How do good stories start? In the middle of the action? With a slow buildup to the action? What would you say really is the literary definition of exposition, and how can knowing it help you write better stories?
Exposition is a literary term that deals with how to start a story.
In this article, I’ll define exposition, talk about how it fits into the dramatic structure, give examples of exposition from popular novels, plays, and films, and then give a few tips on how to use the exposition best in your writing.
Let’s get started.
Note: this article contains an excerpt from my #1 best-selling book The Write Structure, which is about the hidden structures behind bestselling and award-winning stories. If you want to learn more about how to write a great story, by mastering storytelling musts like the exposition literary definition, you can get the book for a limited time low price. Click here to get The Write Structure ($5.99).
Exposition Literary Definition
The exposition is a set of scenes in a story that are meant to introduce the audience to the characters, world, and tone of the story. It is relatively short, and no major changes occur during these opening scenes.
While we will focus on how exposition works in a narrative in this article, the term is also used in music, marketing (expo), and academic, expository essays, where it relates to a comprehensive argumentation for a theory or idea.
Origin of the Term Exposition
The word exposition originates from two Latin words expōnere, meaning “to display,” and expositio meaning “a setting forth.”
The combination is helpful to understanding to what is happening in the exposition of a story: the setting forth of a display, like how an author brings forward the pieces of a story, including the characters, the setting, and the key details of the plot before the story truly begins.
The music world gives us clues as to what is happening in an exposition, too. An exposition is the first section of a fugue or sonata form during which the main melodic themes are introduced for first time. In the same way, in a story, the exposition can be the place where the theme and the main ideas are first stated.
Synonyms for exposition in storytelling include introduction (used by Freytag) and sometimes hook.
Knowing the origins of the exposition literary definition can help you purposefully use exposition in scenes structuring your story.
Where Exposition Fits in the Dramatic Structure
At The Write Practice, we talk about the six elements that make up dramatic structure. They are:
In dramatic structure, the exposition occurs at the beginning of the story and is meant to set up the inciting incident, which is a moment where the action kicks off in the story.
How Long Is the Exposition in Most Stories?
Since stories are about change and values in conflict, the exposition, which contains no change, is necessarily quite short.
Most exposition is just two or three scenes, and in some cases, as short as half a scene.
For example, in The Hobbit, there are just a couple of pages of exposition before Gandalf shows up and invites Bilbo on an adventure.
Think about how this works well in the story as you recall the exposition literary definition—how it establishes the Shire, the tone for the novel, and the quaint setting that will drastically shift once Bilbo leaves home.
Here are a few examples of exposition in literature:
Example: The Exposition in Romeo and Juliet
In Romeo and Juliet, the exposition is actually fairly long, even longer depending on where you put the inciting incident (Freytag puts it earlier than I would, but then, Freytag has a different way of thinking about story structure):
- Servants of the two leading families in the city, the Montagues and Capulets, feud in the streets.
- Romeo, a young son of the Montagues, is depressed after being rejected by a woman, and his friends attempt to cheer him up.
- Juliet, the daughter of the Capulets, chafes at her parents setting her up with a man.
- Romeo’s friends convince him to attend a party at the Capulets’ house.
At this party, Romeo meets Juliet, and falls in love at first sight, creating the inciting incident. This is when the main action of the play begins.
But it isn’t until the fifth scene that the inciting incident occurs, which makes this one of the longer examples of exposition.
Note: Gustav Freytag argues that the invitation to the Capulets’ party is actually the inciting incident, which would make the exposition a bit shorter, just three scenes. I get this, from a certain perspective, since it’s the party that throws the two families together irrevocably, but I think that event is dwarfed by instant attraction between the two lovers.
Exposition Length: four scenes
Example: The Exposition in Gravity
In contrast, the film Gravity, about an astronaut attempting to survive a disaster in space, has an exposition that is quite short.
The story begins with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalksi (George Clooney) who are on a spacewalk on the Hubble Space Telescope.
But their spacewalk is interrupted when a missile strike causes a chain reaction of space debris that threatens to destroy much of the spacecraft around the planet.
This missile strike and the space debris chain reaction occurs right at the end of the first scene, meaning the exposition is less than a scene long.
Exposition Length: less than one scene
6 Tips for a Great Exposition
Now that we've looked at some great examples, let's explore how to do it in your story. If you’re writing a novel, screenplay, or other narrative, thinking about the exposition literary definition and how it works in storytelling can help you write a strong opening with these six tips.
1. Begin With Your Story’s Core Value
As we’ve talked about in our discussion of story arcs, every story has a core value scale that it moves on, and when you begin a story, your very first scene should be about the core value of your story.
There are traditionally six value scales:
- Life vs. Death
- Life vs. a Fate Worse than Death
- Love vs. Hate
- Accomplishment vs. Failure
- Maturity vs. Naiveté
- Right vs. Wrong
Stories rise and fall on the scale of these values. A love story might begin in the middle of the love vs. hate scale, rise during the meet cute, fall during a breakup, and end high on the love scale.
In your exposition, part of a writer’s job is to establish what scale your story is moving on. Your story may play with several of these values, but your core value must be presented from the very first scene.
Are you telling an adventure story on the life vs. death scale? Then begin with your first life vs. death moment.
Are you telling a performance story about a team competing to win a major tournament? Then begin with a scene that deals with accomplishment and failure.
Are you telling a story about good and evil? Well, show the audience a moment when good confronts evil right at the start.
Your exposition is not just about introducing your setting and your main characters' background information. It’s also about introducing the values at play in your story.
Then, when you start with these values and keep them in mind throughout the rest of your story, you’ll find the story comes together.
2. Include Conflict
Just because there’s no major change doesn’t mean there’s no conflict or choice in the opening.
Stories can feel slow and boring during the exposition, even when they’re written by great authors. But they can really drag when inexperienced authors make the mistake of thinking the exposition is just to introduce characters, provide backstory, and develop their world.
No. Please, dear writer, do not do this.
The exposition is still part of the story, and all story relies on conflict and choice to create plot movement.
Otherwise your reader will read five pages of your story and then put it down in boredom.
Your exposition must still be a good story.
How do you actually do that though? How do you make sure your exposition has conflict and choice so that it can develop the plot?
Here’s how: just as a story has the six elements of dramatic structure, so every scene must incorporate them as well. It is these six elements within every scene that will keep your story moving.
For more help writing scenes, see my article The Definitive Guide to Scene Structure.
That means every scene, even a scene in the exposition, must have exposition, an inciting incident, rising action, a crisis, a climax, and a denouement.
For example, let’s look at the opening scene in Romeo and Juliet, in which the servants from the Montagues and Capulets feud on the streets.
We could outline the scene like this:
- Exposition: Two Capulet servants talk about their hatred of the Montagues.
- Inciting Incident: Two Montague servants come onstage and a verbal feud begins.
- Rising Complication: Benvolio, a Montague, tries to stop the fight, but Tybalt, a Capulet, insults him.
- Crisis: Benvolio must choose whether to fight and break the peace or allow himself to be called a coward.
- Climax: Tybalt and Benvolio fight until their fight is broken up by armed citizens.
- Denouement: The Prince declares that anyone who breaks the peace will be executed.
See how, even though this is just a scene in the exposition, it still contains all the elements of dramatic structure?
So, too, any scene in your exposition should have this dramatic structure, or else risk feeling like boring info-dumping.
3. Introduce Most of Your Characters
First impressions matter. How you introduce your characters is how they will be remembered by the reader throughout the story. Take care to introduce them with the exact impression you want the reader to take away.
You can introduce them through narrative, description, or internal monologue (a character's thoughts), but the best way to first introduce a character is through dialogue and action.
Also be sure to introduce all or at least most of the important characters in your story in the exposition.
While you can introduce characters throughout the first act of your story (it’s usually not a good idea to introduce them afterward) it’s your exposition’s job to introduce most of your cast.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way in my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris, when I introduced a pivotal character all the way at the end of act two.
When a beta reader gave me feedback that I needed to introduce the character earlier, I did a massive facepalm. I should have known better! So I moved up the character’s introduction, and it made the story flow much better.
4. Establish the Point of View (POV)
Establish your point of view in the exposition, and then don’t change it.
The point of view is the perspective from which you tell the story. It will determine how your readers receive information, which is crucial to how they experience the plot.
The main options are third person limited, third person omniscient, and first person.
Just like understanding the exposition literary definition is crucial to storytelling, so is understanding the definition and application of point of view. For more on this, you can read our ultimate point of view guide here.
5. Save the Cat
One tried and true method of introducing a central character in the best possible light is to have them “save the cat,” a screenwriting term popularized by Blake Snyder in his book of the same name. The term refers to a character who does a selfless, or at least admirable, act to prove they are “worth rooting for” and endear themselves to the reader early on in the story.
The term comes from Roxanne, the 1987 film starring Steve Martin and Darryl Hannah. In the beginning of the film, Martin, who has a strangely long nose, literally saves a cat from a tree, thus making sure you love him despite his strange appearance.
The admirable act, of course, does not have to be saving a cat.
Here are some examples of this device in popular stories:
- Aladdin. After stealing a loaf of bread and escaping the police, Aladdin offers his share to two hungry-looking children, proving that he’s a thief with character.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If being an orphan and bullied by the uncle, aunt, and cousin he lives with isn’t enough for readers to bond with Harry, he also befriends and then saves a snake from humiliating captivity. (“Save the snake” is a less catchy guideline, but it works!)
- Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet is first singled out as worth rooting for by her father, when he compares her to her sisters, saying, “Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.” Then later, we cheer for her when she’s insulted by Mr. Darcy and instead of getting angry, she laughs it off.
- The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins, like many of us, both longs for adventure (because of his Took ancestry, as Tolkien explains) and is very uncomfortable with it. This inner turmoil makes him the perfect “everyman” hero thrown into the midst of a very tumultuous situation involving dwarves and dragons. He is like us, and we always want to root for ourselves.
While a selfless or admirable act is not required, it is important to somehow develop a bond with your characters early on, and this technique is one of the best, most efficient ways to do it.
6. Build to the Inciting Incident Quickly
As we showed in our example, the exposition isn’t meant to be long: as short as half a scene and as long as four.
The point here is to get to the point: the inciting incident.
The inciting incident is when the story will begin moving, and a story that doesn’t move doesn’t make for a good story.
So don’t dawdle.
Do what you need to do to set up the inciting incident, and then move on.
Some Books Don’t Start With the Exposition
Just because great writers understand the exposition literary definition and how to use it in stories doesn't mean all stories have an exposition.
In some stories, especially action, thriller, or horror stories, it’s appropriate to begin with a short scene of heightened tension.
There are several ways to handle this:
In Medias Res
In medias res, meaning “in the middle” in Latin, is a literary technique to start a story in the middle of the action. This begins the story with a heightened level of suspense at the expense of clarity for the sake of the reader.
The audience, who doesn’t after all know the characters who are caught up in the action, can easily feel distant or even confused. However, in certain stories and genres this is well worth it for the sake of an immediate shot of action.
A good example of a story that starts in medias res is almost every film in the Mission Impossible franchise.
Similarly, a story that starts with a flash forward (as opposed to a flashback) begins not in the exposition but in the climax—not a full climax but a shortened glimpse of the climax. Then, in the middle of the crisis of that scene, you pull away from the scene and flash back to the start of the story, the exposition.
A good example of this technique is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (both the novel and film versions).
There are drawbacks to beginning with a moment deep in the action of the story, whether in medias res or a flash forward. You can miss the opportunity to build a bond between your audience and your characters. You also risk confusing and disorienting the audience.
The writers who do it the best draw the audience out of the action as quickly as they drew them in, soon beginning normal exposition.
What is always true of successful stories is you have to get through the exposition at some point, even if it’s not in the first scene.
Good Stories Start With Clear Choices
If you want to write a great story, you don’t start too fast with a climactic moment. You also don’t want to start too slow with no choices or conflict.
No, you want to start with strong exposition, using crisis choices to introduce characters in a way your reader can root for them, not giving away too much information, not creating much movement.
Instead, you want to set the foundation of all the story that is going to happen in the future, starting with your inciting incident.
Understanding the exposition literary definition and studying examples of stories (like the ones covered in this post) that include exposition with purpose will help you apply exposition (well) in your own story,
So get started, and have fun!
What are your favorite opening scenes or exposition scenes in film or novels? Share in the comments.
Need more plot help? After you practice this plot element in the exercise below, check out my new book The Write Structure which helps writers make their plot better and write books readers love. Low price for a limited time!
Now that you've read this post, how well do you understand the exposition literary definition? Let’s put the exposition to use with the following creative writing exercise:
Use the following story structure as a creative writing prompt to write an exposition of your own.
- Exposition: ___________ (Fill in the blank.)
- Inciting incident: A master thief shares the plan for the greatest heist of his/her career with his/her team.
- Rising action: The team plans the heist.
- Crisis: Best bad choice. Risk losing the heist for the sake of the team, or choose to save the team and give up the profit from the heist?
- Climax: The master thief gives up the profit, saving his/her team.
- Resolution: Missing out on the heist, or appearing to, was all part of the thief’s plan, and he/she shares the profits with his/her team.
Start by outlining the missing exposition in a single sentence. Then set your timer for fifteen minutes and write your exposition as quickly as you can.
When your time is up, post your practice (and your exposition sentence)in the Pro Practice Workshop for feedback. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback on a few pieces by other writers.