The last of us has one of the most powerful storylines in the games history. Not only is the development of the relationship between Ellie and Joel almost flawless, but the structure of the story draws attention to itself: a prologue and four acts divided by the seasons that always end up with a shocking event that leaves a hook for the next act. No wonder that the game is considered one of the best (if not the best) developed by Naughty Dog, the same developer of the successful series Uncharted.
The success of The last of us and the wave of emotions that the game provokes in the player makes an analysis of its elements obligatory. In this video, we’ll talk about prologue, story structure and take some lessons on narrative hooks.
Most writers often criticize the use of prologues. Elmore Leonard himself said that the reader is interested in the story and that this interest is compromised when the author makes use of a prologue … and also an introduction and a preface and a long dedication and I don’t know what else. I agree with him in parts. A mechanical prologue that is just there to fill up space can make the beginning of a book actually boring and drive away the readers before that event you wrote with a smile on your face because you knew it would catch them. I’m sorry, but you missed your chance.
It’s advisable for your story to have an event that catches the attention right away.
The prologue, however, can be an excellent tool if you know how to use it. In the right situation, it can even serve to make your story a puzzle. For this purpose, you must introduce a mystery at the beginning, perhaps a mysterious character and a murder that will be solved throughout the story. Take Watchmen as an example. The story begins with the comedian being murdered in his apartment by a mysterious figure. Then we have Rorschach investigating the case that will be an important piece for the puzzle created by Alan Moore.
Create a mystery in the prologue that will be solved throughout the chapters.
Another way to use the prologue is to make the reader eager for what will come next, as the promise of an element that will keep him reading. It’s what George R.R Martin does at the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire. As I read on a website once, it takes hundreds of pages for the magic to appear in Westeros, so Martin introduces the Others to us in the prologue of Game of Thrones as a promise that the magic will be there. It’s a good tip for anyone who writes stories that cherish a good atmosphere before a really important event happens.
You can also write a prologue that links to the end of the story, the beginning actually becomes the end. Think about Fight Club. We start with Tyler putting a gun in the Narrator’s mouth on top of a building, with no idea what they’re doing there. Then the Narrator guides us to the beginning of everything, his pathetic life, how he meets Tyler Durden, the creation of Fight Club and all the events that lead them to the building from the beginning. This creates a mystery that makes the reader wants to know how the hell things ended up the way they are described in the prologue. It is the same structure used in other books by Chuck Palahniuk, by the way, as Invisible Monsters and Survivor. I recommend reading both of them, in case you haven’t read yet.
And finally, I would like to speak about that prologue that tells us an event from the past that is important to the rest of the narrative. It’s a very common prologue, used in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as you may remember. And it’s the kind of prologue masterfully used in The Last of Us.
If you don’t remember, the opening scenes of The Last of Us show Joel and Sarah, father and daughter, together on a couch. It’s Joel’s birthday and his daughter bought him a present, a watch she gives him. Sarah ends up sleeping, Joel takes her up the stairs and puts her in the bed. Sarah wakes up in the middle of the night, finds her father downstairs and the house is invaded by an infected person who is murdered by Joel. They flee and end up being cornered by a soldier, who shoots towards them and kills Sarah. And the prologue ends that way, with Joel holding his dead daughter in his arms.
Years later, Joel lives in a colony of survivors and became a cold person, marked by the death of his daughter. This is the wound of the character, a theme that I will dedicate an essay soon. It’s given to him the mission of escorting out of town a girl named Ellie, he refuses at first, but ends up accepting. And this is where the element responsible for the success of The Last of Us comes in: Joel and Ellie relationship evolves in spite of the differences in the beginning and Ellie becomes a kind of daughter for Joel, a substitute of his dead daughter, Sarah.
The prologue presented at the beginning leads us to feel the pain of Joel and create even more sympathy with Ellie when it becomes clear that their relationship is moving towards a father and daughter relationship. And when we get to the end of the game, when Joel gives up a cure for humanity so that he can continue with Ellie, with him carrying her in his arms and seeing a weapon aimed at them (here we have a kind of visual rhyme, by the way), all we can do is applaud this incredible work of Naughty Dog.
Use the prologue to present a particular event from your character’s past that will link with the future of the narrative, making the reader remember the beginning when the main element of your story be explored.
The prologue to The Last of Us also presents us with symbolic elements, like the broken watch Sarah gives to Joel and he continues to use years later. When he puts her to sleep, Joel calls her “Baby girl.” And when he finds Ellie in the cannibals camp and hugs her with all the emotions flowing from both characters, he also calls her “Baby girl,” showing how far the relationship between them has come.
Use the symbolism and create rhymes throughout the story, like the way Joel calls her daughter at first and then calls Ellie in the same way, a way for the game to indicate that she has become a kind of daughter to him.
As you can see, the prologue might become a big attraction for your story. You can create mysteries with it, a non-linear narrative and even introduce symbolism and visual rhymes. Now, the next time someone tells you that prologues are not supposed to be used, you can present stories that use it masterfully, and perhaps present your own story.
Are plot structures worth it?
The Last of Us is narrated through four acts concerning the seasons of the year. It’s the same structure used in the movie Juno, whose likeness to Ellie, both in appearance and in clothes and personality, makes me wonder if Naughty Dog would have been inspired by the film. Inspiration or coincidence, this structure works very well to set the game and add hooks at the end of each act.
For example, at the end of the first act, we have Sam’s death and Henry’s suicide. In the second act, we have Joel suffering an accident and getting very sick. In the third, we have Ellie killing David with repeated hacks of a machete and then crying in Joel’s arms, when it becomes clear to us what level their relationship has reached. In the fourth and final act, we have Joel sacrificing a possible cure for mankind so that he can continue with Ellie by his side. As you can see, every act has endings full of emotion.
Regardless of the structure you choose for your story (whether you’re going to choose a pre-existing structure or tell a story based entirely on intuition), it’s important that you have emotional plot-twists, appealing for surprise elements, like Sam’s infection and Henry’s suicide) or empathy with the characters (like Joel and Ellie embraced after David’s death).
Of course, if you choose to create your own structure, this doesn’t mean that events need to follow a linear order, as in The Last of Us. You can innovate, abuse of nonlinear structures, blend past and future into the narrative, and amaze the reader. The important thing is that you have powerful plot-twists that appeal to the emotional side and surprise the reader with an unexpected event. You can do that by giving “false clues” that lead the reader to expect another type of hook.
Know the story you wanna tell, decide whether it will have a free or pre-established structure, and use hooks that will keep the reader with you.
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