Exposition (literary technique)

Exposition is a technique by which background information about the characters, events, or setting is conveyed in a novel, play, movie or other work of fiction. This information can be presented through dialogue, description, flashbacks, or even directly through narrative.

As exposition generally does not advance plot and may impede present-time action, it is usually best kept in short and succinct form, though in some genres, such as the mystery, exposition is central to the story structure itself. The alternative to exposition is to convey background information indirectly though action, which, though more dramatic, is more time consuming and less concise.

Problems with exposition

Plot dump

When the presentation of exposition is becoming awkward or wordy, it is sometimes referred to by the pejorative expressions "plot dump" and "info dump".In written fiction, the term is additionally used to indicate in giving some information by exposition rather than revelation through action and dialogue; if such passages are well-written and intriguing, they may be described as "info-dumping" with no pejorative intent. This method has long been used in classic drama and modern productions where the plot is the consequence of preceding events that would either weigh down the production or would reveal too much, spoiling the mystery. Exposition is also necessary in some dramas since it can be from the point of view and perception of a character, and may or may not accurately reveal the facts. Examples of such well done exposition include Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and the 1956 film "Forbidden Planet".

The term "plot dump" is usually used in a derisive sense. Plot dumps at the beginning of a movie are often tolerated as a necessity for setting the premise of the plot; this is the case for such widely-acclaimed movies as "Casablanca" and "". However, a plot dump expressed by characters in dialogue during the course of the movie is often taken to be indicative of an inferior narrative. Examples of the latter sense often take the form of one character explaining elaborate details regarding another character that would seem exaggerated and out-of-place in real-life conversation.

A stereotypical and exaggerated example of inferior plot dump would be:

:Jo: Who's at the door?

:Joey: Oh, it's my uncle Joe, who was released from prison yesterday after serving ten years for stealing the family jewels from this very house, although the jewels themselves have never been found and are rumored to be buried in a secret chamber guarded by the ghost of my late grandfather Joseph.

Villains are frequently given to making speeches about their sinister plans to helpless heroes, often foolishly prefacing their exposition with the comment that it can't hurt to divulge the plan, since the hero will be dead soon anyway (or the plan will be impossible to stop in the short time available). This is known as the "villain speech" or "monologuing". James Bond villains and comic book supervillains are particularly prone to it, and it is seldom even given such justification as the villain's desire to have his cleverness admired by the one man who could appreciate the extent.

Plot dump tends to be more tolerated on television than in the movies because the narrative of television episodes is shorter. Plot dumps are especially common in sit-coms in the introduction of non-recurring characters which drive the comedic plot of a particular episode. A prime example would be the use of the narrator in "Arrested Development" to quickly sum up revelations and inner thoughts of characters in order to keep the viewer tuned to the plot. In serial television drama, exposition in individual episodes is often relegated to a brief montage of scenes from earlier episodes, prefaced with the phrase "Previously on [name of series] ."

In television sketch comedy, which itself borrows heavily from the tradition of vaudeville comedy, plot dump in the most exaggerated sense is often used explicitly for outrageous comedic effect. In this case, plot dump is not seen as a weakness but as a standard and necessary aspect of the genre which is expected by audiences.

Stories which are concerned with the unearthing of a secret past rarely avoid plot dump sequences. For example, substantial portions of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" and Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" are naked, unapologetic infodumps, with lengthy Idiot Lecture and Exposition sequences. These gradually bleed into theorizing about the implications of the dumped information. Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" mixes speculation and infodump throughout, with characters almost inventing events simply by infodumping their possibility.


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