Dissecting an Amazing Prologue

Posted on Posted in Commentary, Writing

I’m not going to advise you on prologue strengths/weaknesses. Instead, I want to dissect one of my favorite prologues in any type of media—the first five minutes of The Princess’s Man—and talk about why it works. The Princess’s Man is a 24-episode Korean historical drama (sageuk) that aired in 2011, and you can watch it legally, for free, with subtitles on DramaFever.

I’m going to limit my discussion to elements that can be replicated in prose, so I won’t talk about the music, actors, acting, lighting, etc. I’ll be focusing on the events, characters, and stakes—all of which you can do in your writing. (And which you should establish quickly, whether or not you have a prologue.) Go watch the prologue first—I’ll be waiting for you when you’re done if you can stop there.

…you ready? Let’s break the prologue down to its key components:

The prologue begins with Gim Seung Yu on a mad horseback ride in the dark. He is clearly injured—and he is being pursued, though he does not seem to know it. Elsewhere, other people are getting slaughtered.

blood

The title cards reveal that this is 1453, when Grand Prince Su Yang framed Gim Jong Seo and his faction for treason and killed many of them.

Shin Myun reports to the Grand Prince and his cronies. The Grand Prince mentions that Seung Yu still thinks Shin Myun is a friend, so they can use that connection to track down Seung Yu’s father, Jong Seo.

betrayal

Seung Yu reaches the safe house and rushes inside to see his injured father. Before they can leave the house, the Grand Prince’s cronies arrive. Seung Yu takes up a sword to defend his father, but his previous injuries mean he is quickly defeated. Jong Seo is struck down and then dies while reaching for Seung Yu.

reach

Something happens off-screen and Seung Yu ends up on his back. As he falls unconscious, he flashes back to previous events. His father, the Grand Prince, Shin Myun, and a young woman we haven’t seen before feature prominently. The title card announces that the story has jumped back an entire year—and the story begins with the young woman, Lee Se Ryeong.

girl

The main reason this prologue works so well is that it leaves you with a lot of specific questions about the events, characters, and stakes:

  • How did Seung Yu and Jong Seo get hurt? Were they injured in separate incidents? If they weren’t, how did they get separated from one another? Where was Seung Yu coming from?
  • Why was one of the Grand Prince’s cronies spattered with blood? How many other people have been killed in this purge? Are there any survivors?
  • When did Shin Myun become loyal to the Grand Prince? How long and to what extent has he been betraying his friend Seung Yu?
  • Who is the young woman Seung Yu remembers as he falls unconscious?

Whatever the answers to these questions are, the stakes are clearly a matter of life and death for the characters involved. If you can dredge up a little sympathy for people framed for treason and murdered in the night, a betrayed friend, or a son who saw his father cut down in front of him, you want to know what happened.

But there’s another layer going on here, if you know your Korean history like the target audience did. The Princess’s Man centers on the rise to power of Grand Prince Su Yang/King Sejo, who—despite killing a lot of people (including his nephew) in order to take the throne—is remembered as one of Korea’s great kings. In other words, the bad guy will end up winning.

Even if you don’t know the history of these events, the importance of this massacre still comes through thanks to Seung Yu being the POV character. The viewers know that, no matter what plans he makes or victories he experiences over the year prior to this night, Seung Yu is going to end up helpless and bleeding on the ground. Despite this, the how, when, and why of it all is practically irresistible.

But the one thing that truly cemented my love for this prologue is that it subverted my expectations. Most prologues in this style end up sampling from the climax of the work, so you end up waiting for the climax for far too long. By the time you get there, chances are the prologue has been sapped of its strength or people have already figured out what the fallout will be, so reaching that scene is neither as exciting nor as dramatic as it was the first time around.

When I first watched this prologue, I assumed that this was how the show was going to end. What could possibly top this terrible massacre and Seung Yu’s defeat?

The purge started in episode 7 and ended in episode 8. I was floored. What I had assumed would be the climax of the story was instead the close of Act 1 and the start of Act 2. By subverting my expectations of how the prologue related to the rest of the story, The Princess’s Man surprised and delighted me. I thought I knew the very worst the show could throw at me—and I was wrong.

What other books/tv shows/movies/etc. have had good prologues? Why did those prologues work for you?