Two - Exposition & Introduction

Two - Exposition & Introduction

A Lesson by Alex

Let's explore why Exposition is the most important step in a Plot.


These days, exposition seems to have a negative stigma attached to it. How many times have you heard someone complain about a movie, and include the phrase "too much exposition"? Exposition itself isn't a bad thing, but the       reason so many seem to think so could have something to do with how it's being handled in the worst of examples.


Just like we need water to survive, a plot can't live without exposition. If you were only allowed to drink water after someone else sprayed you in the face with a power hose, you would quickly come to resent water - unless you had some weird fetish or something...but hey, this is a course for plot, not judging. Either way, I think this is actually a pretty apt comparison to how poor exposition feels in story - like getting sprayed in the face with a power hose.


The exposition of a story is meant to immerse the reader. It's the foundation of a story, and must be constructed with care - a poor foundation will make the entire structure suffer. Based on the diagram in the last lesson, and on just about any other Plot Structure diagram I can find, it's implied that the introduction/exposition of a story should only be about the first 5% of the story. Don't take this to heart. Let your exposition come out naturally. If you've accomplished this in the first two chapters, then that's just fine. But if your story needs five or six or more chapters to properly introduce the story, then let it take five or six or more chapters. Cramming all that exposition into the first two chapters will make the reader feel like he's being told why these things are important, not learning it for himself.


Let me talk for a minute about Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Where do you think the introduction of that book ends, and the rising action begins? You may be surprised when I tell you it's when he gets sorted into Gryffindor. This is halfway through the book! This means that Dumbledore dropping Harry off with the Dursley's as a baby, being picked on by Dudley, getting mysterious letters in the mail, getting dragged to an island in a storm, meeting Hagrid, being told he's a wizard, going to Diagon Alley, buying his school supplies, riding on the Hogwarts Express, and meeting Ron, Hermione, Neville, and Malfoy is ALL the introduction to the book!


But let's not get too ahead of ourselves - there were plenty of conflicts established before this point in the book. Harry dealing with the Dursleys was nothing BUT conflict. And how about meeting Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle on the train? And according to the Plot diagram, Conflicts come AFTER the introduction. So why doesn't this add up? Well, it does add up; Harry's interaction with Malfoy on the train, and all his experiences with the Dusleys aren't considered conflicts as we've defined them in this course. Conflicts exist to get in the protagonist's way from reaching his goal. At this point in the book, no goal has been established. The introduction officially ends when the first goal of the book is introduced: win points for Gryffindor House to win the House Cup. Every "conflict" we've encountered up to this point has no relevance to winning the House Cup, but instead plays toward one specific goal: introducing Harry Potter. Seeing him constantly kicked around by the Dursleys gives the reader a sense of sympathy toward him, and seeing him snub Malfoy gives the reader a sense of pride toward him. He's a tragic character with nothing, but he's going to push back against anyone or anything that takes him for granted.


Does the book take too long to reach this point? I don't think so. The story remains engaging through the entire introduction to the point where the word "exposition" never even crosses your mind. That's just one man's opinion, fine, but let's take a look at everything introduced: the Protagonist (including through his interactions with the Dursleys and Malfoy), three supporting characters, the antagonist, and the setting. Let me break down the setting: this wasn't just a place (Hogwarts), or a concept (magic); this was a culture. Take a second and appreciate what that encompasses. JK Rowling introduces the reader to a living, breathing, THRIVING culture, with its own government, transportation, education, history, their own economy, for crying out loud! She NEEDED half the book to introduce all of that. On this introduction stands a cultural phenomenon that has us - real people - celebrating July 31st as a fictional character's birthday. We can go to Disney World and explore a life-sized Hogwarts castle and Diagon Alley.


THIS is the power of proper exposition. JK could have started us at Hogwarts on chapter one, and told us with a few paragraphs everything we missed. We would know that he's a tragic character that doesn't let others push him around, we would know that he and Ron are best friends, and we would know that Voldemort once ruled the Wizarding World (of England) before meeting his defeat with Harry Potter as a baby. But we wouldn't care. We'd just be pissed that we got punched in the face by a power hose of exposition, and anything Harry accomplished from here on would have a fraction of the effect that the actual story had on the reader.


OK, I'm done talking about Harry Potter. If I'm not careful, I could easily turn this into a Harry Potter is awesome course. I mean, he is - it is - but let's just keep it as a teaching tool for now. The point I'm making out of all of this is that you don't need to force your story to have a teeny tiny introduction. Make sure your main characters and setting are fully established before introducing the reader to the end goal. This means that some stories will be done with their introduction after the first chapter, and some will need half the book, and the rest will sit somewhere in the middle. What your story needs will depend on a few things: how many main characters? how many supporting characters? the scope of the setting? and the style of narration.


Most stories encompass one of two popular types of narration: first person (and third person omniscient. Narration style is a whole different beast, so I'm just going to assume you have a relatively firm grasp on it already. First Person defines the protagonist much more quickly than third person, because every word of narration is his. You’re killing two birds with one stone by giving the reader exposition while simultaneously showing them how the protagonist feels about it. His opinion will always be front row center, and that goes a long way to getting to know him. Third person narration lets you explore more outward. Describing only what the protagonist observes can be limiting on how much information you can give the reader at once.


So now you know what an Introduction is, what's in it, and how it affects the rest of the story. You can pace your book according to how much information the reader needs, and you can save yourself a few pages by changing your style of narration. First impressions are important, so make sure your readers get a good one!

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Added on June 29, 2015
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Cohoes, NY

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