While readers typically remember a story's high-stakes climax and conclusion the most, it's the opening that lays the foundation for the plot that follows. Exposition is the initial setup for a work of fiction where audiences are introduced to the world of the story. It is also where they learn any information they need to understand the plot. Elements of effective fictional exposition include introducing the main characters, revealing backstory and establishing setting and mood.
The most memorable, successful stories include characters that audiences find fascinating, likable or easy to relate to. Therefore, part of a story's exposition needs to be spent introducing the protagonist, antagonist and other major characters. Characters are also typically introduced in a memorable way that reveals their personality. In the Disney film "Beauty and the Beast," audiences first meet Belle as she strolls through the marketplace reading a book, oblivious to the townsfolk gossiping about her dreamy nature. Through the exposition of the opening sequence, audiences learn that Belle desires adventure that her modest village can't provide for her.
A significant part of expositional character development is backstory -- any significant events that occurred prior to the story. Sometimes backstory is revealed through a prologue, such as in the opening of "Beauty and the Beast," where the audience learns how the prince became the Beast. Other stories establish backstory through dialogue between characters. Another tactic is to have the narrator share the backstory, either in the first-person voice of the protagonist or a more distant third-person narrator. Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" uses a third-person narrator to reveal the history of the tense relationship between the protagonist, Hulga Hopewell, and her mother.
Conflict is the source of tension in a story, where one character wants something and another is bent on stopping him from getting it. Therefore, one purpose of exposition is to put the opposing forces in place before the story gets underway. Audiences should know early on what the protagonist's objective is and what he is up against. Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" opens with the main character, aspiring architect Howard Roark, being expelled from a major university for his unorthodox design ideas. This exposition provides a glimpse of the conflict he will face as he fights to be accepted in his profession.
A story's setting often plays a significant role in establishing both plot and theme. Exposition introduces setting by showing the characters' interactions with their environment and the role it plays in their lives. This is especially important for stories set in unfamiliar or fictional places, such as foreign countries or the alternate universes of science fiction. Lois Lowry's "The Giver" takes place in a dystopian society that has sought to create a perfect world by eliminating pain and suffering through frightening and morally questionable means. Lowry uses exposition to introduce readers to the rules and procedures of this setting.
Without descriptions of thunder, lightning and spooky castles, the opening of a scary story wouldn't strike nearly as much fear in readers. Exposition is often carefully written to create a story's emotional atmosphere, commonly called mood. In "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson creates a mood of expectancy and dread as the townspeople assemble for the annual lottery, where one member of the community is randomly selected to be sacrificed to ensure a profitable harvest. This initial mood of nervous anticipation gives readers a glimpse of the unsettling events that will develop.
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