Quick! How many stories can you think of that begin with a prologue? Books or movies, it doesn’t matter. Just spend a minute making a list.
Now tell me how many of those actually needed that prologue. My guess is around ten percent. And I’m being generous.
“That’s not fair, Jordan.” you protest. “These stories need that information. It’s backstory! It sets things up!”
Hey, I said that ten percent of those stories actually needed a prologue! Give me a break.
Here’s the deal: Prologues very often are concerned with telling us the backstory. The question you must answer as a storyteller is, do we need to know all that backstory now?
Most of the time, the answer is no.
I like to hold up the movie Inkheart here. In the prologue, we’re told that certain storytellers can read characters and objects out of books. We’re told these people are called silvertongues, and then we’re sent right into the opening of the actual story.
The problem is there’s nothing in that prologue that doesn’t come out in the story later. We’re eventually introduced to all the concepts of reading things out of books in much more interesting and memorable ways throughout the film. You could easily skip the prologue and not even notice.
Sometimes we don’t even need to know the information in the prologue at all. One of my favorite examples of a prologue that didn’t need to be there is in the book and movie City of Ember. The story opens by telling us how the world ended. Humanity was moved underground without a knowledge of its past and given a mysterious box that would open in 200 years.
There’s just one problem with this prologue. It’s telling you a lot of information that none of the characters you’re going to meet will ever know.
Think how much more compelling this story would be if we’d simply been presented with a run-down underground city. Is there a way out? Nobody knows—not the characters, not the audience. Is there even somewhere else to go? It’s a mystery. Now we’re discovering alongside the characters that there’s a world outside of Ember. And that’s a whole lot more interesting.
After all, City of Ember is essentially a mystery. But in one short prologue, the ending has been ruined. Yes, there’s a way out. Yes, there’s more to the world than Ember. Yes, our heroes will find it.
Contrast this with the movie The Village, where we’re presented with an isolated 19th-century country village with some odd customs and a rule about never leaving. We know there’s got to be something more to it, but it’s a big, big mystery.
Instead of spoiling the story in a prologue, we’re shown glimpses and hints of backstory as the main character comes closer and closer to unraveling what’s going on. Then, when it all comes together, we’re treated to a fantastic reveal. The film does a brilliant job of keeping its mystery mysterious. It would have been ruined with a City of Ember-style prologue.
Now, lest I lead you to believe that prologues are absolutely unnecessary at all times, let me quickly tell you that this is not the case. There are actually times where a prologue can be used very well.
In fact, both Inkheart and City of Ember were probably trying to cover this next point: A good prologue should be used to set the tone of the rest of the story. Remember that the very first thing in your story sets that feel for the rest. If you open with fighting, we’d better have some more of that later. If you start with a quiet, comfortable tea party, things had better stay similarly cozy even when the conflict starts. You can’t bring out swords and guns; it has to stay prim and proper.
One of my favorite examples of a well-set tone in a prologue is the movie Waking Ned Devine. The film opens with a documentary narrator voice telling us about people playing the lottery. But suddenly, the voice breaks character and remarks regarding those who actually win, “Lucky sods.” And from that moment on, we’re hooked.
It’s perfectly brilliant. We get the setup of people playing the lottery, day in and day out, always losing. It feels boring, like this routine should, but then we get to those last two words. The narrator seems to wink as he says it, and we realize that this movie is not going to take itself too seriously. Nor does it.
Then there are prologues that tell the audience information they will need to know so the story will make sense. For example, in the movie Tangled, if you don’t know that Rapunzel was stolen from her parents as a child, you’re not going to care much about this rebellious teen who runs away. But because we were told in the prologue that she was kidnapped, we already want her escape from the witch. When she does, we cheer and wait expectantly for her to discover the truth.
I can see you nodding your head. “Okay, there are good prologues, and there are bad prologues. I understand the difference. But what about those stories with no prologue at all?”
Rather like ROUSs, I don’t believe they exist.
I know, now you think I’m crazy. Stay with me a minute and I’ll explain.
Here’s where you might be confused: A lot of stories have a prologue that is labeled. In books, you’re used to reading a little section called “Prologue”. In films, you expect to be greeted by a voiceover. Either way, we’ve been trained to recognize blatant prologues.
But those are just the ones that we’ve been told to notice. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that prologues don’t have to be labeled to exist.
It’s pretty simple once you know how to spot it. A prologue is something that happens to set up the world or situation of the story. It can seamlessly move into the main story, or it can have more separation.
For example, in the book 100 Cupboard, there’s no labeled prologue section. However, if you read the first chapter carefully, you’ll find that the story doesn’t actually begin until a couple paragraphs down the second page. All before that, the author gives us a some details on the town of Henry, Kansas. Until the book shifts focus to the Willis family waiting on the curb for a bus, we’re in prologue land.
Here’s another one: The movie The King’s Speech doesn’t have a blatant prologue. The first thing we see is a title screen explaining that we’re about to see Prince Bertie’s first speech. Then we’re greeted with a montage of preparations for making a public address. We’re shown the contrast between the polished radio announcer’s calm dignity and Bertie’s unease.
After Bertie steps to the microphone and fails miserably at speechmaking, everything has been set up. The next scene is where the story really begins as Bertie tries speech therapy, which is what we’ll be spending the rest of the film exploring. But to get to that point, we had to know what he wants to become. And that was the prologue.
So how does this apply to you, the storyteller? Now that you know you’ll have a prologue whether you label it or not, your task is to own your prologue. Ask yourself if this information needs to be here, or if the story would be more interesting without it. Use your craft to make sure the prologue does its job setting up the story and striking an appropriate tone.
And I’m sorry, but after reading this, you might just end up like me—gritting your teeth every time you see a movie with a voiceover prologue.
NOTE: Due to the difficultly of finding a visual representation for “prologue” the editor has instead chosen to pepper this post with Star Wars images which may or may not be relevant. We apologize for any inconvenience or distress this apparent randomness may have caused.