Have you ever been reading a screenplay or watching a movie and noticed that the first few pages serve to set things up? We call that a prologue. And it comes from ancient Greek. It's a way to begin a story that sets up the world and the scene. The literary term is written to set the story in motion. They are specific plot devices used by writers across mediums.
This part of the story matters a ton!
Today, we're going to go over the prologue. We'll talk about its purpose and its definition. And we'll look at some examples in literature, film, and television. We'll also go over how you can use them in your storytelling to expand on the worldbuilding and stakes.
Let's get started by going into the definition.
Table of Contents
'Star Wars: A New Hope'Credit: Lucasfilm
Prologue (Definition and Examples)
It doesn't seem fit to write about prologues without adding one ourselves. I think these techniques are underutilized in film and TV. They are inherently smart for opening scenes. They're a way to dip toes into a world and introduce characters without pushing us too far in. We get an appetite for the story, and then we dig in further.
But how would you define a prologue? We can start our journey there.
'Romeo+Juliet'Credit: Fox Searchlight
A prologue (sometimes spelled "prolog") is an opening to a story that establishes context and background details that set up the main story, which follows.
This opening scene can tie into the main story, or just be a contextual representation of information we need to know to understand what comes next.
What Is the Purpose of a Prologue?
The purpose is to provide context for the story that follows. You're basically setting the scene. If someone is going to enjoy your story, the prologue needs to be a taste of the themes and storyline to follow. Sometimes it matters in the overall story, sometimes it's just a way to shock you or make you laugh, or give you a sense of what is to come.
You use this literary device to excite the audience to get deeper into the story.
'Gladiator'Credit: 20th Century Fox
The Origin of Prologue
The ancient Greek prólogos was more like the meaning of preface, yet it became the root of what we know now as the prologue. The invention is attributed to Greek playwright and poet Euripides. He used it in his poems.
Titus Maccius Plautus, commonly known as Platus, was the first person to use them as part of his writing. He would include them before his poems so people would understand what came next.
Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales'Credit: PHOTOS.COM/ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES
Difference Between Prologue, Preface, and Foreword
The prologue is distinctly different from the preface and the foreword. A preface is a note written by the author to the reader. It is not a part of the story but a direct address.
A foreword is written by someone else aside from the author, lauding the work and the author. They occur in books, novels, and even in short story form.
Prologues are definitely part of the story. They are there to draw you in, not to laud writers or be an open letter.
What's a Prologue in a Book?
In a book or a novel, this is the chapter before the opening chapter. It is used to foreshadow what is to come. It can provide backstory and internal conflict that pays off with the novel's events later. This opening chapter details events just prior to what would occur in chapter one. It can also establish a point of view from which the book is told.
Perhaps it's better to look at examples and explain from there.
'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'Credit: Columbia Pictures
Examples of Prologues in Literature
When it comes to examples of prologues in literature, why not start with the Bard? William Shakespeare uses a prologue in Romeo and Juliet to set the scene. In it, he describes the setting and conflict, saying, "Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."
We immediately know this is the story of two families that are jockeying for position in Verona. And that there's bad blood between them, which is ominous.
Another great example comes from the book Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. He begins the story with the description of a lawsuit from park workers to InGen.
It reads, "Parties to that settlement, including the distinguished scientific board of advisers, signed a nondisclosure agreement, and none will speak about what happened—but many of the principal figures in the 'InGen incident' are not signatories, and were willing to discuss the remarkable events leading up to those final two days in August 1989 on a remote island off the west coast of Costa Rica."
We get a bit of wonder about what could have happened here, and we get a taste (pun intended) of what's to come inside the book, which will tell us the story of the park.
'Jurassic Park' behind the scenes.Credit: Universal Pictures
Examples of Prologues in Film and TV
Of course, if we have prologues in literature, they have been translated into film and television. It's funny we mentioned Jurassic Park the novel, because the film also has a prologue, but different from the source material. Instead, the film uses a scene where a park worker is eaten by a dinosaur, which is alluded to in a lawsuit later. We hear about an "accident" that happened. The audience gets a tease of the beasts and where the movie can go.
Another amazing prologue comes from the amazing sci-fi movie, The Terminator. We get a full spectrum of a voiceover telling us what happens in the future and why Terminators are being sent back to 1984. We even see a war in the future raging between machines and humans.
This will never come back in the movie, but we understand the stakes our heroes are trying to prevent.
It's a smart way to get us to care about what happens next.
Perhaps the most famous prologues come from the Star Wars universe, where the scroll updates us on what's happening between the Empire and the Rebels.
'Jurassic Park'Credit: Universal Pictures
Summing Up the Prologue Definition and Examples in Film and TV
In any literary work, a prologue can set the stage for what comes next. It provides background information, which is necessary for the point of view of the story.
This sets the scene and allows the writer to use a literary device to capitalize on the audience's anticipation. This writing style may not be for everyone, but try it out. See what it is like to tease information about the story.
Now it's time for you to write a prologue! Remember, you need to capitalize on the reader's understanding of the prologue to set up the rest of the story. Let the prologue set the story in motion.