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Dear Writers & Playwrights;

I'm working on my first full-length play. In workshops, the feedback is consistently, "Too much exposition." I agree with the criticism.

What I'm struggling with is . . . now what?

Any suggestions on how to transform exposition to action?

I know there's no simple answer to that question but any thoughts would be appreciated.

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Rewrite it without so much description would seem the most obvious way to go! –  spiceyokooko Dec 24 '12 at 12:22
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I think we would need to see a sample to be able to offer a fix. What's too much exposition for you might be too little for someone else. –  Lauren Ipsum Dec 24 '12 at 12:52
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1 Answer

The ancient mantra of "show, don't tell".

Bad news: Your work will grow. For one paragraph of "tell" there's usually a page or two of "show". Good news: Your work will be more interesting. For one boring paragraph of "tell" there's a page or two of interesting "show".

Create side-threads unrelated to the main story, that use the elements of exposition as core nodes of their own stories. Make them interesting, small, stories on their own. How you do this depends on particular pieces of exposition. In essence, everything that is shown exists for a reason. Give a backstory for that reason, and make it an interesting one.

Let's take an example. You plan to introduce a sea deity who gets to interact with protagonists later, in meaningful ways. You don't want her appearance to be deus ex machina, so you provide a piece of exposition...

Tell:

One of the old marine legends talks about Amber Mermaid, a lady of untold beauty with lower body of a seal, and her flesh transparent amber color. She's a fickle sea creature of power, who has no compassion, nothing bores her more than groveling and begging, but if you manage to capture her interest with a riddle, a puzzle, secret she can't solve, she will do your bidding and aid you in distress in exchange for explanation or answer. Just be cautious, make sure your secret is worth her service, or her wrath at disappointment will be worse than whatever oppression she found you in!

and

The event of the day was the Marble Battle, a game of marbles, where kids and adults alike would compete against each other, for the prize of Azure Marble, founded by the governor and imported from Rome. Not worth much financially, it was the token of prestige and a bragging right in all taverns of the island.

Jim had traded his marble made out of meteorite for the legend of Amber Mermaid earlier that day.

Show:

As we walked into backyard of the Admiralty building, a group of children squeezed past us, shouting "Amber mermaid! Amber mermaid!"

There, in the middle of the paved backyard amidst the ivy-covered white walls stood a fountain with a statue of mermaid made of one big block of amber, spouting water out of a jug she held in her hands. Unlike classic mermaids with fish lower bodies, this one was a seal from waist down. Bubbles of air danced within the transparent, golden body lit brightly with sunlight, as water was pumped to the jug-shaped spout.

The children stood in front of the fountain and the oldest boy stepped ahead of them. "Amber mermaid!" he shouted, "Did you hear this one?! What runs up and down the stairs without moving?! Help me win the Blue Marble and I will tell you!"

There was a bit of silence, then a bigger bubble ran up through the hollow amber, and the water ejected from the jug, interrupted momentarily, splashed into the basin at the feet of the fountain, droplets dripping at the gathered children.

"I told you it's an old one," a girl from the ring said, disappointed.

The big kid turned sadly and walked back towards the exit, his head down low. "A rug," he muttered. "A stupid rug. Come on, we've got to find a better one... We have to!"

The rest of kids followed in a loose file.

I could see Jim's expression. A legend! Oh, the hound would never pass the opportunity. "Hey, kid!" he called out. "You play marbles?"

"Yes," the disheartened gang leader turned to him. "There's a tournament tomorrow, but I don't think I'll win. And the main prize is the Azure Marble! Made from blue crystal! Imported from Rome by the Governor himself! And whoever wins, is the King of Marbles recognized all over the island for a whole year!" The kid's eyes shone at the thought.

"Now, this here..." Jim produced his special, "rusty marble" from his pocket, "is something that might help you win... It was made from a rock that fell from the sky, and is as heavy as iron, but it still counts as a rock, and can blast other marbles to smithereens. It can be yours..." he retreated his hand as the kid reached for it, "for a little fee. Tell me everything you know about this Amber Mermaid!" he pointed to the fountain.

"I... Sir..." the kid hesitated at first, then suddenly understood the luck is knocking at his door and began spouting facts at speed of battery of cannons. So, what we fished out from the torrent was that she lives in the sea. She's mean and doesn't like helping but she has insatiable curiosity. She will help you for a riddle or secret she doesn't know. "...And if the riddle is stupid, she gets angry and drowns you or something..." the kid finished. "Is that enough for the marble?"

"Conditionally. If you recall anything more about her, tell me!" Jim grinned, passing the brownish orb to the kid.

As we turned to the entrance to the building, we heard the kids from the gate. "Told you she'd love it? With this marble we're bound to win!"

Note it's still not pure showing, it's still a lot of telling, but we gave the tale a proper backdrop, incorporated it as a piece of the main story, gave the emotional background and hooked it into local culture, and told it in a way that is more pleasant to read than a dry fact dump.

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tl;dr, but +1 for showing "show, don't tell" by example. :) –  Zayne S Halsall Jan 20 '13 at 7:56
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