The Art of Narrative, Part Two: Exposition

Welcome back!

***A quick note before we begin—the call for flash topics opens today! Please send your idea (a theme, a sentence, a prompt, or a couple of words) to evariederauthor@gmail.com. I will be choosing a topic and incorporating it into a 500 to 1,000 word piece for next week’s Third Thursday Flash. Submissions will remain open until Monday the 8th at 8 p.m. Pacific Standard Time! In your email, please let me know if you would prefer I keep your name anonymous should I pick your idea, and thanks for participating!***

Last Thursday, I started an exploration of the art of narrative. My post focused on point of view (otherwise known as POV), and now that we’ve established who the narrator/speaker is, we move into the first stage of the narrative arc: exposition.

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary Online, exposition is “1. a setting forth of the meaning or purpose (as of a writing) [and] 2. discourse or an example of it designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand.” Thus the point of the exposition is to provide the reader with background information and details that will set the tone for the rest of the work. This happens in three key parts: setting, character details, and mood.

Let’s focus on each individually.

Setting

The setting tells us where and when a story takes place, but also introduces themes and background viewpoints essential to the story. While the where is portrayed with ample sensory detail and gives the reader an idea of where he or she is about to set foot in the story, other information is provided at this stage to signal pending plot lines and narrative themes (for example, homelessness and hunger in a post-apocalyptic world, or political upheaval in an ancient time). These features help readers identify potential goals of characters they will meet, which will further their understanding of why characters make their choices. Writer and former agent Nathan Bransford wrote an excellent post about these deeper aspects of setting, which you can read here.

Depending on the plot of the story, setting may reappear throughout the work or change dramatically with each chapter (for example, a space opera might center around a ship that docks at various planets, each conveyed with new setting details, whereas a story that takes place entirely in a house will not need to add much in the showcasing of different rooms). Whether local or more broad, setting at every stage of the story helps orient the reader and provides context for the plot.

Character Details:

Along with the background detail of the setting, the exposition introduces a protagonist. A skilled writer unveils the protagonist slowly yet thoroughly, making him, her, or it accessible to the reader without creating an “info dump” of all their personal details. This gradual familiarity allows the reader to identify the character’s goals and struggles, so that they in turn will understand the intensity of the impending conflict and the character’s reaction. Though the antagonist and/or conflict is not always introduced in this stage, some motivations or issues may start to surface in preparation for the obstacle to come.

Characters must become real to their readers. This is accomplished through a portrayal of their interests, thoughts, speech patterns, behavior, appearance, and other mannerisms, as well as how they interact with others. Dialogue, inner thoughts, and actions are all compelling ways to take the reader on a journey through the characters’ personal details instead of listing them in a bland and telling way. “Joe had red hair. Joe had a big nose. Immediately, Joe lost his wallet and screamed. This was because Joe had a rager of temper, so when he started yelling everyone ran in fear.” Not so interesting, right? As writers, we must be mindful of how we introduce character details, making sure to feed traits through action so as to pull the narrative along in a smooth manner. UDL Editions by Cast provides some helpful quotes and thoughts on characterization here.

Mood:

Setting and characterization are huge aspects of a narrative—but the mood is also important. Mood is what the reader feels, a sensation that will carry him or her through the work. This mood is a foreshadowing of sorts, alerting the reader to the story’s possibilities. Word choice, tone, voice, theme, imagery, dialogue, character behavior, and setting details are all features that convey mood. A shadowed forest with heavy winds and a mumbling vagabond might alert the reader to a sinister, dark tale, while a giggling, blushing child running across a pier might indicate a lighthearted and fun tale to come.

Through each part of the exposition—setting, character details, and mood—writers prepare the reader for the narrative journey ahead. Some writers spend a great deal of time on the exposition stage, and in turn, some readers love a lengthy and detailed exposition before diving forward in the narrative. Other writers craft a shorter exposition with the hopes of letting more details reveal themselves throughout the piece.

What about you—what’s your style when it comes to exposition length and detail? What is your favorite to read?

Please share below! I’d love to hear. 🙂

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About Eva Rieder

Eva Rieder is a speculative and contemporary/mainstream fiction author. By day, she masquerades as a high school Math and English teacher. Though she adores teaching and her students very much, when Eva returns home she reglues her fingertips to the keyboard to pursue her alter ego’s destiny. She currently lives and writes in Northern California with her two keyboard-savvy cats. View all posts by Eva Rieder

3 responses to “The Art of Narrative, Part Two: Exposition

  • Katherine Checkley

    Hey Eva, thanks for the shout out on my POV piece 🙂 You’re awesome! Good source of information here. I personally like long expositions, but not at the beginning of the story. I think the first few pages should set the scene (like you mentioned) but get straight into the action. The exposition can be filtered into accordingly. I’m all for a good chapter 3 or 4 getting into some quality expo.

    • Eva Rieder

      Your POV piece was great, how could I not? 🙂 I agree on your thoughts on exposition; too much up front can get tedious, so filtering it in later is helpful. Sometimes the barest stage with some *hints* can keep us reading, and later we can figure out all the rest of the details. Thanks for commenting, Katherine!

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