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Author Topic: Exposition Origins
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Where, who, when the term "exposition" deviated from its denotative origins has been a recent investigation of mine. Many terms and concepts used by writers and composition instructors I've tracked down to their origins, like William James, brother of Henry James, coined the term "stream of consciousness," William Bullough coined the term "aesthetic distance" from which King derived the term "narrative distance" and Gardner coined "psychic distance," Coleridge coined "willing suspension of disbelief," Tolkein coined "secondary world," and so on.

Finding a term's origins and the discussions of the term's concepts often places the term and topic into a clearer light than an off-the-cuff shorthand use, which also often has a diluted relevance at least from the generic span of a term's application.

I'm close now or on the context targets for who first used the term "exposition" to mean a summary or explanation, or both, tell. The earliest use from a rhetorical context I've found is by Scottish philosopher and linguist Alexander Bain, Modes of Discourse, 1877. Though Bain was in his day considered an acclaimed rhetorical scientist, he has since lost favor for introducing dead-end detours to rhetorical theory, and, to a degree, attempts are underway to reconcile his theories to contemporary theories and rehabilitate his theories.

This matters personally from how the term "exposition" came to represent a discourse mode that summarizes and explains, often or exclusively through backstory, prefatory content of an outset of a narrative's main action, usually of a narrator's lecture addressed directly to readers -- a traditional narrative mode dating to the human dawn time, oration specifically, whether oral composition or written intended for oral presentation.

Exposition's denotative meaning from the fourteenth century is "a setting forth of a meaning or purpose (as of a writing)" (Webster's). Nothing from that definition requires nor excludes a summary, explanation, or backstory lecture. To me, the only necessity is of meaning and purpose introduction, and which could occur anytime in a narrative, including a denouement act for introduction of emotional equilibrium restoration, the meaning and purpose of the act.

Bain defines exposition as one of four primary discourse modes, along with argumentation, description, and narration, and to mean a mode for conveying information to readers (or spectators, real or implied). That is far apart from setting forth a meaning or purpose or both of a narrative. In any case, exposition in the classic sense need not summarize or explain or both through addressed-to-readers lectured discourse. In fact, far more appeals come from not lecturing to readers, at least since Realism began to avoid oral-type lecturing.

One of the last uses of "exposition" to mean its classic definition is circa 1863, Gustav Freytag's Techniques of the Drama." Freytag also discusses the bland uses and the challenges of exposition for the way the term has come to mean summary and explanation of information yet that doesn't start plot movement nor at least start the upset of emotional equilibrium, the latter the singular feature which artful exposition appeals starts of either or both types must at least do.

I consider this discovery a score, though will continue the investigation for earlier uses of the now prominent though derivative uses of the term "exposition." Although I am satisfied now where the term went awry, and personally, I now realize and can apply either or both concepts for my writing.

[ July 02, 2015, 05:48 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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The word itself dates from the fourteenth century and Middle English and Medieval Latin; its meaning at that point seems to be the same as you're using it, the act of expounding, or writing / speech designed to convey information. (Its use to mean "public display" dates from 1851 and the Crystal Palace Exposition.)
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Member # 8019

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Public display is the third and later use. The Latin origin first use is to set or show forth (as in "expose" of similar Latin roots). Later Latin and French middle uses are to explain, inform, summarize, expound, etc. The sense I mean is the one similar to "expose." Bain is the earliest rhetorics writer I've found who uses "exposition" for the middle use as regards prose expression. Though Wayne Booth uses the term in its classic sense, circa 1980s.
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Although I am satisfied now where the term went awry, and personally, I now realize and can apply either or both concepts for my writing.
Because exposition seems to be used mainly in a perjorative sense, I'm surprised that you consider applying it in your writing. Are you talking about non-fiction? How do you see these concepts benefiting your work?
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Member # 8019

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I prefer the classic sense of exposition to mean set forth the meaning or -- and -- purpose of a writing, though through show mode rather than tell mode.

Freytag and Gardner, and Booth, label a first act of a narrative exposition in the classic sense. A second act Freytag labels the action: rising, climax, and falling action. Gardner labels a second act development. Booth uses exposition in the classic sense though does not develop the context, texture of the term. Each uses "denouement" to label the last act. Freytag distinguishes as well a five-act structure as an enhanced three-act structure.

For prose descriptions, either fiction or creative nonfiction, generally anymore, exposition is used in the perjorative sense of tell lecture. I believe, though, the classic sense of the term is inspirational for how to avoid the dread "exposition dump."

I don't distinguish appreciable differences between fiction and creative nonfiction in terms of exposition. They both foundationally are narrative in their essentials: complication satisfaction and conflict resolution, setting forth discovery of a moral truth, reality imitation, emotionally evocative, antagonal, causal, and tensional event sequences, and dramatic settings and viewpoint agonists.

One distinction of note, however, is fiction's necessity to preserve willing suspension of disbelief and an assumed factuality of creative nonfiction. Tell lectures jeopardize both.

The primary benefit I've realized from close study of "exposition," its living language evolution and functions, is when tell is warranted and unwarranted.

For example, methods for opening a non-tell exposition act revolve around sensory stimuli that unfolds in the now moment, place, and situation of an event sequence: a show mode as perceived and experienced from the received reflections of a focal viewpoint agonist, not an after-the-fact objective or subjective omniscient narrator report of an event sequence.

The next realization for me is then how an opening sets forth the meaning and purpose of the tangible action, that is otherwise superficial. For this, exposition, in the classic sense, is a personal, therefore subjective, moral truth struggle and is the more appealing intangible action. An opening then sets forth the foreground moral crisis.

To use an example: Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" (PDF). The surface action is of an autonomous house, a family home, that processes its daily routine. The short story's discovered moral truth of human hubris, a vice of pride, derives from the superficial action. At the first quarter mark, the narrative's moral meaning and purpose is set forth, though the act and all of the short story is in show mode, not tell lecture mode. Sensory stimuli and response, action and reaction, cause and effect are that mode.

The narrator of the story is mostly covert and uses show methods to develop the events, settings, and characters. In other words, descriptive narration instead of overt oration -- tell.

Expression mode labels vary by great degrees. For me, they are Description, Introspection, Action, Narration, Emotion, Sensation, Summarization, Exposition, Conversation, Recollection, Explanation, and Transition: mnemonic device, DIANE'S SECRET. Show mode emphasizes description, introspection, action, emotion, sensation, and conversation; sensation and emotion emphasis for creative expression.

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Grumpy old guy
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Exposition, by whatever term we might use, has a long and august history. Most commentators who decried the use of narrator/writer exposition or monologue did so by highlighting 'the worst' examples of such a technique, not the best. The Chorus in ancient Greek plays was, at times, a form of narration and exposition. Shakespeare took character exposition to new heights. My favourite example of character tell raises it above any form of show you could use IMHO is this:

But I, — that am not shap'd for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love’s majesty,
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable,
That dogs bark at me, as I halt by them,—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

William Shakespeare--Richard III


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The Richard, Duke of Gloucester soliloquy opening of Richard III is a Chorus introduction in the classic Greek sense, though one step removed from the custom by it is spoken aloud introspections of protagonist Richard. Soliloquy, or dramatic monologue, too, are Shakespeare methods for avoiding a narrator Chorus oration, and is in scene mode from the now moment, place, and situation of a viewpoint agonist's perceptions. The soliloquy meets the classic definition of "exposition" for sets forth the meaning and purpose of the whole. The summary and explanation lecture mode definition of exposition is defused to a degree by the scene segment being spoken sensation from within the scene's setting.

From "The Gift Of The Magi," O Henry

"One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

"There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating."

The likewise introspective mode of the opening is pure scene, as well exposition in the classic sense of setting forth the meaning and purpose of the whole: a struggle to give a Christmas gift, partly supported by the story's title.

The free association nature of the sensation and response event sequences places the opening clearly and strongly in scene mode (from the immediate received reflections of viewpoint agonist perceptions) from stream-of-consciousness methods. Judicious sentence fragments. The metalepsis terms "bulldozing," "silent imputation," "parsimony," and "close dealing" are slang uses (idioms), for example, that are clearly subjective expression of the viewpoint agonist Della.

Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

"However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

Likewise, an opening that sets forth the meaning and purpose of the whole: matrimony, though, in this case, through narrator lecture mode. The narrator intermediates the action, in other words, is the narrator persona's direct report of the narrator's perceptions.

The narrator lecture mode reflects the classic Greek Chorus, though song or poetry for the traditional era's customary oratory introductions, that summarize and explain the meaning and purpose of the whole.

The viewpoint agonist scene mode (sensation and response, sequential or congruent) is a trend realized by Realism, circa early to mid nineteenth century, and that advanced or evolved further through the Modernism era, and Postmodernism to a degree. The Shakespeare soliloquy method a transition form notwithstood.

Each method -- narrator oration mode (tell, lecture), transitional soliloquy mode, scene mode, has strengths and shortfalls, appeal-wise. The more appealing form is one of close reader association with a strong, if not strongest, attitude holder -- Richard for the Shakespeare play, Della for the O Henry short story (though the narrator's persona emerges in the next paragraph to express a strong attitude), and the narrator of Austen's novel.

Three model forms for opening exposition; that is, sets forth the meaning and purpose of the whole. In each case a moral dilemma, too, that becomes discovered moral truth.

The traditional exposition method generally derives from a narrator's or implied or real writer's persona holding the stronger attitude -- emotionally charged commentary upon the action. Nonfiction textbook-type exposition is generally impersonal, unemotionally, straightforwardly expresses the meaning and purpose of the whole. The scientific method mode, for example, directly states the purpose of a scientific investigation. After a hypothesis section, a purpose section follows.

Argumentation mode likewise unemotionally sets forth a claim that is then followed by a substantive reason for the claim. The two sections establish the meaning and purpose of a whole.

Creative nonfiction prose follows fiction's storytelling methods, though places stronger emphasis than fiction on establishing narrator identity, at least post-Romanticism narratives. Part of Romanticism's customs is establishing narrator identity so that the truth of a matter, fiction or otherwise, is asserted. The opening of Henry James' The Turning of the Screw is an example of developed narrator identity used to assert the truth of a matter, likewise Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars.

Personally, I favor the scene mode exposition, partly because of its in medias res appeals, partly because of its uncommonness from the challenges the form raises -- to imply by slant or skew misdirection the meaning and purpose of the whole; more so for the method's immediacies of scene experiences, closest, firsthand, to the in-the-now-moment, place, and situation and personas and events of the timely unfolding action, and abilities to transport me into a vivid and lively secondary reality -- the all-important reading spell, the fiction dream.

[ July 04, 2015, 03:36 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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