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5-Act Play Structure: Prologue

Jennifer Mendez Writer's Resources

Last week, we covered the 5-act play in a general fashion: the prologue, conflict, rising action that leads to the climax, falling action, and denouement. This time, the focus is the prologue, where everything is set in motion, and in the case of a short, basic 5-act play, characters hit the ground running.

Prologues Should Set Up Action

The things that set up the prologues seem simple enough. They introduce the characters, give you a setting (time & place), and establish sympathy where sympathy is needed. However, that’s just basic bone structure. There’s much more to be read (or heard if you’re watching the play). There is often meaty content to be found between the lines, sometimes hidden in body language, and actions leading to other actions, like a domino effect. Other times, there’s no secrecy at all, and everything is spoon fed to the audience, for a reason.

For instance, the prologue in Romeo & Juliet tells the audience everything. It details the setting, the two opposing houses, and how the play will focus on two star-crossed lovers who will die. It says it blatantly, so the audience knows that the two lovers will suffer a terrible fate, no matter what. They’re meant to die, and no one can change this fact. It solidifies their death as completely unavoidable. Meanwhile, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s a love triangle, but it is made clear that Demetrius once loved Helena. The seed of possibility is planted in the mind of the audience, where perhaps the four can lead to two healthy, loving couples. But nothing is made certain that this will be the outcome. This fact, however, leads to speculation from the audience, and one of the founding bits of information that leads to a final resolution (hence, the domino effect).

Why Does It Matter?

It may seem rather elementary, providing information here and there, hinting at intervals, but all in all, it does matter. Without this information, without these potential possibilities, there would be less enthusiasm from the audience.

Plays are very much about getting the audience to want, or expect something, but in the end, they come out feeling something instead. People expected Romeo and Juliet to die, from the very beginning, but when it happened, they were devastated, and made it into one of the most famous and successful plays of all time. People wanted Demetrius to love Helena again, so when he does, and they have a group wedding, it became this very heart-warming, “all is well,” sense of satisfaction.

Different Styles Produce A Different Effect

A prologue that details what will happen can seem counterproductive, and to some, it very much can have that effect. However, the intended purpose is so that the audience can focus not on what they can expect, but on the overall message. When Romeo and Juliet died, the audience knew that would happen, but they felt devastated. They felt that the opposing families were to blame, and took a gem of wisdom home with them: discord and grudges don’t revolve around just you, they affect everyone around you, and have the potential of destroying something that could lead to beauty. More so, something as beautiful and foolish as young love has the power of bringing their elders together. One expects the elders to always be wiser. This conveys that age is but a number, and to be wise, one has to break the mold, and want  to see.

A prologue that simply focuses on setting and characters, but doesn’t foreshadow anything will have an opposite effect. Suddenly, the audience won’t know what to expect, and may either begin speculating on their own, or try to glean insight from the pauses, the body language, the tones of voice, etc. It will give them more work to do, and at the end, all will have a different interpretation or insight on the events of the play.

Are There Any Best Practices?

The best practices are those that fit the play the best it possibly can. If you were to write a tragedy and withhold the outcome, or any expectations, from the audience, but rather, dove into character dynamics, then what would happen? The audience would invest themselves in the character dynamics, the one thing they have to go on. They may not even know it’s a tragedy. It could cause shock value at the end, or perhaps, even intense pity, where need be.

If you didn’t withhold the outcome, the audience wouldn’t focus on what they know, but rather, they would consider why there is such an outcome. Romeo and Juliet’s death wasn’t the important part, it was the union of the two families. It was that it took something of that magnitude, to get them to open their eyes.

Ultimately, it is up to you which feelings you want the audience to have. That is what theater is all about: emotion. Do you want the audience to focus on a deeper message, or the character outcomes and arcs throughout the play? Do you want them to laugh early on, or at the end? Will you set up the prologue so each moving part leads to an explosion of events at the end of the 4th or 5th act, or will you spread the events throughout?

Summary

Prologues may be considered simple enough, a way to give the audience basic information. But it’s meant to be so much more. Don’t underestimate something that has the potential to essentially manipulate your audience to be on one person’s side, versus another’s. After all, you are the puppet master.

Next up in the breakdown of a 5 act play:

Conflict in a story

prologue 2 - literative

About the Author

Jennifer Mendez

Jennifer Mendez has brought insightful articles to Literative.com. From author interviews to how literature meets gaming to expert insight into tools and writing processes, her dedication to helping our author community is quite inspiring. You can find more of her writing at jennifermendez.com.