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
- CUE TITLES
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.
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.