The first scene in your film is arguably the most important one. You need to give the audience a sense of what’s going to happen as well as set the tone. After all, you don’t want your comedy to start off with a grim, overly dramatic scene. This is where a prologue can come in handy. So what is a prologue and how can you make one that works for your movie? That’s what we’ll dive into today.
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WHAT DOES PROLOGUE MEAN?
What’s a prologue?
You likely know that a prologue in a book or film comes at the beginning of the story. It’s the first scene and our first introduction into this world and its characters. However, not every first scene constitutes a prologue. It goes much deeper than that.
What is a Prologue?
A prologue is an introductory scene of a film that introduces the audience to the film, its characters, the tone, and/or pertinent themes. This scene should be able to stand on its own, and it should function as its own separate story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Prologues can take different forms in film. They can consist of a screen of text that informs the audience of the movie’s world, such as in Star Wars and The Terminator. Or it could be a short scene, usually no longer than five minutes, that draws the audience in and gets them excited for the story about to come.
Essential Characteristics for a Good Prologue:
- Stands on its own
- Sets up what the film will be about
- Reflects the essence of the movie
Prologues have been a common fixture in literature for centuries. The famous Romeo and Juliet prologue clues us into the death and misery that’s to follow with the lines:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
Shakespeare understood the importance of prologues as evidenced from this quote from another one of his works — The Tempest. The character Antonio states, “What’s past is prologue.” The quotation essentially means history provides context for our present. In relation to stories, these prologue examples provide context for what we’re about to witness.
Likewise, The Canterbury Tales prologue sets up the scene and the framing device the novel will use. It makes us aware of the time, place, and season we’re in as well as why this group of disparate people are traveling together.
Some stories really benefit from a prologue. However, prologues can also be done poorly. You only have a few minutes to grab viewers’ attention, so if you jam in a prologue that shouldn’t be there, then you could lose your audience before your film really gets started.
The YouTube channel The Closer Look provides a glimpse into hooking your audience within those first few crucial minutes.
Once you download StudioBinder’s screenwriting software, you should look at the examples below to see how prologues can be done well.
PROLOGUE DEFINITION AND EXAMPLES
Best prologue examples
Now that we have a better understanding of what a prologue is versus just a regular opening scene, let’s examine a stellar prologue in one of the best action movies ever made — the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The opening sequence lasts for 10 minutes, a significant portion of the film. And the interesting thing is that it has nothing to do with the plot of finding the Ark of the Covenant. Indiana Jones is after a completely different artifact we never see again, but the prologue accomplishes several things at once.
If the prologue wasn’t there, the plot would be the same, but the tone would be off. The first scene would be Jones in the classroom being offered the expedition to locate the Ark. It’s a good scene, but it would be a boring way to open an adventure film. The audience wouldn’t know what the film is really going to be, and they would have a poorer understanding of Indiana Jones.
With the prologue, we know we’re in for a swashbuckling adventure. We see Indy use his whip in action, so we know how tough he is. We see Indy recognize booby traps, so we see his intelligence in the field rather than just have someone tell us how smart he is. It pulls you in and gives you all the information you need in an engaging way.
The Dark Knight also uses a prologue, but for a different purpose.
Batman isn’t present at all within the first five minutes of the film. While this may seem odd, it works perfectly because instead, we get an exciting action sequence that introduces us to the movie’s villain: Joker.
During the bank robbery, the other criminals talk about Joker, such as how he wears clown makeup. We also learn that Joker, who set up the heist, ordered his men to kill off one another as they each completed their job. We learn how intelligent, conniving, and deadly this new villain is, so we understand precisely what Batman is up against.
The prologue alone shows why Heath Ledger is one of the best actors to portray the Joker in film and TV history.
For our last prologue, let’s look at the first few minutes from Reservoir Dogs.
This particular prologue accomplishes two things. It’s very funny. We may be in for a crime movie, but the prologue lets us know that there will be humor in this story even though things are about to get violent.
It also clues us into the characters’ attitudes. For example, Mr. Orange rats out Mr. Pink for not being the one who tipped. Therefore, it makes sense when we find out he’s the rat later in the film. While you could cut the prologue from the film without really changing anything, it sets up the characters so well while being simultaneously entertaining.
How to write a good prologue
There are some writers out there who abhor prologues. They think you just need to get started on your story without any fluff. As is the case with most writing tools, prologues are really neither good nor bad. It all comes down to how you use it, so if you want to include a prologue, then you better make sure it’s there for a reason. Here are some basic guidelines to follow
1. Give Your Prologue a Beginning, Middle, and End
Your prologue should essentially function as its own short story except instead of resolving everything, you leave the ending open so that the audience wants to see more.
You have a fairly well-done short film just in the first five minutes of Scream.
The scene begins with a mysterious phone call. It builds in tension as Drew Barrymore’s character becomes more and more suspicious. And it ends with her death and our introduction to the villain.
The scene works on its own separate from the rest of the movie, but we still want to see more. We've seen what the killer is capable of and now we want to know who the killer is and who he’ll go after next.
2. Set Up the Tone of Your Film
If you’re making a horror movie, then you want the first scene to be scary. If you’re making a comedy, then the first scene should be hilarious. While your prologue may be separate from the rest of the film, it should abide by the same tone so that you don’t give your audience whiplash from varying sensibilities.
Speaking of which, let’s examine the prologue for Whiplash.
We get some basic information about Andrew and Terence. However, the important aspect of this prologue is the tone it’s displaying.
We’re introduced to Andrew playing the drums. The camera pushes through a dark hallway, getting closer. It’s ominous. And it lets us know this isn’t going to be a fun movie about a drummer.
3. Make Your Theme Known
Every movie has a theme. And your prologue should set up precisely what this theme is going to be. It helps make your film’s introduction stand out and have relevance to the rest of the story.
You don’t need to have a character look at the camera and explicitly announce the theme either. You can accomplish this with little to no dialogue, which is the case for the prologue of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The prologue shows man’s early ancestors discovering tools. It plays into themes expanded upon later in the film about how mankind evolves and uses technology. The theme is clear and ties into the rest of the film.
If you do all three of these, then you have yourself a solid prologue that makes sense in the context of your film.
WHAT IS A PROLOGUE?
What about text screens?
A lot of movies introduce themselves with a block of text. Usually, this is done to provide exposition in a concise manner. The best example of this is the opening crawl from Star Wars.
The exposition up front makes sense because we’re being transported to an entirely new galaxy, and the backstory quickly fills in gaps so that we can just enjoy the story.
These text screens are typically used in sci-fi or fantasy films where a lot of exposition needs to be stated right away so that the audience knows what’s going on. It’s thrilling to see the opening crawl in any Star Wars film, but you want to be careful you’re using it the right way in your film, or you could end up with a forgettable prologue.
BAD PROLOGUE MEANING
Avoid this prologue mistake
Just as there are tips for writing a good prologue, there is advice for avoiding a bad one. First and foremost, you want to avoid using your prologue merely as an exposition dump.
Exposition is necessary for almost all films, but you want to be careful you’re not boring your audience immediately. Unfortunately, this was just one of the many reasons why 2011’s Green Lantern wasn’t well-received.
For the first minute of the movie, we’re introduced to the concept of the Green Lantern Corps., how they get their power, and what it takes to become a Green Lantern. There’s no interesting story at play. We have no idea of the tone.
And we’re not sure about any themes aside from vague allusions to “not having fear.” It doesn’t engage with the audience, so when things actually start happening a minute later, we’re already bored.
When it comes to prologues, your attention should always be on the larger story. How do you draw a viewer in without overloading them with information? And most of all, how do you capture an audience’s attention after just a few minutes?
Writing exposition in film
Writing exposition is one of the hardest things screenwriters have to do. When done well, the audience won’t even realize you’ve taught them more about this world. When done poorly, the audience rolls their eyes at how heavy-handed it was. Whether it’s in the prologue or not, there are numerous tips you can learn to better incorporate exposition into your next film.