Exposition In A Story: Why Background Information Is Important

What Does Exposition Mean?

Do you remember the last time that you met someone for the first time? You did not know what their background was. You were also not aware of the conditions that they were potentially in or their emotional or mental state or even how they live their daily lives. This example can be likened to meeting characters in a story. We need an introduction to their lives in order to process whatever happenings may come their way.

It is also necessary to provide a clear picture of the environment where or the time in which they exist, so the context is not vague. The details of the characters, time, and the setting being introduced are collectively known as the exposition in a story. Exposition lays the foundation for the readers to understand where the characters are coming from, so they can analyze how the characters’ life and history affects how they deal with conflicts that arise later in the story.

Whether you’re writing a short story or an epic novel, expository writing is how you accomplish providing background information to the reader as the story unfolds. Exposition examples include things like the internal monologue of the main character and background details given during narration. Writers convey exposition in many different ways, and this article will provide both explanations and examples of exposition in a story.

Why is Background Information Necessary?

Background information is essential because it gives the reader a chance to connect to the characters emotionally. When a reader cares about the character, they become much more invested in the story, and they want to continue reading to find out what happens.

If you don’t provide background details about a character’s past, it will be difficult for the audience to understand why the character thinks, feels, and behaves the way that they do in reaction to the plot. No one cares about what happens to a flat character. When the reader feels a connection early on, they begin to see the protagonist as a real person, and they become emotionally invested in the story.

Internal Monologue

Internal monologue is one way that expository writing is executed. This is one of the best ways to build a fast connection to characters early on in the story because the reader is able to read the character’s thoughts and feelings as they occur. In first-person narrator structure, internal monologue provides a way to connect directly and exclusively to the protagonist because the protagonist is the only character we can get the complete thoughts and feelings of.

exposition in a story

Expository Dialogue

This technique is done so that the reader doesn’t have to read a lot of clunky background information before the author can get a chance to introduce characters. Exposition is a part of dramatic structure, but it isn’t something that you want your reader to be cognizant of when it is taking place. You want exposition to feel and seem natural.

During dialogue, such as a conversation, you can make characters talk about things that would cover the background of another character, or the situation, or even the setting. Because it’s hidden in conversation, the reader is getting background details without being aware of the fact that they’re being caught up in exposition. They’ll think they’re simply witnessing a conversation.

This frequently happens in mystery novels. Through dialogue, the characters will give background on a suspect, the antagonist, or even the protagonist. This literary device is effective, but it’s important not to cram too much background information into one conversation. Otherwise, it stops seeming natural.

The following is an example of this literary device in dialogue.

“I’m not going in there,” Detective Baker said. “The killer could be nicely prepared in gift wrap in the living room of that house with a signed confession pinned to his shirt, and I wouldn’t go in there.”

“Why? What are you so scared of?” Detective O’Neil asked. 

Detective Baker let out a long sigh and turned his back on the old, run-down mansion on the corner lot of the old part of town. The part of town people had abandoned over ten years ago. Baker wondered how much this house had to do with the fact that the whole neighborhood picked up and moved. Reminding himself to be patient with the new detective assigned to this case, who knew almost nothing of this town, or its history, he forced a thin smile. 

“Storytime, newbie. I’m only gonna say this once, so you’d better pay close attention because when I say I don’t repeat myself, I mean it. When I was a kid, about ten years old, there was a summer when a whole slew of kids went missing. Back then, this part of town was full of people, and kids rode their bikes all over the place. People didn’t worry about their kids getting snatched the way they have to worry now. Anyway. Two kids went missing first. A brother and sister.

They came from a rocky family, and they were both teenagers, so it didn’t get a lot of attention. Most people thought they ran off. But then more kids started to go missing—six in all that summer. Parents were terrified. A search party was formed, and they looked all over the woods, the creek beds, everywhere. Then one afternoon, my brother and I were riding our bikes down this very street. At this point, the only way kids were allowed out to play or ride bikes was on a strict buddy system deal, ya know?

So my brother and I were riding down this street when my big brother stopped right in front of that house right there and says, ‘What is that awful smell?! Smells like a bunch of dead animals over there.’ So, we did what any stupid kids would do. We went in. The cellar door had a busted lock. And guess what we found? Four kids. Four of the missing kids. Dead. They have been down in that cellar for who knows how long. No. I’m not going in there. I don’t care what that old man says he saw. No low-rate stereo thief is gonna get me back in that house.”

In this example, we see exposition played out in the form of dialogue. One detective tells another detective a story about the setting, and in that conversation, both the character and the reader find out about previous events that occurred many years ago. 

Doing this means that there doesn’t need to be a prologue, and the story doesn’t need to start decades earlier. The expository information is given in the form of conversation that flows naturally. Examples of exposition of this type can be seen in all sorts of fiction stories.

When to Use Expository Writing

While exposition works at any point in a story, it flows most naturally if written during a story’s rising action or inciting incident. The reader’s understanding of conflict in relation to the main characters and other characters is enhanced when we learn background information as the inciting incident or rising action is taking place. Without any background information, we don’t always know why the conflict impacts the characters at all.

Exposition is often beneficial early on in the story so that we can get main ideas of how characters’ thoughts impact their actions in reaction to the plot. We don’t want to know why a character acted the way they did after the fact. Readers usually want to know instead of how the characters might react due to their past experiences. Therefore, we get memories, flashbacks, dialogue, and internal thoughts in the present time in a story that gives us an understanding of the past.

Some writers try to hold off on expository writing so as to surprise readers, but other writers, most writers, in fact, get it out of the way early. It’s fairly common to see the bulk of the expository information in the first paragraph of a story, especially if the protagonist is in an uncommon or distressing emotional state at the onset of the story. It’s also often done in dialogue so that there’s no boring information dump that causes the writer to pause the storyline to cover.

The Effects of Exposition in Literature

Exposition impacts every part of the story because the reader will care more about a character or situation that they have background information about. If you know the innermost thoughts and feelings of someone, you are more likely to care about what happens to them. The same is true in literature.

Stories contain a whole new world for readers. Setting up where a story takes place, the narrative style, the description of characters, the conflict, climax, and falling action all take a lot of careful planning for that world to seem organic, realistic, and natural. 

Using exposition in the narrative at the beginning of the story tends to hook the reader almost immediately, and suddenly a world that came from a single idea in a writer’s head turns into a reality that the reader is invested in.

The backstory of characters makes the audience feel like they invented characters that could exist in real life. It makes the characters more interesting. The more detail included in the backstory, the more invested the audience becomes. It becomes more than just a novel for the audience. It becomes an alternate reality that they are so wrapped up, they forget about the real world we live in, even just for a while.

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