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Writing

Writing 101: How to Use Literary Exposition

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 24, 2020 • 2 min read

A crucial literary device for hooking a reader’s attention, exposition allows a writer to introduce the primary characters and plot points.

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Effective exposition provides essential background information about the main characters and the world of your story. Writing exposition also provides stakes and emotional context for the beginning of the story, supporting the rising action, the falling action, and the eventual denouement. It also helps paint a clear picture of the setting and is a critical component of worldbuilding.

What Is Exposition in Literature?

Exposition is a literary device that is meant to relay background information about a main character, setting, event or other element of the narrative. Exposition comes from the Latin word expositionem, which literally means “showing forth.” Backstory in literature can be conveyed through dialogue, characters’ thoughts or point of view, narration, flashbacks, description of the setting, or various pieces of in-universe media (such as newspaper headlines, journals, or letters).

What Is the Purpose of Exposition?

Exposition is designed to convey information that provides insight into a character or advances the story. The background information provided by exposition helps connect to the reader to the emotional stakes of the narrative. As far as literary terms go, exposition may be one of the simplest to understand. Yet nailing the exposition of a story is often one of the trickiest tightropes to walk for a writer; provide too little of a character’s backstory or background details and the reader will be confused, but write too much expository information and the reader will be bored (you’ve likely heard the motto “show, don’t tell”). That’s why it’s important to provide enough exposition to give your readers necessary context without tiring them with tedious details.

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How to Write Exposition Through Dialogue

Dialogue is one of several types of exposition for effectively introducing critical background information in a way that feels unforced and natural. Rather than directly explaining important details through the information dump of expository writing, dialogue allows you to weave backstory or context into a conversation or argument. On the other hand, writers should avoid the temptation to cram a bunch of exposition into the dialogue all at once, as this can lead to an exchange that feels unnatural and boring to the reader. Learn more about writing dialogue in our complete guide here.

How to Write Exposition Through Narration

Narration is often the simplest and most direct way to convey exposition. After all, the definition of exposition is the relaying of background information, and our narrator is the one in charge of deciding what information to tell us. The way the narrator dispenses that information likely depends on the type of narration used in the book or short story. Omniscient narrators, for instance, have the ability to see into each character’s thoughts and desires and therefore can provide information about any character at any given time. A first person narrator, on the other hand, can only convey the emotional state or backstory of the protagonist.

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How to Write Exposition Through Internal Monologue

Another way to provide good exposition in a narrative is through a character’s internal monologue. An internal monologue gives readers candid insight into a character’s innermost thoughts and desires. For that reason, internal monologue is a particularly helpful method of revealing character. This internal monologue gives us insight into the main character’s thoughts and feelings about the people around them.

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