Trope Explorer #2: Action Prologue

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

The Prologue can be a trope in itself, but one subset of The Prologue trope is the Action Prologue.

An Action Prologue, as defined by, is:

An Action Prologue starts off with something exciting happening immediately. Right at the beginning, the hero is sneaking around an enemy base, being menaced by a threat, or something similarly exciting. In some cases this is foreshadowing. The event may be a minor one, but related to a major plot point that we don’t discover until much later. It could be a dream sequence, where the hero sees something threatening that later shows up for real. It could be the Establishing Character Moment for our badass Action Hero. Or it could be something completely unrelated to the main plot at all, used only to make sure that something exciting happens right at the start.

The reader opens your novel and the very first scene is an action scene. Your MC is being chased by the bad guys; maybe they’re on horses, or driving souped up cars, or dare-devil flying in spaceships.

The scene is awesome. You worked really hard on the scene, even did research. But at this point, if the reader doesn’t know your characters, they don’t care.

My Thoughts

An Action Prologue can be a risky first scene to start off your novel with. If not done right, the reader just experiences your ability (or inability) to write a fight or chase scene, without having any connection with your characters. But if done right, this can be the opening scene that ignites your reader’s interest into the rest of the story.

Using an Action Prologue to Engage New Readers

  • An Action Prologue Should Be Appropriate to Your Genre
    • Sure, there’s subgenres and niche genres where anything goes, almost, but if you’re intention for your story is to write an epic romance with some action, make sure the action pertains to the rest of the story. If you’re trying to write the next Pride and Prejudice, an Action Prologue may not be the best fit. Unless you’re going for the next Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
  • If You Promise Action In the Beginning, the Action Should Continue
    • You may be able to gain the attention of your reader with an Action Prologue, but if the action doesn’t continue throughout the story, or at least be present in The Climax, then your reader may very well feel duped. Think, Checkov’s Gun, in terms of narrative.
  • If the Reader Hasn’t Met Your Characters Yet, They Won’t Care
    • The action may be interesting, but the reader doesn’t know your characters. Writing an Action Prologue isn’t just about introducing the action immediately into your story. You’re also introducing your characters to the reader. When you’re writing the Action Prologue, a glimpse of who your characters are has to show through, as well, otherwise the opening scene is just an empty action scene, with nothing real for your readers to become attached to.
  • Be Careful What You Reveal
    • As an opening scene, an Action Prologue can be a glimpse into the current lifestyle or situation of your character at the beginning of the story. Or, it can be a glimpse into The Climax of the story, or at least the climax of the action. So, when you write a prologue revealing some of the action of the climax, be careful about what you reveal. If your villain is a part of the action, make sure any Plot Twists you want to save for later in the story don’t bleed through. Revealing a Plot Twist in the first few pages of the novel can lessen the impact of the Plot Twist later on in the narrative.
  • The Rules Change for Sequels
    • Most people don’t go out of their way to read a series out of order, so by the time your readers pick up your sequel, they’re most likely attached to your characters. For sequels, an Action Prologue can be a great way to take the readers right back into the action, so to speak. With sequels, you have more room to play. Use the opportunity to put a fan favorite in mortal danger (thereby insuring that your readers continue, but, like, in an evil way) or use the Action Prologue as a way to indicate that your characters are continuing on as usual, getting into trouble and/or fighting bad guys.

Action Prologue in Popular Culture

  • If I remember correctly, almost every Star Wars movies starts off with a fight or chase scene in space, making the visual Action Prologue a staple of the Sci-Fi genre.
  • The Indiana Jones movies are also known for their Action Prologues, starting each movie with Indiana either escaping or fighting off some bad guys.
  • Many military thrillers or action thrillers will have Action Prologues. A few examples are Tom Clancy novels (pick one, you’ll probably find an Action Prologue) and several books in the Pendergast series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

Writing Prompt

Write an Action Prologue where you weave in some characterization, and maybe even a Plot Twist, without revealing too much. Either write it as if it’s part of the first book in a series, or write it as if it’s sequel. Notice the differences in how you write the Action Prologue at the very beginning of a story, compared to when your writing for a sequel.

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