"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ….” is a phrase almost anyone can recognize, and it tells you everything you need to know about the Star Wars film you’re about to watch. When writers give background information to readers or listeners about settings, characters and themes, it’s called exposition.
Exposition is defined as "a literary device in which the author tells readers what is happening in the piece." The word exposition comes from the Latin word expositionem, which means "to place." It informs, describes and explains. Exposition usually appears in the very first section of a piece, but it can appear later.
Because all books involve some form of storytelling, many are likely to include exposition. Some just do it more clearly than others.
At the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, the heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s mother informs the family that “Netherfield Park is let at last,” meaning that they have a new neighbor. Namely, the wealthy Mr. Bingley, who is accompanied by his even richer friend Mr. Darcy. This opening sequence reveals most of the main characters, their relationships to one another and when the central conflict will be: finding husbands for the Bennet sisters.
“'Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.'
'What is his name?'
'Is he married or single?'
'Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!'”
Throughout The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway serves as narrator, a role in which he provides exposition for the complex and sometimes convoluted elements of the plotline. It is through his exposition that readers get a sense of the decadence and superficiality of Jay Gatsby's opulent lifestyle.
"I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited—they went there. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby, and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behaviour associated with an amusement park. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission."
Like many fairy tales, the story of Cinderella gives significant information for readers to have as the story unfolds.
“Once there was a gentleman who married, for his second wife, the proudest and most haughty woman that was ever seen. She had, by a former husband, two daughters of her own, who were, indeed, exactly like her in all things. He had likewise, by another wife, a young daughter, but of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper, which she took from her mother, who was the best creature in the world.”
This excerpt from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an example of exposition that explains the past and previews the future.
"Harry had been a year old the night that Voldemort — the most powerful Dark wizard for a century, a wizard who had been gaining power steadily for eleven years — arrived at his house and killed his father and mother. Voldemort had then turned his wand on Harry; he had performed the curse that had disposed of many full-grown witches and wizards in his steady rise to power — and, incredibly, it had not worked."
The Lord of the Rings tells the audience everything they need to know about the formation of the rings that ruled over the men, elves and dwarves of Middle Earth and the One Ring created to rule them all. This explosion is revealed through verse:
“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”
In film and television, exposition often takes the form of a voiceover, flashbacks, text on the screen, or dialogue between characters. Sometimes it is effective and other times it is overkill, but it’s often a useful tool to tell a story.
While exposition is found in a lot of great movies, one of the best examples is offered by George Lucas through the Star Wars franchise. In the opening of each film, you see a title crawl that begins:
"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ...."
This is followed by the text explaining what is happening in the Star Wars universe as it pertains to the plot.
Based on the book by Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park cleverly employs exposition through an informational video that the characters watch. This reveals to both the characters on screen and the viewers watching it how the technology behind the dinosaurs they are about to see works. Additionally, the cheesy, childlike tone of the video downplays the seriousness of the information and the devastation that is about to occur.
As with any fantasy or sci-fi story that’s tasked with creating a whole world with its own rules and history, The Matrix is filled with exposition. The opening scene of the film drops the audience into the middle of a conversation, arousing their curiosity to learn more. The audience is privy to the following dialogue:
Cypher: “You like him, don’t you? You like watching him?"
Trinity: “Don’t be ridiculous."
Cypher: “We’re going to kill him. Do you understand that?"
Trinity: “Morpheus believes he is the One.”
We do not yet know these characters and we don’t hear who is speaking. We only hear voices, yet instantly we are drawn in and given information that will be useful later. Without giving anything away, the audience knows the stakes and who and what will become important later in the film.
The opening scene of Up is a notable and tear-jerking example of exposition. The wordless montage is a perfect display of show don’t tell. It opens with the main character, Carl, as a young man and follows him through his marriage to his wife to old age and his wife’s ultimate death. This reveals to the viewer why Carl is the way he is throughout the rest of the movie and allows them to empathize with the character.
The exposition in the first meeting between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson is the perfect balance between heavy-handed and essential. Due to Sherlock’s almost superhuman abilities to read people within seconds, he lets the audience know that John is a war veteran and deduces that John is looking for a flatmate. He then offers more exposition in the following monologue:
“I know you're an Army doctor, and you've been invalided home from Afghanistan. You've got a brother worried about you, but you won't go to him for help, because you don't approve of him, possibly because he's an alcoholic, more likely because he recently walked out on his wife, and I know your therapist thinks your limp's psychosomatic, quite correctly, I'm afraid. That's enough to be going on with, don't you think? The name is Sherlock Holmes, and the address is 221B Baker Street. Afternoon.”
However, while he’s telling the audience — both on the screen and in front of it — about John, he’s also revealing a lot about himself. The dialogue also highlights the difference between the two men, making them foils and clues the audience in that their differences will complement each other to form a strong partnership and eventually friendship.
Understanding the purpose of exposition helps you use it properly in your own work.
In a play, movie or television show, exposition could be used anywhere in the work to give background information on characters and other parts of the work.
In written texts, the exposition also gives background and character information. Writers often provide exposition via narrators, who provide backstory details.
Exposition is important because it helps to ground the reader, viewer or listener within a work by providing context for what is about to unfold. Not only does exposition provide clarity on characters and time, but it also helps people orient themselves within the work. Without an exposition, readers, viewers and listeners would be confused as to what is happening and why.
Now that you are familiar with exposition examples from popular works, consider how you can incorporate this literary device into your own writing.
Description - The writer explains the characteristics of a topic, shows examples or describes features of an item or person.
Comparison - Clarify how two topics are alike or different.
Cause and effect - Provide background through insights regarding the cause of an event and an overview of its actual or potential effects.
Problem and solution - Sets forth a problem and then explains possible solutions to it.
Sequence - Depict events in either chronological or numerical order based on the order in which something happened or in which information will be presented in the work.
There are several different types of exposition, all of which need to be concise and easy to understand when used in a work of writing or entertainment.
Description: The U.S. flag consists of thirteen alternating stripes of red and blue, representing the 13 original states. In the top left of the flag, there is a field of blue with fifty stars, one for each state.
Comparison: The alligator has a u-shaped, round snout and tends to live in freshwater swamps and streams. The crocodile has a long, v-shaped snout and can live in saltier waters as well as freshwater habitats.
Cause and effect: The Civil War was caused by conflicts between states on the subjects of states' rights and slavery. Before the war, the southern states relied on slaves to plant and harvest crops. These southern states wanted to make decisions separate from the northern states and banded together as The Confederates, threatening to leave the U.S. The northern soldiers were victorious in the Civil War, reestablishing that states in the South had to conform to U.S. laws, including the abolishment of slavery.
Problem and solution: Every day in the United States, approximately 29 people die as a result of driving while intoxicated. That means 10,000 people die each year in alcohol-impaired driving crashes. This issue can be addressed by actively enforcing the 0.08% BAC laws, upholding the minimum age drinking laws and establishing more sobriety checkpoints.
- Sequence: Key timelines of the Civil War include:
1600s - States begin to adopt laws regarding slavery that are appropriate for their individual states.
1700s - Some states begin to express opinions indicating that slavery should be abolished.
1800s - Rebellion against slavery starts with seven states threatening to secede from the Union. Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated. The Civil War began; the North eventually won.
Now that you have exposition down, enhance your writing and storytelling skills.