exposition

Argument Comes from Story (I)

If you want to convince your readers of a proposition, you’d better get your stories straight. Telling tales as a prolegomenon1 to logical argumentation (part one).

Story is the meaning-maker of experience. The grossest illustration of this is political spin, which frames information inside a story to promote the desired message. A more subtle and robust example is memoir, in which moments from one’s life are told and reflected on in such a way that themes peek through. Even isolated, totally mundane events change their meaning depending on how we tell them. A beautiful image of this is given early in Vittorio de Sica’s film Miracle in Milan2: A young boy, home alone, heats up a pot of milk, and it boils over onto the floor. His foster mother comes home to find a white river running through her kitchen. We, the audience, expect to see a common story acted out: a scolding, or worse—we know what this means for the boy. But the old woman pulls out a box of toy trees and houses, and places them alongside the stream. She takes the boy’s hand, and together they jump back and forth over the milky way. Same facts; different stories, different meanings.

Now, whereas story discovers meaning, most often multivalent, in experience and facts, exposition reflects on and analyzes those themes. Exposition discovers abstract principles, logical relationships, and hierarchical structures in the themes, and then defines and communicates certain ideas about those themes. Exposition develops ideas about stories, no matter whether the stories are fictive or factual. Theme belongs to story. Thesis belongs to exposition.

Most writing assignments I see when I’m tutoring people—indeed the prevailing paradigm of teaching high school and college writing—mostly ignores story and focuses almost exclusively on exposition. In particular, a thesis statement is identified as one of the first things the student is supposed to produce, without going through the deep process of journaling. The unintended educational effect is to confuse the student’s natural progression of cognition—i.e. the movement from the observation of experiential facts (e.g. the stream of milk on the kitchen floor) to the meaning-making stage (telling a story: that the milk is a play-river) to the expository stage (the idea, for example, that kindness and childlike innocence can lead to miraculous possibility).

A further effect of going straight for the thesis like going for the jugular is artificially to impose abstract exposition onto the making of meaning. Imagine if in de Sica’s film the foster mother came home, saw the spilt milk, and, doing absolutely nothing but standing there—no toys, no jumping game, nothing—simply exclaimed, “My, oh my, childlike innocence can lead to miraculous possibility!” Cut! That’s just pedantic. The abstract idea is trying to stand on bare facts, but in this case has it no legs; there’s no foundation of story. Moving from facts to exposition just gets you more scraps on the cutting room floor. In the pedagogy book Learning to Write / Writing to Learn, James Britton (quoted) explains:

Abstract and impersonal writing is the appropriate end product for writing in physics, biology, chemistry, social studies, history, and so on. That’s the goal we’re aiming at. But if you insist on that from the start—limp around in that kind of language until you can walk in it—then the learning process of moving from personal writing to more abstract never happens.3

In other words, the prevailing thesis-first paradigm takes the goal of meaningful discourse and executes it in the most academic way in the worst sense. The net effect is to render the resulting exposition meaningless, uninspired, and educationally bankrupt. The demand for exposition both first and last—instead of story and meaning first, leading to exposition last—actually damages students’ cognitive abilities by leaving the meaning-making stage of cognition to atrophy.

That’s a statement of the problem. In part two of this post I’ll describe how to use storytelling to create powerful, nuanced arguments.


  1. From the OED (sense #3): “Something that introduces or (necessarily) precedes a subject, event, etc.; a preliminary.” I mean it as necessarily preceding, a preliminary activity without which what follows—i.e. the intended argument—becomes compromised. (N.B. If you are affiliated with a college or university, you should be able to access the full contents of the Oxford English Dictionary through your library’s online reference database.) 

  2. The scene in question begins at index 3:33. 

  3. John S. Mayher, Nancy Lester, and Gordon M. Pradl, Learning to Write / Writing to Learn, (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1983), 80. 

 

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