What Is Exposition in Literature?

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Exposition is a literary term that refers to the part of a story that sets the stage for the drama to follow: it introduces the theme, setting, characters, and circumstances at the story’s beginnings. To understand what exposition is, look at how the writer sets the scene for the story and the characters within it. Read through the first few paragraphs or pages where the author gives a description of the setting and the mood before the action takes place.

In the story of "Cinderella," the exposition goes something like this:

"Once upon a time, in a land far away, a young girl was born to very loving parents. The happy parents named the child Ella. Sadly, Ella's mother died when the child was very young. Over the years, Ella's father became convinced that the young and beautiful Ella needed a mother figure in her life. One day, Ella's father introduced a new woman into her life, and Ella's father explained that this strange woman was to become her stepmother. To Ella, the woman seemed cold and uncaring."

This passage sets the stage for the action to come, alluding to the notion that Ella's happy life might be about to change for the worse. You get both a feeling for Ella's sense of unease and the father's desire to provide for his daughter, but are left wondering what will happen. A strong exposition evokes feelings and emotion within the reader.

Styles of Exposition

The example above shows one way to provide background information for a story, but authors can also present information without stating the situation outright, as with understanding the thoughts of the main character. This passage from "Hansel and Gretel" shows exposition from Hansel's own thoughts and actions:

"Young Hansel shook the basket he clutched in his right hand. It was almost empty. He wasn't sure what he would do when the bread crumbs ran out, but he was certain that he did not want to alarm his little sister, Gretel. He glanced down at her innocent face and wondered how their wicked mother could be so cruel. How could she kick them out of their home? How long could they possibly survive in this dark forest?"

In the example above, we understand the background of the story because the main character is thinking about their circumstances. We get a feeling of despair coming from multiple occurrences, including the mother kicking the children out and the fact that Hansel's breadcrumbs are running out. We also get a feeling of responsibility; Hansel wants to protect his sister from the fear of the unknown and protect her from whatever is in the dark forest.

We can also derive background information from a conversation that takes place between two characters, such as this dialogue from the classic fairy tale of "Little Red Riding Hood:"

"'You will need to wear the best red cloak I gave you,' the mother said to her daughter. 'And be very careful as you want to grandmother's house. Don't veer off the forest path, and don't talk to any strangers. And be sure to look out for the big bad wolf!'
"'Is grandmother very sick?' the young girl asked.
"'She will be much better after she sees your beautiful face and eats the treats in your basket, my dear.'"
"'I am not afraid, Mother,' the young girl answered. 'I have walked the path many times. The wolf does not frighten me.'"

We can pick up a lot of information about the characters in this story, just by witnessing the conversation between mother and child. We can also predict that something is about to occur and that event will most likely involve that big bad wolf.

While the exposition usually appears at the beginning of a book, there can be exceptions. In some books, for example, you may find that exposition takes place through flashbacks that a character experiences. While the story might be set in the main character's current and somewhat stable life, their flashbacks give vital information that sets the scene for something that might be an internal struggle that will surface within the remainder of the story.