Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Using a Prologue

(Spoilers: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix, Romancing the Stone)

I define a prologue in a screenplay as an opening sequence that is not critical to the plot. You could cut off the prologue and the story would still make sense. The audience would never know something was missing. The majority of movies don’t have a prologue, but it’s not uncommon either. For example, most James Bond movies open with a prologue.

Just because a prologue can be removed without damaging the audience’s understanding of the story doesn’t mean they serve no purpose. Prologues are useful to:
  • Grab the audience and draw them into the story
  • Establish the tone of the story
  • Introduce fantastical elements
You should consider using a prologue if the opening of your story would fail to do one of these important things. Most movies open by showing the main character in their normal life – the status quo that will be interrupted by the events of the story. The character’s status quo may be interesting enough to draw the audience in, and it may serve to properly establish the tone and world of the story. If so, you don’t need a prologue. In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron), for example, the main character of Ryan is an astronaut working on a satellite in space. Her status quo is plenty dramatic and entertaining, so there’s no need to add a sequence before it! However sometimes showing the character in their regular life isn’t going to do the job.

Let’s look at some examples of successful prologues.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) opens with a prologue about Indiana Jones recovering an idol from a trapped jungle cave. This has nothing to do with the plot of recovering the Ark of the Covenant. But if we didn’t have the prologue, we’d open with Indy at his college teacher job. It would be a while before we got to the good, swashbuckling action. The prologue here grabs the audience and establishes the adventurous tone.

Similarly, The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) opens with a cool action prologue of Trinity running from the agents. This not only grabs us with kung fu, sci-fi action to help carry us through the next relatively action-free half hour of the movie, but it lets the audience know that there is something strange about this world. We are open to almost anything in the first minutes of the movie, but as we start to grasp the rules of the story world, anything that breaks those rules feels implausible.

In the prologue in The Matrix, Trinity and the agents have superhuman abilities and somehow Trinity magically escapes the phone booth at the end of the sequence. If we didn’t have this, the first hint that the world is not the one we’re familiar with would come when the agents erase Neo’s mouth. This would probably be too late in the movie, and the audience would find it laughable or confusing. But with the prologue we accept it.

Romancing the Stone (written by Diane Thomas) has a particularly interesting prologue. The setting is the Wild West. A bad guy threatens a woman. A dashing hero swoops in to save her. It’s all very overheated and romantic. And then it is revealed that this is actually a scene from the main character’s novel, taking place in her imagination.

This prologue again serves to draw the audience into the story and establish an adventurous tone. This is important because Joan’s regular life as a hermitic writer living in Manhattan doesn’t suggest the romantic adventure that the movie will ultimately deliver. The prologue does other important things, too, though. It establishes what kind of man Joan likes and how she thinks romance ought to play out. This sets up a nice contrast when Colton appears and proves to be a very different kind of man.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone some people might consider the prologues part of the status quo. After all, Indiana Jones is a swashbuckling archaeologist from the beginning of the movie, and Joan Wilder is already a writer of overheated romantic adventures. I would still consider them prologues because they are like little mini-stories unto themselves. Both movies could start after these prologues and would still make perfect sense – although they wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable.

Prologues exist outside of the typical three-act structure. If you use a prologue, it would not be surprising to find your Catalyst coming a little later in the film. This is okay as long as the prologue is suitably exciting to engage the audience – and if it’s not, then it’s not doing its job as a prologue!


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