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What’s The Difference Between A Prologue & A Teaser?

Prologues and Teasers play a very big part in the spec screenplay pile – but all too often, scribes aren’t too sure of the difference. Here are my thoughts:

Very **Generally** speaking:

i) Movies will have prologues: think the arrival of the (unseen) velociraptor at JURASSIC PARK; the crash in PITCH BLACK; the shooting in THE SIXTH SENSE or the Barracuda attack in FINDING NEMO.

These moments act as a catalyst for the characters to become embroiled in the story, but also an introduction to the characters and/or story world for the audience. (This latter point is especially important for Science Fiction and Supernatural/Fantasy worlds, which is why the prologue is so frequently employed in these genres).

ii) TV will have teasers: the likes of US crime shows like CSI and NCIS have made their name with teasers, which usually go:

  • Shots of the victim alive
  • Shots of the victim dead
  • Team arrives & examines the body
  • One of the team makes a quip about something

Of course, people in Teasers don’t *have* to be dead – HOUSE does similar to CSI with medical conditions, for example. Also, other shows may offer more “tantalising” Teasers, which do not set up or join up with the story quite so obviously as the above, too. We saw this recently in BROADCHURCH in the UK, with the shots of the murder victim Danny Latimer (alive) on the headland, blood dripping from his fingers. This was one of the first shots we saw and one we returned to at various junctures throughout the series, with the explanation for him being there (and the blood) only paid off in the final episode when the identity of his killer was finally revealed.

Do note: There’s actually no reason a movie can’t have a teaser, or TV a prologue. So why not buck the trend?

So, what problems do I see in the spec pile with prologues and teasers? Try some of these for size:


1) The Teaser is not really a Teaser. A Teaser is as its name suggests: it teases. Well durr. But what does this mean? I think of Teasers are setting up a QUESTION, which is then “answered” by the story that follows. So, in the case of crime shows, this is obvious: “Whodunnit?” During the course of TV shows like CSI, NCIS and Broadchurch we’re asked to invest in the journey of finding out who the killer is. This is why Teasers are so popular with crime shows. In comparison then, spec Teasers will set up no such question. It’s simply an introductory scene at the beginning of the script and too often, forms little purpose story or character-wise. More on this, next.

2) The Teaser is dull. We all know that having characters waking up, getting ready for the day, going to work etc is dull. Yet scribes seem to persist with this notion of introducing characters by slapping the word “teaser” on these types of scenes instead. NO NO NO. Put yourself in the naughty corner at once! But not before you cut this out. Yargh.

3) The Teaser pays no resemblance to the rest of the story. Sometimes spec Teasers are great and kick off with a character doing something really interesting … only to have them doing completely different things in the *rest* of the screenplay. This rarely works, especially as the reader then feels cheated. Approach this method with caution.

4) The Teaser doesn’t return or “join up”. In the case of very striking imagery – like the blood on Danny Latimer’s fingertips – make sure you return and JOIN IT UP to the “main story”, else it will be forgotten by the reader (and thus the audience too). In other words, have it running throughout the screenplay – but weigh it up carefully, as you don’t want to overplay it either, which can be another issue here.

5) It has no seeming connection to the main story. Very often I will read a Teaser with a particular character, only to break to different characters undertaking the “main story”… and I have no clue *why* we saw that other character in the first instance. Make sure we know WHY there is a Teaser and WHAT it means for the subsequent characters, else there’s no point in having a Teaser.

Summing up then: Teasers need to introduce your characters and set up the rest of the story. Posing a question with your Teaser that is answered in the rest of the screenplay is nearly always a good move, but not 100% necessary; just make sure your Teaser *actually* teases.


Prologues suffer from all the problems Teasers can have (hence many writers having trouble with distinguishing them), plus three more:

6. The prologue starts the story too early. We all know the adage, “start late and finish early” – but writers of prologues forget this all too frequently. A prologue’s main point is NOT splurging backstory all over the place, but providing the catalyst to COMPEL characters to face the conflict in the main story. The prologue should give those characters NO CHOICE IN THE MATTER. This is why the prologues I mention at the beginning of this post are so great. As an audience we are left with the belief the characters cannot do anything else but what they do, because of what happened “before”.

7. Events end up “backwards looking”. I read a lot of spec Horrors and Thrillers in which characters – particular female protagonists – have something terrible happen to them in a prologue that is supposedly “character building”. We will return to these terrible events of the prologue over and over as that character seeks to overcome them, in order to deal with the threat in the so-called “present”. As a result, events of the “past” vie for attention with events of the “present”. This rarely works, a) because to assume a tragic past is necessary to be “strong” is dreadfully limited characterisation  and b) because forward momentum is lost for the “present” (read: more important) events.

8. It breaks the characters open too easily. Being a catalyst, a prologue is primarily a PLOT device, with the added bonus of offering an opportunity to present certain character flaws, especially in the protagonist (but not always). Remember the complacency of Dr. Malcolm in The Sixth Sense? Or Fry’s cynical lack of regard for the other passengers in Pitch Black? Or Marlin’s optimism and subsequent neuroticism in Finding Nemo? All are presented with the consequences of their feelings in the prologue within the main story, yes, but crucially they are NOT put under the microscope in the prologue to do so.

So, your prologue is generally NOT for examining character motivations in depth. However, prologues also have another function which is always neglected by spec scripts and illustrated best by JURASSIC PARK: prologues offer a way of present long-running plot elements throughout the main story.

In Jurassic Park, that long-running element is the threat of the velociraptors. Secondary character Muldoon is present in Jurassic Park and is obviously not the protagonist, yet the JP prologue illustrates just how dangerous the (unseen) velociraptor is, which is in turn underscored by Alan with the skeleton and the little boy at the archaeology camp just moments later. Later we are reminded of the threat of the raptors again: first when Grant holds the new hatchling, then again at the enclosure at feeding time with that unfortunate cow. Muldoon’s demand over whether Nedry has disabled the raptor fences is further signpost on how dangerous the raptors are, as the conflict really kicks in. And then finally, in the resolution Muldoon is despatched by  them; plus the raptors attack Ellie, the children and then all of them and Alan together, before finally the T Rex saves the day.

Summing up then: The prologue offers an “introduction” to characters and the story, but is subtly different to a Teaser. Instead, the prologue is a “springboard” – either presenting long running plot elements and/or a character’s POV that must be turned on its head … Characters are catapaulted from one situation INTO another: out of the frying pan and into the fire, if you like.

So that’s:

Teaser – usually something intriguing, which often sets up/poses a question, which is then answered by the script.

Prologue – usually some sort of plot element that acts as either a catalyst for the “main event” (ie. the characters would not be in *this situation* without it) or it foreshadows another important element that plays throughout the main event.

Good luck!

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3 thoughts on “What’s The Difference Between A Prologue & A Teaser?”

  1. Nice breakdown. The only thing you might consider adding is that the primary function of a teaser is to hook the audience’s curiosity right off the bat so they become mentally involved in the setup to follow. (Sometimes with a flash-forward: Fight Club, Iron Man, for example.) This is very helpful when a story requires a long setup and the storyteller fears the audience may lose interest before the inciting incident. A prologue contains a past event the audience needs to know in order to fully understand the meaning of later events. Removing the prologue would damage the story. Removing a teaser would not. Because of this, I personally would consider the opening of Jurassic Park a teaser. It could be removed and make little difference to the plot. However, since the audience is not shown any dinosaurs until around the 40 minute mark, JP needed something to hook the audience’s curiosity early to make sure they stuck around.

    1. Good points well made ScriptMonk – are you also bulletproof? 😉

      I don’t agree timing is everything when it comes to prologues: though they are frequently set “before”, they don’t have to be. My understanding of prologues says it’s not about time so much, as catalysts and connecting them to the main action … hence my thought in the post about “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. The crash in PITCH BLACK happens in the “present” and really has little to do with the “main event” – everyone getting nommed by the monsters – other than the fact the crash marooned the survivors on the planet in the first place (and without it, there would be no movie).

      So whilst prologues do more often than not reference past events, I think scribes get hung up on the past element, rather than the catalyst element … which leads to many of the aforementioned issues of the post, but ESPECIALLY the notion of the character who can handle the main action because s/he had a traumatic past.

  2. A great definition of “Prologue” comes from… “An introductory part of a play or literary work. The main purpose is to provide some background information that is important for the current story or text. The prologue provides information about the characters and their backgrounds that is necessary for us to understand the story we are about to read” (see).
    As it is used to explain background, sometimes it is a scene set in the past–there is a short example of that in style in One True Thing, but often it is a voice over by the main character.
    A recent television example was Outlander – background voiceover by “Claire”
    We Are Marshall — perfect prologue example when “Annie” does a moving voice over of the impact of the crash on the town while showing scenes of “the fountain”
    Elizabethtown – the “fiasco” explained in a voice over by “Drew Baylor”
    While You Were Sleeping – opens with a short flashback of Lucy’s sad childhood
    The Sopranos pilot had a psuedo prologue… it doesn’t come right at the beginning, but it moves into a prologue-like feel when he’s at the shrinks office the first time, where we learn via voice over of his background–what he’s feeling and why he’s there… in a shrinks office–of all the unacceptable places for a mobster to be, which lays the groundwork for the show’s entire premise, so in that sense, it’s a sorta-prologue.
    American Hustle is a tricky one, because it’s a begin-in-the-middle movie with a prologue as well. We begin in the middle where we are afforded a shot of the movie’s best throw open the doors scene, accompanied by Steely Dan’s Dirty Work, to be re-played later when they later arrive back at the middle. Then we move into the prologue that not only provides backstory on the main character, comb-over Irving and his rough and tumble upbringing, but also gives us the fabulous shot of oh-so-sultry co-lead bikini and fur clad Sydney while “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” plays in the background, setting time, style and tone. Interspersed with the prologue voice overs by Sydney AND Irving accompanied by Duke Ellington, where we learn Sydney’s stripper come Cosmo girl backstory.
    Ooops… almost forgot the classic, American Beauty, poor Lester

    The “teaser” I view as merely an advertising function to bring those unfortunate enough to not have DVR back after the commercials.
    The prologue is of value to the reader/viewer, but as Scriptmonk eluded, removing a teaser removes nothing from the story. Teaser: an advertisement meant to arouse curiosity sometimes by withholding part of the material information.

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