Back in June, I saw the new Pixar movie Brave, and I enjoyed it a lot. A couple weeks ago, I watched it again at home and sat up straight in my chair with amazement at the first ten minutes. Why?
The movie has two prologues!
I’ll say it again, because it completely flabbergasted me… The movie has two prologues!
That shouldn’t work, right? A prologue should be one set-up sequence at the beginning of the story, then we should move right into the rest, right?
So what was Brave doing with a prologue scene of Merida’s birthday, followed immediately after the title card by a voiceover prologue? And even more mystifying, why does it work?
First, let me explain the purpose of a prologue. Whether your story is a book, movie, or other story medium, you want to set the tone right away. What’s this story going to be like? Your first chapter or first scene is your first impression, so it’s got to set our expectations. I call this a prologue, whether it’s labeled “Prologue” or not, to remind myself that it’s my opening measure. Like Beethoven’s 5th symphony beginning with a strong motif that will be built on throughout the entire piece, we want to give a hint at where this story is going.
With Brave, we begin with a scene showing Merida’s birthday, a happy time in her relationship with her mother, and a quick introduction to wisps. The second prologue shows us what things are like at present. Family relationships are strained, and the magical wisps are nowhere to be seen.
Imagine what would happen if we didn’t have that first scene. We’d jump right into the conflict, right into Merida and her mother arguing. But Brave is about mending relationships, not about how Merida can get free of her mother, so we need that first scene to show us how things were and should be. That’s not where things are now, though, or we wouldn’t have a story, so we also need to see an introduction to the current situation. That’s where the second prologue comes in.
And because we’ve had the introduction to their relationship during a happy time, we understand both Merida and her mother in the montage of princess training. Without that first prologue, Merida’s plight would feel like her mother’s fault, but we know from the first scene that they do love each other. Therefore, we give both viewpoints credence.
So how can you use this? Well, my first advice is to remember that this is a special situation. Most of the time, the typical single prologue is plenty. But if you’re working with a story about getting back to how things used to be, this might be exactly what you need. Watch out, though! When you do something this unconventional, you run the risk of confusing your audience. Make sure you test it before you declare your story finished.