Critical Concepts:  Exposition (2023)

Critical Concepts


There are two broad senses of the word"exposition"-- two distinct terms-- that we want tokeep distinct. In discussion of writing, both are useful.

(A term is a yoking of a particular notion [concept] with a particular vocable. A "vocable" in speech is a particular identifiable string of sounds, represented in alphabetic writing schemes by a particular identifiable string of characters separated by spaces. It corresponds to what you probably most immediately think of when you think of a "word.")

There is exposition as amode of discourse, distinct from argument, description, and narration. Andthere is exposition as an element of plot,or plotting, in narrative and dramatic works. (To skip to our discussionof the latter, click here.)

Exposition asa mode of discourse

The term is used to distinguish a family of discursive practicesfrom some other families of discursive practices -- most prominently fromargument, description, and narration. If you take a course in"expository writing," this -- and argument! -- exposition is what youwill be set to analyzing (in your reading assignments) and rehearsing foryourself (in the writing assignments). Exposition (literally,"putting forth," "setting out") is explaining, and there aremany kinds of explaining that we need to develop the skill to perform, and toassess performances in.

  • Process analysis is one sort, fairly simple in principle (though it can be fantastically complex in practice!) Here the job is to explain to someone how something works, or how to go about making or doing something. Laying out the rules of tic-tac-toe, or giving the recipe for making vanilla pudding, or teaching someone the operation of an internal combustion engine, or clarifying how a membrane regulates the flow of some mineral into or out of a cell, or documenting a computer program-- all call, at least in their subordinate "modules"-- for a chronological discussion. On this level, process analysis has something in common with narrative. (On its higher level of organization, though, the more complicated processes require us to classify the modules below: Often we have deal with decisions: "When you get to this point, you'll be confronted with either A or B or C. If it's A, then.... [And then, perhaps way later on:] But if it's B, then...)

Other expository tasks include

  • laying out the causes -- or the effects -- of something that happens or has happened

    • One kind of historical narration in fact might just as well be classified as process analysis: if we are moving beyond chronicling what happened to explaining the process (it may be quite multifarious!) by which it came to be, we will be doing much in the way of exposition, especially if we have to assess different possible hypotheses about how such a result could have been arrived at, or how it was in fact brought about (as distinct from how it might have come about under other circumstances).

  • predicting the effects of something that has happened, or could happen

  • explaining the purposes something serves

Exposition provides the basic scheme for problem/solution discourse in everyday affairs, as well as in the more technical specialties of medicine, law, business, and government. The basic subtasks are all expository (see above), though the particular claims will almost always have to be supported by argument (a different set of moves).

  1. Demonstrating that there is in fact a problem: laying out the symptoms (If nothing is broken, it doesn't need fixing!)

  2. Diagnosing the problem: clarifying its actual roots, sources, causes. (If we don't address the underlying problem, we won't solve what the problem really is.)

  3. Explaining the solution (formulating a prescription)

    1. Imagining the range of possible solutions eligible to be given serious consideration.

    2. Deciding which of these best meet the criteria of success

      1. Eliminating those that are in fact unworkable

      2. Eliminating those that are too expensive (e.g., have unacceptable side-effects)

      3. Showing the feasibility of the one or ones to be recommended

    3. Laying out the process by which the solution is to be carried out (since this is a recipe, it is a kind of causal analysis)

Though we take up these tasks, typically, in the order displayed, this is not a narrative business in practice. The fact that the process itself is modularized-- as shown by the fact that we have different levels of (as it just so happens) threes-- and the fact that the subtasks involve causal analysis, prediction of effects, assessment of satisfaction of criteria, mean that we are not doing narrative but exposition. (And to assess whether we in fact do this well, we will unavoidably have to engage in argument, which is not, by the way, the same thing here as dispute or quarrelling.)

In the essays you will be writing for this course, you will bedoing analysis (involving exposition and argument), not plot summary (which is aform of narration) and not explication (which is a form of processanalysis). See Analysis vs. Explication.

Expositionas an element of plot or plotting in drama and narration.

The point of exposition is to put the initial dramaticquestion on the table, or to introduce, at least in part, to the dramaticsituation. Sometimes it can do both. Sometimes it is exclusivelyconcerned with the one or the other. Let's focus for the moment on what isat stake in exposition directed at a dramatic question.

The term "exposition" reminds usthat even if an author has decided on what is to be the initial dramaticquestion, the problem of exposition (literally, "putting out,""setting forth") still remains: how will this bespeedily and relatively unobtrusively accomplished? How will the necessarybackground history and situational facts be worked in so that the audience'scuriosity about whether X will now happen can be aroused? Even if we wantto plunge our audience immediately into the initial dramatic question, it cantake some imagination and some revision to figure out how to dothis.

"Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death." That's how Kate Chopin begins "The Story of an Hour." If we're not asleep, we immediately wonder how the woman will react: will this carefulness work, or will the wife freak out and have a heart attack?

But often the information that has to be introduced in order for the plot totake off is a good deal more complex. A playwright or story-writer has toexercise some skill in settling on the ways in which this information is to beslid in, especially if one is working within the conventions of realism:it will strike the audience as false and implausible if a story opens with abreakfast table conversation in which the family converses like this

The toast was fresh out of the toaster, and the coffee was steaming, but the old seemed to be off elsewhere. "I wonder most terrible what's happening to Jason" he mused. "Just can't stop worrying about him. It's been ten years now since came to me and asked for his half of the inheritance and left the farm. It was tough raising the cash without selling half the place. It's lucky I had a long history of credit with old Jasper or I'd never have been able to get the loan for a hundred thousand dollars."
His son James, a lean man of about thirty-five, was pouring himself a cup. "Who cares what's become of him? He was always a shiftless brat. He never cared about the rest of us, only himself." He got up and went to the cupboard for a paper towel to wipe of the spill on the tablecloth. "I figure he's already squandered it. Probably didn't even take him a year. I bet he's lying somewhere in a pigsty, if he hasn't died drunk somewhere on the side of the road." He threw the wad into the trash. "What a way to start the day," he thought. "Just think, Dad. A hundred thousand bucks we've had to slave to pay off, instead of getting ten years of income from capital assets of two hundred thousand. Think where we'd all be now if he had had the least inkling of family solidarity instead of wanting to go off on his own. If he wanted to be a self-made man, he should just taken himself and gone. But if he had stayed around -- even without contributing work -- he himself would have been a lot richer now. But no, he had to put us in the hole like that." Still, there was at least the consolation that he was rid of Jason for good.

This is horribly stilted. We don't know whether to groan orlaugh. People just don't talk this way -- in paragraphs, it almostseems! The writer is making them go on this way in order to get somebackground information in front of the audience. At the same time, thewriter seems to be trying to play the game of realism, with all those littlebits about the fresh toast, the steaming coffee, the paper towel, wiping up aspill, etc., etc.

It does have possibilities, but a lot of work would have to be done to bringthem out. First, though, we'd have to decide which direction we wanted togo in: do we want to put ourselves under the constraints of realism, or dowe want to head off in the direction of comedic pretend-realism? Whichsort of game do we want to play, and invite our readers to join in playing?

Actually, the expository work necessary here is considerably easier than itis in the ordinary case. Or at least it would have been some generationsago when an author writing in English might be able to assume that almosteveryone in the likely audience would be familiar with the New Testament Parableof the Prodigal Son. The fact that they would recognize the situation ontheir own means that far need be done to define it at the outset of the workthan would be so for the sort of invented situation that we are accustomed tofinding in realistic works.

Suppose for the moment that we dispense with realism in favor of workingwithin (say) the conventions of the comic skit. With some revision wemight be able to make something like what we just looked at pass. But itwould still take some real ingenuity to pull it off to good effect.How brilliant the result might be, if we had the requisite art, Garrison Keillorshows, in his radio play The Prodigal Son, which begins with a narratorand with a direct address to the audience by the Father. (It also entersthe action at a quite different moment from the one in the dialogue we've justleft.)

Sunny piano

Narrator: A happy day, a sunny street, you're young and in love and life is good and you're on your way to lunch, when suddenly a cold shadow falls and (Loathsome laugh.) you feel a cold slimy hand touch your face. (Worse laugh.) And it's your own hand. (Worst laugh.) That's evil. Where does evil come from? Whose fault is it? The American Council of Remorse-- a non-profit organization working for greater contrition on the part of people who do terrible things-- brings you: The Prodigal Son.


Dad: I run a feed-lot operation here in Judea, fattening feeder calves for the Jerusalem market, in partnership with my two sons: my prodigal son, Wally, and my older son, Dwight. One morning about two years ago, I came down to breakfast and-- no Wally. Morning, Dwight.

Dwight: (Sitting at table, reading newspaper.) Morning.

Dad: You see your brother this morning?

Dwight: In bed.

[This excerpt from Garrison Keillor's The Prodigal Son is taken from Plays in One Act, edited by Daniel Halpern. It is copyrighted © 1991 by Garrison Keillor, and is reproduced here under fair use doctrine for educational purposes only.]

We're off and running, and want to know more. We recognize thissituation, but we also know that something-- and probably not just onething!-- is going to be different here. And we want to know what thedifference, or differences, will be. (Here the dramatic question at theoutset is: will this Wally ask for his share of the inheritance and leavethe farm? When we get the answer, the next question will also bedetermined largely by our pre-knowledge of the story this one is parasitic upon,and so on, until some surprise awaits us at the end.)

The point here is that a good deal of skill is needed in pulling getting thejob of exposition done. Sometimes it's effective-- as it ishere-- for the doing of the job to call attention to itself, and skill isrequired for that to come off in a delightful rather than a pretentiousway. But sometimes it's effective for the job to get done unobtrusively,so deftly that we don't realize it's been done until we remember that it musthave been done, and decide to think about it. What goes wrong in the firstdialogue we imagined (the two prose paragraphs back up the page) is that anauthor who wants to remain invisible behind the scene he he presenting is soobviously cramming the scene with "background" details he needs to getin for the sake of the action to come that he continually draws attention awayfrom the scene to his own needs, and thus his own presence behind thescene. (How do we "know" that this writer "wants to remaininvisible," but just fails to do so? We don't of course. [As ithappens, I contrived this passage as an example of klutzy exposition, andso the actual author, myself, did in fact want to call attention to "theauthor's presence." But the situation is in fact morecomplicated: the "author" to whom I wanted to call attention wasnot myself, but an imaginary author I made up -- a fictional character of aspecial sort -- for my present didactic purposes!] We suppose the authorof such a passage doesn't want to call attention to himself because his product,the text, exhibits certain features we've learned to take as cues that a certaintype of game is going to be played-- one or another particular game withinthe family of games we describe as "realism"-- and because,within this genre (this category of game), author and audience pretend that whatis transpiring is doing so in the manner in which things transpire in fact insuch sorts of situations in "real life." The cues that we takeas signaling this are the details of scene and gesture-- "realisticdetails"-- that we are used to from our experience of stories thatoffer to afford us the pleasure of absorption in the texture of life it proposesto unfold. Most of them occur outside the material conveyed betweenquotation marks.

The toast was fresh out of the toaster, and the coffee was steaming, but the old man seemed to be off elsewhere. "..." he mused. "...."
His son James, a lean man of about thirty-five, was pouring himself a cup. "...." He got up and went to the cupboard for a paper towel to wipe of the spill on the tablecloth. "...." He threw the wad into the trash. "...." he thought. "...." Still, there was at least the consolation that he was rid of Jason for good.

There are a few other cues as well. There is some attempt in therendering of direct speech and thought to differentiate father and son inidiolect (old-fashioned vs. more modern) and mood (grief vs. resentment). "Iwonder most terrible what's happening ..." theold man says, and mentions "ahundred thousand dollars" whereas later on theson says "Just think,Dad. A hundred thousand bucks we've had to slave to payoff...." But this effort to convince us weare dealing with real people involved in an actual situation is frustrated bythe unnatural way the two speak in what else they say. What they think andsay strikes us as motivated not by what "real people" would be movedto express, but by the writer's need to get certain information before thereadership. This reminder of the author's labors is out of place in thegame of realism, and doesn't seem to be redeemed, here, by any other purpose,within some other game. We don't for example sense that we might bedealing with a witty parody of realistic conventions! Rather we concludewe just have to do here with a poor job of playing the realism game.

Examples of skilful exposition within the conventions ofrealism, however, are easy to find and worth learning to appreciate. Auseful skill-builder for any reader is to pick a set of stories written fromdifferent points of view and, on a second reading, to ask

(1) What was the information the writer had to get into the story at the outset in order to get the initial dramatic question lodged in the mind of the audience, or to set out a dramatic situation that solicits the audience's empathetic involvement?

(2) What were the ways the writer invented for doing this without destroying the illusion that a life-like process of events was unfolding all the while?

These two questions prompt us to note one further distinction bearing onterminology. There are actually two ways in which the term"exposition" has come to be used in connection with plot.

  • Sometimes when people talk of "exposition" (as distinct from rising action, climax, dénouement, etc.) they mean to call attention to the particular information that serves to put the initial dramatic question and/or the dramatic situation before the audience.
  • But people also often use the term to refer not to the information itself but to the particular devices the writer resorts to in order to get that information into the story or play.

"Exposition" in the first sense refers to whatis conveyed: a certain set of facts essential for a particularpurpose. We can speak of this as an element of plot-- an aspect ofthe action presented or told, what the writer has shaped. The secondrefers to how this essential situational information isconveyed. It should be thought of as an aspect of plotting--an aspect of the writer's manipulation of things, the shaping of what is putforward.

These are logically distinct orders of "thing," butwe have legitimate occasion to pay attention to each. Accordingly, thecommunity of speakers has not ended up declaring one of these senses of the word"exposition" correct and the other confused, or otherwise"mistaken," but resorts to each, as occasion demands. Instead ithas evolved two distinct terms that make use of the same vocable.

This means that we just have to be aware, when we come acrossthe word "exposition," of the clues that tell us which of the twosenses is at work on that occasion -- which term we are actually dealingwith. And when we use the word ourselves, in a given instant, we want tobe clear to ourselves which term we want to be employing.

This, by the way, is a type of multiplicity of meaningthat is common with the abstract vocabulary of language in general. It is a factof life about natural language that we just have to put up with. Thisfeature of these elements of our abstract vocabulary is something like what weare used to with open-end wrenches. When we pick them up from a toolboxthey may or may not need adjusting to the purpose at hand. If we don'tcheck first, then either we can't get the teeth around the particular nut wehave to deal with on the present occasion, or we get no grip on it, or we stripthe corners. If we make sure of the setting before proceeding, it's aremarkably useful tool.

Usually the context is enough to make things clear.Compare


(1) what is argued è"His argument contained 3 basic premises."

(2) the presentation of (1) è"His argument before the court lasted 3 hours and met with repeated objection from the prosecution."


(1) what is (explicitly) told èWhat the narrator of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" tells us about what he did and how he came to be arrested. "His narration contains many arresting details. But the narrator's behavior in front of us is equally fascinating."

(2) the telling of (1) è"His narration is aimed at convincing us he is masterfully sane, but is full of contradictions and irrationally impulsive gestures."

(*) Sometimes we can use the term "narrative" (as a noun) as a synonym for sense (1) when we want to go on to call attention to what sense (2) points to: "His narrative contains many striking details, but his narration of them is, if anything, even more striking."


(1) the set of details that serve to describe something: "That is simply not part of his description" meaning "That's not one of his traits."

(2) the act or process of describing of something: "Her description of the man began with his hat and ended with his shoes."


(1) a factor (whether cause or purpose) that serves to explain something else. è "The explanation of the accident was that the driver was that the driver had had left Mikey's after having quaffed three beers inside of 15 minutes, and was talking to his estranged girlfriend on his mobile phone when he approached the detour sign, which was not illuminated at the time because the workers had forgotten to light the torches when they left the worksite." OR: "Why did I pay by check? The explanation is simple. It's not that I didn't have enough cash on hand. I just wanted a record of the transaction."

(2) the act or process of explaining of something è"His explanation of quantum theory was a masterpiece of clarity, and deserves to be made available to students."

Critical Concepts: Exposition (1)Return to the Index to the Glossary of CriticalConcepts.

Critical Concepts: Exposition (2) Suggestions arewelcome. Please send your comments to .

Critical Concepts: Exposition (3)Contents copyright © 2001 by Lyman A.Baker.

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

Critical Concepts: Exposition (4)This page last updated 04 September 2000.

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