Exposition (literary technique)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Exposition is one of four rhetorical modes of discourse, along with argumentation, description, and narration. The purpose of exposition is to provide some background and inform the readers about the plot, character, setting, and theme of the essay/story or motion picture.


Nonfiction exposition

Types of expository writing

  • Sequence writing lists, events or steps in chronological order or how they happen.
  • Descriptive essays use the senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste to provide the reader with a mental image or feeling about the subject.
  • Classification writing uses an organizational strategy to arrange groups of objects or ideas according to a common theme.
  • Comparison writing shows the similarities and differences between two or more subjects.
  • Cause-and-effect writing, also known as analysis, identifies the reasons for an event or situation.

Exposition in fiction

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." (Kernen, 1999)

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. (Dibell)

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 drama, 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 describes his sinister plans to a helpless hero, 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 supervillains and villains in James Bond movies.

In television, information dumps are common in sit-coms with the introduction of non-recurring characters which drive the comedic 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, which borrows from the tradition of vaudeville 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:

Parodies of information dump

The Austin Powers 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 always mocked movies that made blatant use of this practice. For example, in Parts: The Clonus Horror, 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 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 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, 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, where the police traitor, John Practice, reveals his evil plan to Jack Slater and Danny, to which the latter retorts that it's a classic mistake made by villains. Also, in The Incredibles, 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 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, 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.")

In an episode of "Spongebob Squarepants," Mr. Krabs returns from a vacation trip and the word "exposition" is displayed over his head. His location was a mystery during the entire episode, this revelation added context to the plotline.


Incluing is a technique of world building, 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 and fantasy, 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. One famous example of incluing is the door dilated, a phrase created by Robert A. Heinlein and used in several of his stories and novels. In real life, few doors (if any) open like pupils; the offhand mention establishes the familiarity of this strange thing, and does not call attention to itself.

The word incluing is attributed to fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton. She defined it as "the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information."

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Exposition (literary technique)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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