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Exposition (literary technique)

Exposition (literary technique)

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At the beginning of a narrative
A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

, the exposition is the author's providing of some background information to the audience about the plot, characters' histories, setting, and theme. Exposition is considered one of four rhetorical modes
Rhetorical modes
Rhetorical modes describe the variety, conventions, and purposes of the major kinds of writing. Four of the most common rhetorical modes and their purpose are exposition, argumentation, description, and narration....

 of discourse, along with argumentation, description
Description is one of four rhetorical modes , along with exposition, argumentation, and narration. Each of the rhetorical modes is present in a variety of forms and each has its own purpose and conventions....

, and narration. Aside from the common usage of exposition in narrative
A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

s such as novels, films, television shows, and plays, the concept may be used in some non-narrative settings, such as speeches or academic reports.


Exposition is divided into two methods:
  • Analytical Exposition
  • Hortatory Exposition

Exposition as a fiction-writing mode

Within the context of fiction, exposition is the fiction-writing mode for conveying information. According to Robert Kernen, "Exposition can be one of the most effective ways of creating and increasing the drama in your story. It can also be the quickest way to kill a plot's momentum and get your story bogged down in detail. Too much exposition, or too much at one time, can seriously derail a story and be frustrating to the reader or viewer eager for a story to either get moving or move on."

Exposition in fiction may be delivered through various means. As noted by Ansen Dibell, the simplest way is to just place the information between scenes as the all-seeing, all-knowing (but impersonal and invisible) narrator. Jessica Page Morrell has observed that various devices, such as trial transcriptions, newspaper clippings, letters, and diaries may be used to convey information. Another means of delivering information is through a character, either as dialogue or through the character's thoughts. Exposition is also at the bottom of the story diagram.

Information dump

When the presentation of information in fiction becomes wordy, it is sometimes referred to as an "information dump," "exposition dump," or "plot dump." Information dumps expressed by characters in dialogue or monologue are sometimes referred to as "idiot lectures."

Information dumps are sometimes placed at the beginning of stories as a means of establishing the premise of the plot. In serial television dramas
Serial (radio and television)
Serials are series of television programs and radio programs that rely on a continuing plot that unfolds in a sequential episode by episode fashion. Serials typically follow main story arcs that span entire television seasons or even the full run of the series, which distinguishes them from...

, exposition in individual episodes often appears as a brief montage of scenes from earlier episodes, prefaced with the phrase "Previously on [name of series]." Villain speech is a specific form of exposition in which the villain
A villain is an "evil" character in a story, whether a historical narrative or, especially, a work of fiction. The villain usually is the antagonist, the character who tends to have a negative effect on other characters...

 describes his sinister plans to a helpless hero
A hero , in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion...

, often prefacing his exposition with the comment that it can't hurt to divulge the plan, since the hero will be dead soon anyway (or the plan will be impossible to stop in the short time available). The villain's motivation sometimes includes his desire to have his cleverness admired by the character most capable of appreciating it. Examples include Comic book
Comic book
A comic book or comicbook is a magazine made up of comics, narrative artwork in the form of separate panels that represent individual scenes, often accompanied by dialog as well as including...

 supervillains and villains in James Bond
James Bond
James Bond, code name 007, is a fictional character created in 1953 by writer Ian Fleming, who featured him in twelve novels and two short story collections. There have been a six other authors who wrote authorised Bond novels or novelizations after Fleming's death in 1964: Kingsley Amis,...


Information dumps can appear in science fiction where the author wants to ensure that the reader is aware of something, and so has one character explain something to another. Why this can be poor writing is that information dump can mean characters explain things to each other that they would already know. For example, if you need to call someone, you don't stop to explain to a colleague that you are now going to use a device controlled with digital circuits to use radio waves to transmit your voice. Why? Because your contemporaries already know how cellular radio telephones work.

In television, information dumps are common in sit-coms with the introduction of non-recurring characters which drive the comedic
Comedy , as a popular meaning, is any humorous discourse or work generally intended to amuse by creating laughter, especially in television, film, and stand-up comedy. This must be carefully distinguished from its academic definition, namely the comic theatre, whose Western origins are found in...

 plot of a particular episode. An example would be the use of the narrator in Arrested Development to sum up the revelations and inner thoughts of characters in order to keep the viewer tuned to the plot.

In television sketch comedy
Sketch comedy
A sketch comedy consists of a series of short comedy scenes or vignettes, called "sketches," commonly between one and ten minutes long. Such sketches are performed by a group of comic actors or comedians, either on stage or through an audio and/or visual medium such as broadcasting...

, which borrows from the tradition of vaudeville
Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill...

 comedy, exposition in the most exaggerated sense is used for outrageous comedic effect.

Stories which are concerned with the unearthing of a secret past sometimes include lengthy exposition sequences. These may include large quantities of exposition, complete with theorizing about the implications of the information. Examples include:
  • Dan Brown
    Dan Brown
    Dan Brown is an American author of thriller fiction, best known for the 2003 bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code. Brown's novels, which are treasure hunts set in a 24-hour time period, feature the recurring themes of cryptography, keys, symbols, codes, and conspiracy theories...

    's The Da Vinci Code
    The Da Vinci Code
    The Da Vinci Code is a 2003 mystery-detective novel written by Dan Brown. It follows symbologist Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu as they investigate a murder in Paris's Louvre Museum and discover a battle between the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei over the possibility of Jesus having been married to...

  • Neal Stephenson
    Neal Stephenson
    Neal Town Stephenson is an American writer known for his works of speculative fiction.Difficult to categorize, his novels have been variously referred to as science fiction, historical fiction, cyberpunk, and postcyberpunk...

    's Snow Crash
    Snow Crash
    Snow Crash is Neal Stephenson's third novel, published in 1992. Like many of Stephenson's other novels it covers history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics, and philosophy....

  • Umberto Eco
    Umberto Eco
    Umberto Eco Knight Grand Cross is an Italian semiotician, essayist, philosopher, literary critic, and novelist, best known for his novel The Name of the Rose , an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory...

    's Foucault's Pendulum
    Foucault's Pendulum
    Foucault's Pendulum is a novel by Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco. It was first published in 1988; the translation into English by William Weaver appeared a year later....

  • HBO's Rome (TV series)
    Rome (TV series)
    Rome is a British-American–Italian historical drama television series created by Bruno Heller, John Milius and William J. MacDonald. The show's two seasons premiered in 2005 and 2007, and were later released on DVD. Rome is set in the 1st century BC, during Ancient Rome's transition from Republic...

Parodies of information dump

The Austin Powers
Austin Powers (film series)
The Austin Powers series is a series of action-comedy films written by and starring Mike Myers as the title character, directed by Jay Roach and distributed by New Line Cinema...

film series has a character named Basil Exposition whose job was to repeatedly plot dump as a parody of the process in movies with serious plots.

The series Mystery Science Theater 3000
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is an American cult television comedy series created by Joel Hodgson and produced by Best Brains, Inc., that ran from 1988 to 1999....

always mocked movies that made blatant use of this practice. For example, in Parts: The Clonus Horror
Parts: The Clonus Horror
Parts: The Clonus Horror, also known as Clonus, is a 1979 science fiction horror film about an isolated community in a remote desert area, where clones are bred to serve as a source of replacement organs for the wealthy and powerful...

, there is a scene where a character views a videotape that explains the organization's origins and purpose in painstaking detail, basically providing all of the necessary exposition in one fell swoop. Tom Servo
Tom Servo
Tom Servo is a fictional character from the American science fiction comedy television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 . Tom is one of two wise-cracking, robotic main characters of the show, built by Joel Robinson to act as a companion and help stave off space madness as Joel was forced to watch...

 quips, "Good thing he wandered into the Department of Backstory!" At the beginning of another MST3k movie, Riding with Death, an extra consults a computer file containing information about the movie's protagonist for completely unexplained reasons (other than providing exposition). Once again, Servo notes this by referring to the computer as the "Backstory Database".

Plot dumps are parodied in the movie Spaceballs
Spaceballs is a 1987 American science fiction comedy parody film co-written by, directed by, Mel Brooks and starring Bill Pullman, John Candy, Mel Brooks & Rick Moranis. It also features, Daphne Zuniga, Dick Van Patten, and the voice of Joan Rivers. The film was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on...

when Colonel Sandurz explains a plan to Dark Helmet, though Dark Helmet should have already known the plan. Dark Helmet then faces the camera and, breaking the fourth wall
Fourth wall
The fourth wall is the imaginary "wall" at the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled box set in a proscenium theatre, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play...

, asks the audience "Everybody got that?" to parody the true purpose of the plot dump.

The "villain speech" is criticized in the film Last Action Hero
Last Action Hero
Last Action Hero is a 1993 American action-comedy-fantasy film directed and produced by John McTiernan. It is a satire of the action genre and its clichés, containing several parodies of action films in the form of films within the film....

, where the police traitor, John Practice, reveals his evil plan to Jack Slater and Danny, to which the latter retorts that it is a classic mistake made by villains. Also, in The Incredibles
The Incredibles
The Incredibles is a 2004 American computer-animated action-comedy superhero film about a family of superheroes who are forced to hide their powers. It was written and directed by Brad Bird, a former director and executive consultant of The Simpsons, and was produced by Pixar and distributed by...

, several characters negatively denote "monologing" as a villain's speech that goes on for too long and distracts him from realizing the superhero is escaping.

Several villains in the Nickelodeon series Danny Phantom
Danny Phantom
Danny Phantom is an American animated television series created by Butch Hartman for Nickelodeon, produced by Billionfold Studios. The show was about a teenage half-ghost boy, who frequently saves his town and the world from ghost attacks, while attempting to keep his ghost half a secret...

 have been prone to plot dumping, especially the recurring technology ghost, Nicolai Technus. This is made into a running gag in the episode "Identity Crisis." In that episode, Technus claims to have upgraded himself, one of the advantages of the upgrade being that he would no longer shout his nefarious plot into the sky. He was able to maintain this for most of the episode (at one point even criticizing Danny for shouting something into the air himself), but eventually dictates his plot to himself near victory, immediately afterwards saying, "Nobody heard that, right?"

In the stage musical Urinetown
Urinetown: The Musical is a satirical comedy musical, with music by Mark Hollmann, lyrics by Hollmann and Greg Kotis, and book by Kotis. It satirizes the legal system, capitalism, social irresponsibility, populism, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement, and municipal politics...

, the first song is in fact titled "Too Much Exposition" during which the Narrator and Little Sally explain about the drought that caused the water shortage, and in turn, the end of private bathrooms. While discussing the issue Officer Lockstock finally stops Little Sally before she reveals too much because "nothing can kill a show like too much exposition." Really! ("What about bad subject matter?" she argues. "Or a bad title? That can kill a show pretty good.")


Incluing is a technique of world building
World Building
World Building can refer to:* The New York World Building, the tallest building in the world from 1890 to 1894.* The Sun Tower in Vancouver, British Columbia was known as the World Building until 1924....

, in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers into the world the author is building, without them being aware of it.

This in opposition to infodumping, where a concentrated amount of background material is given all at once in the story, often in the form of a conversation between two characters, both of whom should already know the material under discussion. (The so-called As you know, Bob conversation.)

Both incluing and infodumping are forms of exposition and are frequently used in science fiction
Science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...

 and fantasy
Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic is common...

, genres where the author has the task to make the reader believe in a world that does not exist. Writers in other genres have less use for these techniques, as they can often depend on the reader's familiarity with the "real world".

Incluing can be done in a number of ways: through conversation between characters, through background details or by establishing scenes where a character is followed through daily life.

The word incluing is attributed to fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton
Jo Walton
Jo Walton is a Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction writer and poet. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002 and the World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her novel Ha'penny was a co-winner of the 2008 Prometheus Award...

. She defined it as "the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information."

Further reading