc. Such information helps the readers comprehend and prepare for the events that follow.
Types of Exposition
◆ Information Dumping
This is an easy way to write an exposition. In this type, the background information is usually not tightly woven in the story. The information is given to the readers in a very cliched manner. For example, in a conversation between two characters, they discuss some things for the readers’ benefit that are already known to them. This might be deemed as an unnatural way of communicating. The scene two of the first act of Shakespeare’s Macbeth can be taken as an example. In the scene, a sergeant returns from a battlefield to narrate the latest news to the king. He sings gallant praises of Macbeth’s bravery, which every character present should know of. Here, the information that is already known by the characters, is repeated for the readers’ benefit. This may not qualify as an effective exposition.
◆ Including Information
This type of exposition is more effective than the information dumping technique as the information is tightly woven in the story. In information dumping, the information about the characters, their past, and the plot and setting of the story is bombarded on the readers. In the Including technique, information leads to and supports the main plot of the story. The writers can use different methods like providing the information through the dialogs, flashbacks, character’s thoughts or the narrator giving it.
Examples of Exposition in Literature
◆ In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937
The exposition for The Hobbit runs almost two pages till one morning when Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, encounters Gandalf, the wizard. In the first two sentences, Tolkien establishes the difference between other hobbits and Bilbo. The description of Bilbo, his house, and his ancestors follows. This gives the readers a fair idea of Bilbo and what kind of life he lived till the day he met Gandalf. A hint of the impending adventure can be seen in the end of the exposition, “Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.” In these sentences, Tolkien cleverly indicates that Bilbo’s mundane life was about to change.
◆ How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact. There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them.
— Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897
Bram Stoker chooses a different method to introduce the story. He places a small epigraph in the beginning of the novel, which explains the structure of the novel. The novel is composed of personal journals, diaries, letters, statements, etc., by multiple authors. He emphasizes on the fact that whatever the readers will read in the novel is history. This makes the readers take the story seriously.
◆ Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was so sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning.
— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1878
The first sentence itself sets the mood of the novel. The statement stumps the readers in the first reading. However, they might agree with it as the novel progresses and as the later incidents in the story support the statement. With the statement, Tolstoy gives a brief information of the situation in a household. The background information of the family’s state prepares the readers for what happens later between the husband and wife. The exposition prefigures the protagonist Anna Karenina’s situation, which is explained later in the novel. In a way, the exposition notes some of the major themes of the novel such as marriage, faith, and fidelity.
To sum up, an exposition is not just the beginning of a story, but a bridge between the readers and the writer, that makes them connect with the story. It may not be the first or most important incident of the story, but it is the most important detail that leads the readers through the story. As Graham Greene had said, “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”.