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 expositionas a mode of discourse, distinct from argument, description, andnarration. And there is expositionas an element of plot, or plotting, in narrative and dramaticworks. (To skip to our discussion of the latter, click here.)
The term is used to distinguish a family ofdiscursive practices from some other families of discursivepractices -- most prominently from argument, description,and narration. If you take a course in "expositorywriting," this -- and argument! -- exposition is what youwill be set to analyzing (in your reading assignments) andrehearsing for yourself (in the writing assignments).Exposition (literally, "putting forth," "settingout") is explaining, and there are many kinds of explainingthat we need to develop the skill to perform, and to assessperformances 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).
Demonstrating that there is in fact a problem: laying out the symptoms (If nothing is broken, it doesn't need fixing!)
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.)
Explaining the solution (formulating a prescription)See AlsoWhat to Stream: “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a Historical Documentary That Transformed France’s National IdentityThe Ultimate Guide to Fair Use and Copyrights for FilmmakersDo you put documentaries in quotes?The 15 Best Movies About Stockholm Syndrome
Imagining the range of possible solutions eligible to be given serious consideration.
Deciding which of these best meet the criteria of success
Eliminating those that are in fact unworkable
Eliminating those that are too expensive (e.g., have unacceptable side-effects)
Showing the feasibility of the one or ones to be recommended
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 thiscourse, you will be doing analysis (involving exposition andargument), not plot summary (which is a form of narration) andnot explication (which is a form of process analysis). See Analysis vs. Explication.
The point of exposition is to put the initial dramatic question on thetable, or to introduce, at least in part, to the dramatic situation.Sometimes it can do both. Sometimes it is exclusivelyconcerned with the one or the other. Let's focus for themoment on what is at stake in exposition directed at a dramaticquestion.
The term "exposition" reminds us thateven if an author has decided on what is to be the initialdramatic question, the problem of exposition (literally,"putting out," "setting forth") stillremains: how will this be speedily andrelatively unobtrusively accomplished? How will thenecessary background history and situational facts be worked inso that the audience's curiosity about whether X will now happencan be aroused? Even if we want to plunge our audienceimmediately into the initial dramatic question, it can take someimagination 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 orderfor the plot to take off is a good deal more complex. Aplaywright or story-writer has to exercise some skill in settlingon the ways in which this information is to be slid in,especially if one is working within the conventions ofrealism: it will strike the audience as false andimplausible if a story opens with a breakfast table conversationin 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 groanor laugh. People just don't talk this way -- in paragraphs,it almost seems! The writer is making them go on this wayin order to get some background information in front of theaudience. At the same time, the writer seems to be tryingto play the game of realism, with all those little bits about thefresh toast, the steaming coffee, the paper towel, wiping up aspill, etc., etc.
It does have possibilities, but a lot of work would have to bedone to bring them out. First, though, we'd have to decidewhich direction we wanted to go in: do we want to putourselves under the constraints of realism, or do we want to headoff in the direction of comedic pretend-realism? Whichsort of game do we want to play, and invite our readers tojoin in playing?
Actually, the expository work necessary here is considerablyeasier than it is in the ordinary case. Or at least itwould have been some generations ago when an author writing inEnglish might be able to assume that almost everyone in thelikely audience would be familiar with the New Testament Parableof the Prodigal Son. The fact that they would recognize thesituation on their own means that far need be done to define itat the outset of the work than would be so for the sort ofinvented situation that we are accustomed to finding in realisticworks.
Suppose for the moment that we dispense with realism in favorof working within (say) the conventions of the comic skit.With some revision we might be able to make something like whatwe just looked at pass. But it would still take some realingenuity to pull it off to good effect. Howbrilliant 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 theaudience by the Father. (It also enters the action at aquite different moment from the one in the dialogue we've justleft.)
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. Werecognize this situation, but we also know that something--and probably not just one thing!-- is going to be differenthere. And we want to know what the difference, ordifferences, will be. (Here the dramatic question at theoutset is: will this Wally ask for his share of theinheritance and leave the farm? When we get the answer, thenext question will also be determined largely by ourpre-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 inpulling getting the job of exposition done. Sometimes it'seffective-- as it is here-- for the doing of the jobto call attention to itself, and skill is required for that tocome off in a delightful rather than a pretentious way. Butsometimes it's effective for the job to get done unobtrusively,so deftly that we don't realize it's been done until we rememberthat it must have been done, and decide to think about it. Whatgoes wrong in the first dialogue we imagined (the two proseparagraphs back up the page) is that an author who wants toremain invisible behind the scene he he presenting is soobviously cramming the scene with "background" detailshe needs to get in for the sake of the action to come that hecontinually 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 remaininvisible," but just fails to do so? We don't ofcourse. [As it happens, I contrived this passage asan example of klutzy exposition, and so the actual author,myself, did in fact want to call attention to "the author'spresence." But the situation is in fact morecomplicated: the "author" to whom I wanted tocall attention was not myself, but an imaginary author I made up-- a fictional character of a special sort -- for my presentdidactic purposes!] We suppose the author of such a passagedoesn't want to call attention to himself because his product,the text, exhibits certain features we've learned to take as cuesthat a certain type of game is going to be played-- one oranother particular game within the family of games we describe as"realism"-- and because, within this genre (thiscategory of game), author and audience pretend that what istranspiring is doing so in the manner in which things transpirein fact in such sorts of situations in "reallife." The cues that we take as signaling this are thedetails of scene and gesture-- "realisticdetails"-- that we are used to from our experience ofstories that offer to afford us the pleasure of absorption in thetexture of life it proposes to unfold. Most of them occuroutside 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 someattempt in the rendering of direct speech and thought todifferentiate father and son in idiolect (old-fashioned vs. moremodern) and mood (grief vs. resentment). "I wonder most terrible what'shappening ..." the old man says,and mentions "ahundred thousand dollars" whereaslater on the son says "Justthink, Dad. A hundred thousand bucks we've had toslave to pay off...." Butthis effort to convince us we are dealing with real peopleinvolved in an actual situation is frustrated by the unnaturalway the two speak in what else they say. What they thinkand say strikes us as motivated not by what "realpeople" would be moved to express, but by the writer's needto get certain information before the readership. Thisreminder of the author's labors is out of place in the game ofrealism, and doesn't seem to be redeemed, here, by any otherpurpose, within some other game. We don't for example sensethat we might be dealing with a witty parody of realisticconventions! Rather we conclude we just have to do herewith a poor job of playing the realism game.
Examples of skilful exposition within theconventions of realism, however, are easy to find and worthlearning to appreciate. A useful skill-builder for anyreader is to pick a set of stories written from different pointsof 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 distinctionbearing on terminology. There are actually two ways inwhich the term "exposition" has come to be used inconnection 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 senserefers to what is conveyed: a certain set of factsessential for a particular purpose. We can speak of this asan element of plot-- an aspect of the action presented ortold, what the writer has shaped. The second refers to howthis essential situational information is conveyed.It should be thought of as an aspect of plotting-- anaspect of the writer's manipulation of things, the shaping ofwhat is put forward.
These are logically distinct orders of"thing," but we have legitimate occasion to payattention to each. Accordingly, the community of speakershas not ended up declaring one of these senses of the word"exposition" correct and the other confused, orotherwise "mistaken," but resorts to each, as occasiondemands. Instead it has evolved two distinct terms thatmake use of the same vocable.
This means that we just have to be aware, whenwe come across the word "exposition," of the clues thattell us which of the two senses is at work on that occasion --which term we are actually dealing with. And when we usethe word ourselves, in a given instant, we want to be clear toourselves which term we want to be employing.
This, by the way, is a type ofmultiplicity of meaning that is common with the abstractvocabulary of language in general. It is a fact of life aboutnatural language that we just have to put up with. Thisfeature of these elements of our abstract vocabulary is somethinglike what we are used to with open-end wrenches. When wepick them up from a toolbox they may or may not need adjusting tothe purpose at hand. If we don't check first, then eitherwe can't get the teeth around the particular nut we have to dealwith on the present occasion, or we get no grip on it, or westrip the corners. If we make sure of the setting beforeproceeding, it's a remarkably useful tool.
Usually the context is enough to make thingsclear. 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."