Critical Concepts


There are two broad senses of the word "exposition" -- two distinct terms --  that we want to keep 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 a mode of discourse, distinct from argument, description, and narration.  And there is exposition as an element of plot, or plotting, in narrative and dramatic works.  (To skip to our discussion of the latter, click here.)

Exposition as a mode of discourse

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

Other expository tasks include 

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 be doing analysis (involving exposition and argument), not plot summary (which is a form of narration) and not explication (which is a form of process analysis).  See Analysis vs. Explication.

Exposition as an element of plot or plotting in drama and narration.  

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

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

"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 to take off is a good deal more complex.  A playwright or story-writer has to exercise some skill in settling on the ways in which this information is to be slid 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 a breakfast 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 or laugh.  People just don't talk this way -- in paragraphs, it almost seems!  The writer is making them go on this way in order to get some background information in front of the audience.  At the same time, the writer seems to be trying to play the game of realism, with all those little bits about the fresh toast, the steaming coffee, the paper towel, wiping up a spill, etc., etc.  

It does have possibilities, but a lot of work would have to be done to bring them out.  First, though, we'd have to decide which direction we wanted to go in:  do we want to put ourselves under the constraints of realism, or do we want to head off in the direction of comedic pretend-realism?  Which sort 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 it is in the ordinary case.  Or at least it would have been some generations ago when an author writing in English might be able to assume that almost everyone in the likely audience would be familiar with the New Testament Parable of the Prodigal Son.  The fact that they would recognize the situation on their own means that far need be done to define it at the outset of the work than would be so for the sort of invented situation that we are accustomed to finding in realistic works.

Suppose for the moment that we dispense with realism in favor of working within (say) the conventions of the comic skit.  With some revision we might be able to make something like what we just looked at pass.  But it would 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 Keillor shows, in his radio play The Prodigal Son, which begins with a narrator and with a direct address to the audience by the Father.  (It also enters the action at a quite different moment from the one in the dialogue we've just left.)  

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 this situation, but we also know that something -- and probably not just one thing! -- is going to be different here.  And we want to know what the difference, or differences, will be.  (Here the dramatic question at the outset is:  will this Wally ask for his share of the inheritance and leave the farm?  When we get the answer, the next question will also be determined 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 the job of exposition done.  Sometimes it's effective -- as it is here -- for the doing of the job to call attention to itself, and skill is required for that to come off in a delightful rather than a pretentious way.  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 must have been done, and decide to think about it. What goes wrong in the first dialogue we imagined (the two prose paragraphs back up the page) is that an author who wants to remain invisible behind the scene he he presenting is so obviously cramming the scene with "background" details he needs to get in for the sake of the action to come that he continually draws attention away from the scene to his own needs, and thus his own presence behind the scene.  (How do we "know" that this writer "wants to remain invisible," but just fails to do so?  We don't of course.  [As it happens, I contrived this passage as an example of klutzy exposition, and so the actual author, myself, did in fact want to call attention to "the author's presence."  But the situation is in fact more complicated:  the "author" to whom I wanted to call attention was not myself, but an imaginary author I made up -- a fictional character of a special sort -- for my present didactic purposes!]  We suppose the author of 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 certain type of game is going to be played -- one or another particular game within the family of games we describe as "realism" -- and because, within this genre (this category of game), author and audience pretend that what is transpiring is doing so in the manner in which things transpire in fact in such sorts of situations in "real life."  The cues that we take as signaling this are the details of scene and gesture -- "realistic details" -- that we are used to from our experience of stories that offer to afford us the pleasure of absorption in the texture of life it proposes to unfold.  Most of them occur outside the material conveyed between quotation 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 the rendering of direct speech and thought to differentiate father and son in idiolect (old-fashioned vs. more modern) and mood (grief vs. resentment).  "I  wonder most terrible what's happening ..." the old man says, and mentions "a hundred thousand dollars" whereas later on the son says "Just think, Dad.   A hundred thousand bucks we've had to slave to pay off...."  But this effort to convince us we are dealing with real people involved in an actual situation is frustrated by the unnatural way the two speak in what else they say.  What they think and say strikes us as motivated not by what "real people" would be moved to express, but by the writer's need to get certain information before the readership.  This reminder of the author's labors is out of place in the game 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 be dealing with a witty parody of realistic conventions!  Rather we conclude we just have to do here with a poor job of playing the realism game.

Examples of skilful exposition within the conventions of realism, however, are easy to find and worth learning to appreciate.  A useful skill-builder for any reader is to pick a set of stories written from different 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 on terminology.  There are actually two ways in which the term "exposition" has come to be used in connection with plot.  

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

These are logically distinct orders of "thing," but we have legitimate occasion to pay attention to each.  Accordingly, the community 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 it has evolved two distinct terms that make use of the same vocable. 

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

This, by the way,  is a type of multiplicity of meaning that is common with the abstract vocabulary of language in general. It is a fact of life about natural language that we just have to put up with.  This feature of these elements of our abstract vocabulary is something like what we are used to with open-end wrenches.  When we pick them up from a toolbox they may or may not need adjusting to the purpose at hand.  If we don't check first, then either we can't get the teeth around the particular nut we have to deal with on the present occasion, or we get no grip on it, or we strip the corners.  If we make sure of the setting before proceeding, it's a remarkably 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  è What 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."

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  This page last updated 04 September 2000.