How Do You Write a Screenplay Prologue? Dodge These Key Pitfalls

A prologue can be used to introduce the audience to the characters, tone and theme of your screenplay. It should plummet them into the story from the start as you set the scene. But are prologues necessary? And what are the pros and cons to having one in your screenplay? In this article, we will look at examples of prologues in TV and film, and the key elements of writing an effective prologue.

What is a Prologue?

A prologue is a scene that introduces the audience to the story at hand before it starts in actuality.

Prologue: a separate introductory section of a literary, dramatic, or musical work.

Oxford Dictionary

A prologue can be used to establish context, foreshadow the plot, or introduce a thematic tone. It doesn’t necessarily have to connect to the main story, at least not upfront. Its purpose is to set the scene more than it is to start the story.

Furthermore, there is a difference between a prologue and an opening scene or cold open. Primarily, the prologue will exist on its own two feet. It has a beginning, middle and end in this sense. It’s not necessarily something that will be particularly important to the plot. It’s a mini-story in its own right.

Following the prologue, the story will start in earnest. So the prologue is an opportunity to lubricate the script’s opening. It gives the audience a taste of what is to come, getting them ready for the story, tone, characters or context of what they are about to watch.

How Do You Write a Screenplay Prologue?

Writing a prologue can be a tempting way to start your script. It’s an easy way to begin the story with a bang and pull your audience in. After all, those opening pages are vital for gripping and maintaining attention in a crowded, competitive marketplace.

However, in its ease, it can also be an overused device. Screenplay readers will often tell you that a script that starts with a prologue can be a red flag. It can feel like too much of an obvious way to grab the reader’s attention, in lieu of the script starting in a genuinely gripping manner within the confines of the story.

So there are some key ways to make sure your screenplay prologue has a purpose. This will make the reader forget about any preconceptions they have about prologues. Instead, it will grip them into the story in a genuine and convincing way.

1. Focus on a Single Character

Dark Knight Joker

Introducing too many characters at once can be a disorientating way to start a script. So instead, focus on one character in the prologue.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be the protagonist. It may be, for example, a narrator who, in turn, introduces us to the story and the important characters we are about to meet. It may even be the story’s antagonist.

Either way, making sure the prologue is from one character’s perspective is important in starting the story with clarity. Even if there are lots of characters within this opening scene, there needs to be a character that defines it. And this definition needs to make sense for the upcoming narrative.

  • Starting with the protagonist is the most obvious way to do this; giving the audience an insight straight away into what kind of hero will be leading them.
  • But conversely, for example, starting the story with the antagonist can set up the stakes. This shows what the protagonist is up against and what the story will be about henceforth.

Who is the character that defines this story? And what are the characteristics of this character that will define the journey? These are important questions to answer when thinking of what character to place (and how to place them) in your prologue.

2. Restrict the Locations

Raiders of the Lost Ark Opening

Another key way to reign in the scope of your prologue and maintain clarity is to restrict the locations. You don’t want to take your audience to a host of different locations in the opening few pages. This will give them too much to orientate themselves around. So try and keep the action to one location, if possible.

Moreover, make sure that location has some kind of weight, significance or distinction. You want to start the script with vibrancy and relevance and not in, for example, a bland location with no meaning.

  • What does this location mean to the story?
  • What does this location mean to the character at the heart of the scene?
  • Is this location dynamic and illustrated with depth and colour?

These are key ways to make sure the location is an important and not incidental part of the prologue. It may not be a location you return to within the story. But it still needs to have depth and meaning to the overall story. Not doing this weakens the strength and purpose of the prologue.

3. Make the Prologue a Mini-Story

Does the prologue have a beginning, middle and end? Could it exist on its own two feet without being connected to the main story? These are the key questions to ask when defining whether your screenplay prologue is worthwhile and purposeful and not just a convenient way to start the script with a bang.

You almost need to think of your screenplay prologue as its own short film. Could the prologue stand up without being directly connected to a wider story? If the answer is no then the prologue probably isn’t strong enough to justify its inclusion.

Now, it’s fine to accept that this short film might leave the audience wanting more. But is it still a short film with a distinct beginning, middle and end? Are there questions posed and answered? This is key to making the prologue robust. You want to tell the audience a mini-story as a starter to the main meal. It’s not going to be as filling as the main meal. But it’s still serving its purpose in fulfilling an appetite.

4. Don’t Use the Prologue Purely as Exposition

The reader and/or audience will likely be put off by a prologue that simply overloads the scene with exposition. This feels too much like a transparent way to convey the important points about the plot, characters or setting to the audience without having to actually do any dramatic legwork.

There are a few key ways to avoid this being the case:

1. Don’t overload the scene with dialogue.

  • Dialogue is typically the most obvious way that exposition will be carried to the audience.
  • Too much dialogue upfront can be un-dramatic and un-cinematic.
  • Instead, you want to lean into the atmosphere, mood and tone of the scene.

2. Establish tone as well as story.

  • The prologue shouldn’t just be about illustrating key parts of the story in terms of the plot, themes or characterisation.
  • It should also be about setting the tone of what the audience is about to experience.
  • This can relate to genre too. For example, horror is likely to start with a scene that scares. A thriller is likely to start with tension. Drama is likely to start with some emotional context.
  • Establishing the tone gives the prologue a purpose more than just exposition. And this is always the way to lessen the feel of exposition; hiding it and carrying it within multiple different functions.

5. What is the Theme?

The theme should essentially be the prologue’s defining element. Establishing this is really its fundamental purpose. As much as the prologue can be an opportunity to establish characters and setting, the story’s overall theme should be the guiding motive.

This is the objective of the short film within a larger film. It’s a short story about the central theme. Whatever else the audience gets out of the prologue (tone, character, setting), the theme should be the main taste they’re left with.

So how does the prologue establish the theme? What does it say about the film’s central premise? The audience might not necessarily grasp this straight away. But in retrospect, the audience will realise that the prologue set out the story’s central idea in no uncertain terms.

6. Keep it Short

Finally, a simple rule to follow. Your audience will lose interest if your prologue is too long and overflowing with information.

So keep the prologue short and sweet. A prologue that goes on for too long will make the audience feel that this is the story they are watching, instead of it just being an establishing preamble. And then when you actually start the story, they’ll have to readjust.

You want to give your audience enough time to enjoy the scene and get something out of it, but not too much that they become settled into it. Again, think of the starter and the main meal. Don’t spoil the audience’s appetite by giving them too much as a starter! Instead, just whet their appetite so they have some idea of what they’re in for.

Examples of Prologues in Film and TV

We have gathered a few examples of film and TV prologues that effectively inform the readers of their story and what’s to come.

The Dark Knight

Bank Heist (Joker) | The Dark Knight [IMAX]

The Dark Knight uses an exciting prologue to establish a few key elements of the film that is to come.

  • It sets up the antagonist, the Joker, and demonstrates his cunning and ruthlessness.
  • It sets up the lawlessness of Gotham city via the chaos of the bank robbery and the callous nature of the robbers.
  • A speech given by the bank manager sets up some of the themes. This is primarily the idea that criminals have become increasingly wayward and that they used to “believe in things”.
  • Moreover, the Joker’s response to this speech highlights his character. It also hints at one of the film’s defining themes. This is the idea that the Joker causes chaos for the sake of it; “Whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you stranger”. This is a new era of criminals that have no respect for the rules of bygone eras.

The Wire

The Wire Prologue

The opening scene of The Wire‘s first season perfectly establishes the series’ defining theme and tone.

  • Detective Jimmy McNulty sits on a stoop with a murder witness. The victim lies dead nearby.
  • McNulty tries to get to the bottom of why the victim, nicknamed Snot Boogie, was shot over a simple game of craps.
  • The witness outlines how Snot Boogie always stole the craps money during the game. Everyone knew it. It happened almost every Friday night.
  • McNulty doesn’t understand how they allowed Snot Boogie to get away with this every time and still let him play. To this, the witness responds:

“Got to. This America, man.”

This line sums up The Wire‘s guiding principle; the idea that in America everyone is given the chance to play, even if the game itself is rigged. It’s an engaging exchange within a vivid, rich context. And it’s one that resonates throughout the show’s five seasons.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1/10) Movie CLIP - The Boulder Chase (1981) HD

Raiders of the Lost Ark brilliantly uses a prologue to introduce us to the titular character and the film’s tone.

  • As Indy seeks to retrieve the golden idol, he has to fight off accomplices and the natural elements conspiring against him.
  • In doing this, he demonstrates his wit, skill and intelligence. He’s able to retrieve the golden idol and handily defeat those trying to stop him.
  • So in this opening prologue, largely unconnected to the main story, we get a keen sense of who Indiana is and the characteristics that will come to define how he takes us through the story.

Moreover, the way in which this prologue is such a rip-roaring adventure illustrates the tone of the upcoming film. There’s no doubt as to the kind of film this will be in terms of its tone and genre. Everything is there in the prologue – adventure, humour, peril, a vibrant context.

The Raiders of the Lost Ark prologue proves the rule of a prologue needing to exist as its own short film, on its own two feet. It’s a mini-story with a beginning, middle and end. After watching this prologue, the only question is; how do we see more?

Star Wars

Star Wars Prologue

We’ve included this prologue because it demonstrates what a prologue is in its very purest form. It’s an example that is hard to see used in any other context than the Star Wars universe. But it has carved out its own special place in the history of prologues.

Moreover, its tone is a big part of why it’s able to get away with such heavy and blatant exposition. This isn’t just text over a black background, it’s rolling text in space set to a magnificent and epic John Williams score.

So if using a textual prologue in your screenplay is something you feel is necessary then consider at least how you can carry this in an interesting and unique way. Moreover, make this method of delivery pertain to the tone of the story at hand. This will make blatant exposition much easier to swallow.

In Conclusion: The Pros and Cons of Writing a Screenplay Prologue

Pros

1. A Dynamic, Exciting Opening

  • Prologues can serve as a dynamic and exciting introduction to a screenplay. They can start the story with a bang and grip the audience in no uncertain terms.
  • Moreover, they can allow the audience to later re-evaluate the story. Consequently, they add depth and returnability to the script.

2. Sharpen Writing Skills

  • Prologues can give you, as a writer, the opportunity to play around with the prose, rhetoric, tone and theme in an efficient manner.
  • This can sharpen your writing abilities, as well as bettering the outcome of your TV show or film.
  • In other words, a screenplay prologue challenges you to convey your script’s theme in an engaging and efficient way. It’s a great way to perfect your efficacy as a writer.

3. Useful for Exposition

  • A prologue is useful if the information you want to weave into the story is jumbling up your plot. 
  • If having this relevant information seems unnatural or confusing in any of your acts, a prologue may be a way to set up important exposition without it clouding your actual plot.

4. Context/Different Perspective

  • Prologues can be a great way to show a different POV or to give more context to the story.
  • This might be achieved, for example, by including a flashback or flash-forward to a different part of the story.
  • Maintaining consistency of perspective in a screenplay is important. But a prologue can offer the opportunity to shift the central perspective in a way that doesn’t confuse the main narrative timeline too much.

Cons/ Mistakes to Avoid

1. Over-reliance

  • Screenplay prologues can often be a red flag for a seasoned industry script reader.
  • It’s typically an all too easy way for the screenwriter to start the story excitingly, in lieu of gripping the reader with actual drama.

2. Give the Prologue Purpose

  • So, therefore, make sure that the prologue serves a distinct purpose and isn’t just there for the sake of making your opening scene dramatic and exciting.
  • If your story makes sense without the aid of a prologue, then including one likely isn’t needed. Instead, what you’re actually doing is clouding the legibility of the screenplay.

3. Keep it Snappy

  • Make sure the prologue isn’t too long and therefore a distraction.
  • It could delay the start of the story, lose the interest of your audience and confuse them as to the identity of the main narrative.

4. Make Sure it Matches the Tone/Theme

  • A prologue needs to accurately match the subsequent script’s tone and theme.
  • An audience may forget that the prologue even occurred if it’s unremarkable. And if they have, they may eventually return to it wondering what it was all about.
  • So instead, make sure your prologue’s tone and thematic intention are incisive and profound.
  • Consequently, you’ll give the audience something to ponder in a positive way rather than leaving them scratching their head and as a result undermining the strength of your story.

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This article was written by Tia Redgate and edited by IS Staff.

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2 thoughts on “How Do You Write a Screenplay Prologue? Dodge These Key Pitfalls”

  1. Another example that immediately came to mind was (the animated) Beauty and the Beast – short, to the point, giving us a sense of mystery but also sets the beautifully romantic tone, introducing the main setting, focussing on one character (the Beast), introducing us to theme (beauty is found within; who could learn to love a beast?). Along with beautiful music. Perfection.

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