Writing A Good Prologue
I’ve been told by several writers that prologues are completely unnecessary in any piece of storytelling. I however, believe they are a very effective way of illuminating integral aspects of backstory.
Prologues can be used to give the story you are telling, some very valuable context.
Prologues are very popularly used in Fantasy or Science Fiction genres, but can also be used in horror, thrillers, or any story which requires a set up of a previous crime or event. Screenwriters use them often, as complicated worlds or scenarios are difficult to squeeze into your story when you have a 120 page limit.
The Lord of the Rings, Lady in the Water, The Dark Crystal, and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, are all examples of prologues that utilize narration to explain backstory, leading into your central tale. Although you may not need narration, it can be an effective and interesting tool to use. Another famous example is the yellow scrolling ‘text’ from Star Wars which sets up the story of a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.
Dictionary.com describes the word ‘prologue’ as a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work, and an event or action that leads to another event or situation. Your prologue should be a self contained story that presents an unanswered question near the end. This question will lead into your central plot, and keeps your audience/readers hooked.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast does this by introducing us to the world of the prince, his primary flaw, and the unanswered question “who could ever learn to love a beast?”. This transitions immediately into Belle’s introduction -> “hint hint, wink wink.”. What makes this prologue effective, is that it is poignant, elegant, and simple. Complex prologues may leave your audience/readers feeling alienated, and wondering “what the heck is going on?”.
However, don’t be quick to explain everything either, as you can run into danger telling your entire story. When I first wrote a prologue for one of my scripts, my then ignorant self thought I had written a masterpiece. Pfffft. What I didn’t know, was that I was so ‘on the nose’ about the questions leading into my story, my readers immediately were able to predict everything that happened.
You don’t want people to get everything out of the prologue. If you do, then just write a short story or film. Your prologue should have the ability to feel like a separate entity, but an incomplete one. Here’s another example of a good prologue from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal:
This prologue is effective as it introduces us to the world of the crystal, sets up the audience’s expectations, and outlines the grim situation the characters are living in. It doesn’t give the plot away, and you’re left guessing what will happen next.
I know what I’m speaking about may be a tad ‘obvious’ for some, but speaking from experience it’s actually quite a difficult thing to write. Every writer’s first priority should be to drum up an effective backstory. By all means, if you do this without requiring a prologue, then give yourself a big pat on the back. However, if your story is about wizards, rings of power, worlds of fairies, a boy who lived, or a magic rose, you may just need to give your audience/readers a little more with a good prologue.