Elements of Plot: Exposition


Last week we took our high-level view of the elements of plot. There were five elements of plot identified and a brief description of each. Don’t forget that often, this looks like a Freytag’s Pyramid, but not all pyramids are built the same. I recommend using Freytag’s Pyramid as a resource and not the solve-all for your writing situations. While the Freytag’s Pyramid may align closely to your work’s plot, it doesn’t mean it will mirror it. With that out of the way, we’ll dive into the first element of plot, exposition.

What is Exposition?

Exposition is the part of your story where you introduce the important information to your reader. Information such as backstory, setting details, plot, and anything else important to the basic understandings of the story. While you will scatter this information across your novel, or series, the exposition in that first bit of your story gives the reader a chance to buy into your characters and the world they inhabit.

Every writing coach, fellow writer, or writing blogger will offer their opinion on how much backstory should be in the exposition of your story. From none to all is often the range, but that also depends on the writer’s experience. For example, I began with way too much backstory within the actual manuscript. The novel I began at 13 years old was my first attempt at a novel and I had eight main characters who I outlined each year of their lives until the story began at them leaving the sixth grade. Trust me, I hated it by the time I got to the fourth character, but I had nothing to compare it to. Most people didn’t even know I was writing. It was my secret from the world. And keeping it secret sheltered me from outside influences. But in reality, it kept me from learning the skills I would eventually have to take a crash course in as I started college.

So, exposition regarding backstory is about a balance between the past and present information the reader needs to know right away and omitting details that can come later. And here’s the thing that you may not realize, sometimes holding on to bits of backstory until later can have a greater impact on the reader’s experience. This becomes important in thriller/suspense novels where the name of the game is having the reader discover the information as they go and not having the entire picture up front. Though you don’t need to limit that type of writing to thriller/suspense novels, it can be found even in your favorite fantasy, sci-fi, romance, or preferred genre novels. Balance out where you place your backstory, and give the reader just enough information to get them hooked and keep them going.

With setting details, there are important in setting details and others that are thrown in the exposition as a little extra spice. The main setting details you want to ensure appear in the exposition are the location your story is taking place, the factors of the environment that affect the story, and the individuals or groups who affect the story.

Location is key to the exposition because it will often introduce the “normal world” that the character is going to leave behind, or the world they will soon find. You’ll most often find the latter situation when a prologue introduces the foreign world first to show the reader that they are, in fact, going to enter a world beyond the normal. When using the normal world setting for the opening of the story, your character is often comfortable with where they are, or has minor gripes that they never do more than complain to others about. Using the setting details to reflect the tone of the story, attitude of the character, or direction of that world are only a few ways you can use setting in the exposition phase.

While you may not directly state your plot in your story, it is something to consider. This is because your plot will inform what kind of exposition you need and where you need it. The plot also shows the genre, and knowing those factors tells you what your audience will expect. While I’ve stated that Freytag’s Pyramid is the most well-known structure, it can limit a writer’s view. While the beginning of the book sets up the story, it won’t contain every bit of information the readers need to know about your world. I think it would be better to keep the exposition in mind at the plot level. By sprinkling the exposition throughout, you effectively engage your readers more than you would if you did an information dump, as chapters one through three.

Why is Exposition a concern for writers?

Exposition is important because it allows the reader their first chance to emotionally and mentally invest in the characters and the story itself. Though exposition is a pretty straightforward element of plot, it requires a lot of attention to balance out its properties. If you look at exposition as the reason why your readers come back to the world you’ve created, then you’ll be off to a good start. Think of Harry Potter and how many times fans have reread those worlds. It wasn’t because J.K. Rowling gave all of the information that would be exposition, but she gave just enough for the readers to work through the stories without feeling too lost. And then look at how much has stemmed from those seven novels she wrote. Use your exposition to power your current writing as much as you use it to fuel future projects that you may not even realize are there yet.

Examples of Exposition:

For a great example of exposition at work, look at the opening line of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve.

“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”

One, this line has great merit in its power of intrigue of a strong opening line. Two, Philip Reeve has also established the exposition necessary to understand the story in one line. A large city, London, is chasing a smaller city, a mining town, for some purpose yet to be explained. But if you look over the subcategories of exposition, you’ll notice it hits what we’ve already talked about. Try to find them for yourself before going on to the next explanation. And let me know if you find anything different.

In the first independent clause, it sets the tone for the entire series. “It was dark,” promises the reader that this tale isn’t just another fairy tale or hero story. There are going to be sections of humanity explored that many would rather not face.

The second section emphasizes the first to present what kind of darkness the reader can expect to face. “Blustery afternoon in spring” gives the sense of newness, change, and growth. The second section gives the setting as regarding temperature and what kind of elemental factors a reader might expect. And then the third section continues the setting, but also brings the reader into the next phase of the story.

“The city of London was chasing a small mining town” gives you two contrasting settings. A large versus small scenario. By presenting a city that many, if not all, know about, London, Reeve creates the base stat for normal. Though his version of normal is broken, in the next two words, “was chasing,” that give the sense of movement. Which is rarely thought of as possible for cities. But, by making this the first line of the story, Reeve states that London chasing another town is normal for the world of the story you’re about to enter.

Then the last section is another emphasis, but this time on how the normal world has changed from what the reader knows and understands. “across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea,” tells the reader that a dramatic climate change has occurred as the North Sea is between the United Kingdom and other European countries like Germany, Norway, and Belgium. (Admittedly, I needed to look that up because it’s been a long time since I took any geography classes.)


Exposition is a powerful tool to build or destroy your story. It’s up to you to find the proper balance of how much information to give and when to share it. Exposition focuses on the details a reader will need to know to build their level of Suspension of Disbelief. Info-dumping may seem important, and on early drafts it may help you write the story. But when you come back for edits, trim the fat from the manuscript and save the rest for other parts of the story, or exclusive material to be released later. Find other examples of good and bad exposition from your favorite stories and share them below! Thank you for reading. And as always, keep writing, keep learning, and stay fresh, my nugs.

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2 thoughts on “Elements of Plot: Exposition

  1. Pingback: Myers Fiction March Newsletter – Myers Fiction

  2. Pingback: Elements of Plot: Rising Action – Myers Fiction

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