The Power of the Prologue Scene and the Reflective Epilogue in Indie Films
There is a storytelling technique I’ve noticed in several successful independent films released in the last few years and that I find extremely efficient; I call it the prologue scene and the reflective epilogue.
A prologue is defined as a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work.
An epilogue is defined as a section or speech at the end of a book or play that serves as a comment on or a conclusion to what has happened.
Through Whiplash, Short Term 12 and The Way Way Back, three indie films that have in common to have used this technique and to have received a lot of attention (andI’m not implying that these two facts are related), I’m going to explain what are the characteristics and benefits of the prologue scene and the reflective epilogue.
The Characteristics of the Prologue Scene
Just like in a good old epic novel, the prologue scene in a film is here to give you a taste of what you’ve just signed up for and, if well done, make you surrender to the story, giving it your full attention.
Here are its characteristics:
- #1 – The prologue scene stands alone. It’s a self-contained scene that has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a story within the story.
- #2 – The prologue scene reflects what’s to come. It hits you in the gut by amplifying the chore emotion of the film, giving you the essence of what’s to come.
- #3 – The prologue scene lays down what the film is about. It shows you the main characters, the dynamics and gives you sneak peek at the film’s theme. (man vs. man, man vs. God, man vs. self, man vs. Society, man vs. Supernatural, man vs. Technology)
The Benefits of the Prologue Scene:
I’ve seen three clear benefits of the prologue scene so far:
- #1 – The prologue scene immediately pulls the audience in. And this makes so much sense. Just like we’re advised to make the first ten pages of our screenplay particularly engaging, making the first few minutes of our film extra powerful gives so much more leverage afterwards.
- #2 – The prologue scene calls for an epilogue. We are wired for closure and going full circle. Even though this is not how it happens in life, we like to have an ending. Having a clearly defined opening makes it that much easier to create a reflecting closing scene. The epilogue scene shares some of the prologue scene’s characteristics. It also allows the audience to easily reflect on the heroine’s journey and see what has changed. As you’ll see below, the three films use this technique, counterbalancing their prologue scene with a reflective epilogue.
- #3 – The prologue scene makes it easy to remember the journey. This is particularly true if you’ve used a reflective epilogue (see point just above). If your prologue scene is strong enough, people will remember it. If they remember it, they’ll easily remember the reflective epilogue. Once they can open and close a story, they can easily fill up the gap. This is why The Way Way Back is in this article. I had issue with the story, but I remember reacting positively to the prologue scene that stuck with me, and just because of that powerful prologue scene, I can pretty much go through the full movie until landing on the reflective epilogue. Whereas I will have a hard time telling you the opening scene of other indie films I enjoyed more as overall stories, but didn’t have the prologue/reflective epilogue structure.
The Prologue Scene and the Reflective Epilogue in Action: Short Term 12, Whiplash and The Way Way Back
One thing that is important to note: the prologue scene in, at least, Short Term 12‘s case wasn’t initially written as the opening scene. What became the prologue scene in the editing room was only the sixth scenes in the screenplay Destin Cretton submitted to the Nicholl Fellowship, which he won in 2010.
It’s hard to tell for Whiplash and The Way Way Back because the screenplays made available are not the shooting version.
Please note: *SPOILERS AWAIT* If you have not seen these films, consider doing so before going further. I am talking about both the prologue scene and the reflective epilogue.
Short Term 12, written and directed by Destin Cretton
– Page length in the screenplay: 5 and 1/2 pages
– Time on screen: 4 min 30 sec
– What happens: Morning minutes before going to work. Mason tells an anecdote to Scott, who is new on the job about what happened to him when he started working, under the kind supervision of Grace and Jesse, who have heard the story a million time before but still enjoy it. That is until Mason is interrupted by Sam, a young kid leaving the house like a bullet, screaming like a mad man, and all the adults try to caught Sam before he leaves the premise.
– What the scene does: introduces the main characters, introduces the place – which is a character in itself, and introduces the tone of the film. From that scene, it’s obvious within five minutes that humanity is central. This is about stories with unpredictable endings, in a world where peace only lasts few minutes at a time. The anecdote also organically foreshadows a future scene that wouldn’t make sense otherwise.
– Reflective Epilogue: We end the film exactly where we started, in front of Short Term 12, and yet everything has slightly shifted. This time, Mason and Grace tell the anecdote together. Scott is no longer a newbie, he is at ease and participates. But Sam still interrupts the peaceful moment running like a bullet, because it’s still Short Term 12 after all.
The Way Way Back written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
– Page length in the screenplay: 3 pages
– Time on screen: 3 minutes
– What happens: Duncan sits in the truck of a car surrounded by summer props, facing the road and looking utterly depressed as, Trent, his mum’s boyfriend goes on a mission to humiliate him while his own daughter and Duncan’s mum sleeps in the car.
– What the scene does: introduces the main characters, introduces the time the story takes place (summer holidays), introduces the problems: Duncan is alone, has a self-confidence issue and hates his potential step-father who is an asshole. We also learn what’s at stake (this summer will tell if they are becoming a family or not).
– Reflective Epilogue: We end the film exactly where we started, in the car leaving the summer house. But this time, Duncan’s mother sits next to her son, in the truck, leaving Trent alone in the front of the car.
Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle
– Page length in the screenplay: 2 and 1/3 pages
– Time on screen: 3 min 30 sec
– What happens: Andrew plays his drum in an isolated room in a school building. Fletcher, an intimidating figure pops up and asks Andrew to perform after a few exchanged filled with tension. The scene ends with Fletcher leaving the room and Andrew alone, with a sense of failure. We understand that Andrew is a hard working boy, and that Fletcher is the one in control.
– What the scene does: introduces the main characters and their dynamics. Introduces the world the story takes place (music school). We understand that Andrew is a hard working boy, and that Fletcher is the one in control.
– Reflective Epilogue: We end up in an amplified version of where we started: with Andrew behind the drum set and Fletcher ‘conducting’ the scene. But this time, there is a band, there is an audience and Andrew is the one in control of the “dialogue”.
And that’s about it. I hope you found it helpful!
Any other films that comes to your mind using the prologue scene and reflective epilogue? Please share below, I would love to discover more films using this technique effectively!