I. What is a Prologue?
Some works of literature start with a prologue (pronounced PRO-log), a short introductory section that gives background information or sets the stage for the story to come. The prologue is usually pretty short, maybe a few pages (five minutes or so in a film). But it may be the most important section of the story, and if readers skip it they may be lost for the entire story.
Not every opening scene is a prologue – prologues must specifically they explain or set the stage for what happens next. Many films and novels just start with the events of the story and don’t have any prologue at all.
II. Examples of Prologue
Los Angeles, 2029: The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight… (Terminator)
The movie Terminator opens with a short but exciting prologue that shows the world of the future. This prologue prepares the audience for the entire movie, explaining the war between humans and machines and its basis on time travel. The later Terminator movies expand on this with their own prologues about Los Angeles in 2029.
What’s past is prologue. (William Shakespeare, The Tempest)
This has become a pretty common expression meaning “the past sets the stage” or “the past introduces the themes” for the present. Just like the prologue of a film, the past helps us understand what’s going on in the present, and if you look carefully, the past will give you a lot of clues as to what will happen in the future.
III. The Advantages and Disadvantages of a Prologue
There’s a lot that depends on the prologue! It sets the tone and prepares the audience for the entire story, so if it’s not well-written it can really damage the entire story. For this reason, many writers choose to skip the prologue altogether. (Though this, of course, has its own drawbacks!) Basically, the pros and cons of writing a prologue are:
- Makes story less confusing
- May be exciting
- Requires exposition later in the story (see How to Write a Prologue)
- Slows down the story
- Causes awkward transition from prologue to main story
- May cause information overload
If you do decide to write a prologue, keep these pros and cons in mind and try to write a prologue that avoids the cons and emphasizes the pros.
IV. Examples of Prologue in Literature
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. (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)
These are the opening lines to the prologue of Romeo and Juliet. Notice how much information Shakespeare gives us in just these lines: we find out that there’s a feud between two households, that the play is set in Verona, and that things are about to come to a head in the form of some “new mutiny.” We even get a sense of ominous events on the horizon as the “unclean hands” suggest foul play, perhaps even murder…
The book Stranger in a Strange Land has a prologue set much earlier than the main story. The book is about human beings living on Mars, with a main character who was born there and raised by aliens. But the prologue looks all the way back to the first rocket ship that ever traveled from Earth to Mars, setting the stage for all the events that happen there.
V. Examples of Prologue in Pop Culture
The following is an interactive 360 video of the Star Wars prologues (from episode I to VI)
Once upon a time in a far away land, a young prince lived in a shining castle. Although he had everything his heart desired, the prince was spoiled, selfish and unkind.
But then one winter’s night, an old beggar woman came to the castle and offered him a single rose in return for shelter from the bitter cold.
Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the prince sneered at the gift and turned the old woman away. But she warned him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within.
And when he dismissed her again, the old woman’s ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful enchantress. The prince tried to apologize, but it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in his heart.
The prologue in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast tells the story of how the prince was cursed and transformed into a beast. This prologue helps the audience understand what happens throughout the story – without it, we wouldn’t know the Beast’s story or why he was so desperate to earn Belle’s love.
Once upon a time
In a far-off kingdom
There lay a small village
At the edge of the woods
The opening scene of Into the Woods is a prologue. This prologue helps the audience quickly understand the issues the characters are facing.
VI. Related Terms
A prologue tells you what happened before the main story; an epilogue tells you what happened after. Sometimes, for example, a movie will end by showing various characters on screen and telling you what happened to them: this character is in prison, this character got married and is living in Montana, etc. Epilogues put a cap on the story and give readers a sense of closure.
Prologues are often used for exposition – that is, they explain by giving readers some background information about what’s happening in the story. A prologue sets the stage and lets readers know how things got the way they are. However, exposition doesn’t have to be in the prologue. More often, this information is explained later on as the story progresses. For example, imagine you’re writing a story about World War II: you could include a prologue explaining the historical context, or you could write a scene in which two characters discuss what’s been happening in the world, so that the reader gets the same information, just less directly.
Although they both occur at the beginning of a literary work, a prologue is different from a preface (also called a “foreword”). A prologue is written by the author and forms part of the story; a foreword or preface may be written by the author or someone else, and it’s more of a commentary on the story rather than a part of it.