The Exposition of the Story

If you want to learn the story definition’s exposition, I wrote about it in my Story Structure post. Still, since it is an essential element of a story, I’m going to go deep into the exposition part of a story and explain what happens during the exposition of a story and give you some exposition of a story examples.

The first rule about scripts expositions

In film school, they will always tell you that the exposition of a story is one of the essential elements of a story, and that is right (That’s why I’m writing this post). Still, the real truth is that the middle is essential too and the ending, So before you start worrying about the opening, make sure you got your story right. Start working on the exposition only after you wrote the first draft.

Narrative exposition definition

It’s kind of hard to define the exposition of a story because it has lots of elements. Generally speaking, the exposition needs to explain everything that is needed to understand the plot. The exposition (or set up or the first act) needs to introduce us to the characters and their relationships with each other, the story’s location and time, the social environment, and everything else necessary to the story.

The first act will end when the turning point that changes our main character’s life will arrive. The great trick in exposition is to deliver the information without the audience noticing that he is being informed. You do that by telling the exposition through cause and effect. This system will guarantee that the opening will be believable.

4 Big Tips about characters in the exposition

The exposition is introducing us to the main character. We get to know the main character in its “normal world” before everything is going bad, but the exposition has another job too – it needs to make us care about the characters and fast. Here are some tips for introducing the characters in the narrative exposition:

  • When you introduced new characters, don’t overload them with information. See if you can delay the information about them. Sometimes it works even to delay some information about a character to the second act.
  • The exposition is the time to create the first impression of your character, and one of the crucial things you need to create about her is credibility. We have to believe her. If she is believable, we’ll agree to let her walk us through the story. The way to make her more believable is by actions. You should always ask yourself if there is a fast way to show through behavior what the character is telling us. If I want the audience to know my hero is an angry man, does he have to say it, or can I show it through his actions?
  • Start with an action. An action is always exciting and gets the audience’s attention quickly. Still, you have to remember that everything you do in the exposition is saying something about your movie, especially the beginning, so think about that when you write the film’s opening.
  • Your character’s background. The viewer needs to understand the script’s context, what happened just before the movie started, and put all the characters where they are now. Of course, you don’t need to give all of the character’s histories, but you need to bring important information for the story. The background of the characters is what started to grow the character’s motivation (You can read about the character’s motivation in the lesson about Developing Characters. Writing the characters’ background is hard because you need to do it quickly and creatively (try not to let the character tell her story). In the opening of the movie Pulp fiction, we can see right from the conversation that the couple is tired from the rubbering liquor store, and that’s why they want to rubber the dinner.

Setting up the mood

Another goal of an exposition of a story, especially in the opening sequence, is to set the mood and tell us what kind of movie it will be. One way of doing that is through emotions. If it’s a comedy, start telling jokes. If it’s a horror film, start creating a scary atmosphere.

An excellent exposition example is In the movie Pulp Fiction. In Pulp fiction, we can understand right from the start that this movie is going to take a funny look at gangsters.

Instead of showing the gangsters meeting in a dark alley at night and talk about rubbing, they do that right in a dinner in daylight with regular clothes. In the dialogue, the husband tells the story about a new kind of gangsters that use their phone to pretend it’s a gun. That’s what Tarantino is saying about his film – I’m going to create a new kind of gangsters for the cinema.

The opening of Donnie Darko starts with a dark lighting that tells us it’s going to be a dark film. We see a young boy lying on a mountain that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. The boy starts laughing, and we can understand that this is a weird film about a weird boy. The boy rides back home to his typical family.

Starting with the turning point

A lot of movies start right away with the turning point. This is a trick to get the audience excited right at the start, but it also sends the message that this movie will be intense and with lots of action and suspense. If you can deliver that kind of promise, you are welcome to do that. This takes me to the next tip about exposition. When you finish writing the first act, try to see what kind of promises it delivers about the film and fulfill these promises.

Using dialog as an exposition

Now, The Pulp Fiction opening is just “talking heads,” and nothing happens, and when something already happens, we cut to the title, but this is all point of the film, and Tarantino, being a skillful writer, can pull it off quickly. One of the reasons he is pulling it off is the next law about dialogue in act 1: If you are going to use dialogue to deliver information at the exposition, make sure you have something powerful to compensate. In Pulp Fiction, it’s the fact that we hear two gangsters talk about expanding their rubbery “business,” and they don’t follow any of the genre rules about gangsters in films. Another good lesson you can learn from this opening is that if you decide to introduce us to your characters by making them talk, make sure they have something interesting to talk about, and, if possible – a conflict.


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