The Mummy - Prologues

Summary of this month’s movie:

In 1926, Evelyn—a librarian and aspiring Egyptologist—gets a box and map that lead to Hamunaptra, the city of the dead. She and her brother Jonathan find Rick, the American adventurer who originally found the box, and make a deal with him to lead them to the city. There, they encounter a group of treasure hunters, as well as Ardeth Bay (who’s never actually named in the movie, I believe), who warns them away. Of course they don’t listen. Instead of finding the book she’s looking for, Evelyn stumbles upon the mummy of Imhotep, who we saw in the prologue. Meanwhile, the treasure hunters discover the Book of the Dead, accompanied by canopic jars carrying preserved organs.

At night, Evelyn reads from the Book of the Dead aloud, accidentally awakening Imhotep. WHY? WHY ALOUD??

Everyone goes back to Cairo, including Imhotep, who returns to full strength by killing the treasure hunters. Our daring trio meet Ardeth, who believes Imhotep wants to resurrect his lover, Anck-su-namun, by sacrificing Evelyn. Evelyn believes that if the Book of the Dead brought Imhotep back to life, the Book of Amun-Ra can kill him again and deduces the book's whereabouts in Hamunaptra. When Imhotep corners them, Evelyn agrees to accompany Imhotep if he spares the rest of the group. Shockingly—he is the villain, after all—Imhotep does not honor his word, Rick and the others fight their way to safety.

Back in Hamunaptra, Rick, Jonathan, and Ardeth locate the Book of Amun-Ra. Imhotep prepares to sacrifice Evelyn, but our heroes defeat mummified priests and free her. Evelyn reads from the Book of Amun-Ra, making Imhotep mortal, and Rick fatally wounds him. Ardeth bids Rick, Evelyn, and Jonathan goodbye, and the trio rides off into the sunset.

Carly: So somehow I never saw this movie. I think I saw the sequels though? Very strange of me. But I loved it! It’s campy, goofy, fun, and also really good. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which I think is the best part. It’s just a fun adventure movie with lots of action. I could’ve done without the scarabs crawling inside people’s skin, but other than that I was definitely in. There were quite a few times where I was like “Umm, but that doesn’t make sense” or “why would they do that” but that is sort of the fun of these silly action adventure movies. I don’t really have much to say, it was generally fun and enjoyable, that was about it for me. But maybe It’s just because I was viewing it from that whole “oh the past, how unintentionally problematic. Now isn’t this scene fun?!” kinda way. What’d you think?

Jeni: This is probably the best version of The Mummy. The protagonists are all charming, even Jonathan, who’s more than a bit of a weasel. The scale is grand, with the special effects--which hold up better than I expected honestly--and gorgeous sets. It’s just a really fun adventure movie. It’s really cool that they included some little easter eggs in homage to the older movies too, which I caught because my husband is a horror movie buff and we’ve watched a lot of those old monster movies. The name Imhotep is from the old Universal movies, and there are some key scenes like the corpses emerging from the ground and the guy who’s lost without his glasses. The biggest thing I struggled with are all the stereotypes and cliches, particularly about Egyptian history, and the general praise of looting cultural artifacts. Of course I wouldn’t expect this movie to frown upon imperialism or make a stand on repatriation, but I also couldn’t help thinking about it as our heroes still manage to make away with a ton of Ancient Egyptian “treasure.” So Carly, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?

Carly: Prologues. This is one thing I see a lot in my editing and that authors always have a lot of questions about. Prologues get a bad rap because people who work in publishing see a lot of unnecessary or ineffective prologues. So I’m excited to talk about prologues and how writers can use them well. Here’s what basically happens in the prologue: we start in Thebes, Egypt, 1290 BC, high priest Imhotep has an affair with Anck-su-namun, the mistress of Pharaoh Seti I. Imhotep and Anck-su-namun kill the Pharaoh after he discovers their relationship. Imhotep flees, while Anck-su-namun kills herself, believing that Imhotep can resurrect her. Imhotep and his priests steal her corpse and travel to Hamunaptra, the city of the dead. The resurrection ritual is stopped by Seti's bodyguards. Imhotep is buried alive with flesh-eating scarab beetles. He is sealed away in a sarcophagus at the feet of a statue of the Egyptian god Anubis and kept under strict surveillance by the Medjai, sworn to prevent Imhotep's return.

Jeni: Yes, agreed. I love that this prologue really helps humanize the antagonist. My favorite antagonists are often those whose motivations we can really understand and empathize with. Like, Imhotep just wanted to be with the woman he loved. As much as this movie doesn’t get into the fact that the heroes are stealing cultural artifacts, it also sort of skims over how Ankh-su-namun is enslaved. The only clue we get that she didn’t have any choice is the fact that the pharaoh wouldn’t let anyone else touch her. Also, I’ve mentioned here before that I’m not usually a fan of voiceover, but I think it was employed really well in this case. It allowed the prologue to be short, which is one of my criteria for a good prologue. Other criteria: we need to have some idea right away how it’s relevant to the overall story, but it’s fine for it to only hint at that. Usually this means showing us the main character, but I think seeing the antagonist can work well too. It establishes a tone for the rest of the story, as well as introducing important themes. It also transitions well into the first chapter. You want a prologue that hooks the reader, but then Chapter One also needs to have a strong hook. It’s important to note that a prologue will still need to engage the reader's emotions as well. Lastly, it needs to provide information that really can’t be shown/told effectively in any other way in the story.

Carly: Exactly. Prologues are tough, but sometimes they fit the story so well, and I think this movie does that. First of all it fits the tone of the movie where a voiceover narrator sets up the story with the prologue. It gives the whole movie a legend-like feel that fits with the adventure theme. Secondly, like Jeni said, it introduces the antagonist. I love understanding the antagonist, and honestly I was kind of rooting for them the whole time. Once you understand someone’s motivations it becomes easy to empathize. And this prologue gives us empathy for the antagonists. But what is really important here: we couldn’t really learn this information in another way. The only possibility would be the “modern day” characters finding writings about what happened, but that would only be from the perspective of the Pharaoh, and it wouldn’t be accurate at all or contain any of the heart. It is very clear how this whole prologue is relevant to the rest of the story. Without the events in the past, the events in the present can’t happen. Without the prologue, there is no antagonist. This prologue also hooks the viewer because it brings us to this ancient place full of soaring pyramids, golden set pieces, and intense action. It is immediately gripping and full of love, death, and special effects. But when we get into the rest of the movie, we’re hooked by the life and death stakes in the present day, the romance brewing, and all the books crashing down in the library… or was that just me? This prologue engages our emotions by having us connect with the antagonist, it hooks us with action and glamour, and it sets the legendary tone for the rest of the adventure. This prologue adds suspense to the rest of the story because it lets us know something we couldn’t know otherwise: the antagonist’s motivations. And for this story to be effective, we need to understand that piece.

Jeni: One question I get a lot from authors is, how do you know if your story needs a prologue? This is one of those things that can be really hard to determine about your own story. When I’m editing, I definitely take into account the criteria I discussed earlier. But some of that is just about whether the prologue is working, not whether a prologue is needed. And yes--please sit down because this might shock you--I have even been known to recommend adding prologues to some clients. I know, I know. So, one reason you might need a prologue is to show something that’s really important to the main story but doesn’t take place in the main timeline. One prologue I often use as an example of how to do it well is The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones. In this prologue, we get to see the main character with her father, who has died by the time the main story begins in Chapter One. But this relationship between these two characters is incredibly important to understanding our protagonist’s motivation and really just her life. Showing a bit of that relationship in the beginning allows the author to “show” not “tell” why this relationship is so important and pervasive in the main character’s mind throughout the rest of the story. Another way prologues are sometimes used is to jump ahead to a pivotal moment in the story. This piques the reader’s interest and makes them wonder how the main character gets from where they are in Chapter One to this moment we see in the prologue. These are best when the moment we see in the prologue is not quite what it seems, that there’s a bit of a twist to it. Sometimes you can also deliver information from a point-of-view the reader may not see again in the rest of the novel. This is common in thrillers, where we may see a scene from a victim’s point-of-view so the author can show the crime as it happens, even though the detective/main character isn’t present. For me, it really comes down to exploring if there’s another, more effective way to get the information to the reader. If you’re considering whether or not you need a prologue, make sure you’re thinking about this from all different perspectives and really considering alternatives. For example, most backstory is best told as breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the story, just little bits of information that build up to lead the reader down the path to understanding what happened. We don’t usually need to see backstory shown as a full scene. When we do, sometimes it’s better to show it as a flashback later in the story. Then there’s a type called an epigraph that’s a poem or quote that hints at information and sets the tone but is very short. A great example of this one is Children of Blood and Bone. As we’ve said here before, it all comes down to the impact you want the scene to have on the reader. How and when you reveal information is one powerful tool in your toolbox. Basically, there’s an unspoken contract that you, as the author, will honor the reader’s expectations. When you use a prologue, you’re breaking the contract with the reader to some extent by asking them to orient themselves to the story twice. So for a prologue to work, it has to be strong enough to make that worthwhile.

Carly: Exactly, a prologue needs to be worthwhile. My main rule when it comes to prologues is: does this add suspense to the rest of the story? Think of that allegory of two characters talking but only the reader knows there's a bomb under the table. What can the prologue do that adds something to the rest of the story, that makes the rest of the story more compelling.That could mean a peek into their future, into a villain POV, etc.You essentially have to hook and ground your reader twice, and that’s hard to do even once. So if you’ve determined that you need a prologue to add suspense to the rest of the book, and there isn’t another way to do it, then by all means, write a prologue! Determine a scene that will color the rest of the book. It needs to alter your readers’ view and interpretation of the rest of the book. Find a scene that will affect the rest of the book but is also compelling in its own right. We still need to be moved through the scene with action and forward momentum. Things still need to change and happen, we still need to form a bond or connection with the characters (unless it is more of an epithet). Basically, make it do double duty: show stuff about the main character, the world, the forward momentum, but also give important information and subtle foreshadowing, etc. that alters the rest of the story.

Jeni: Okay so, like Carly mentioned at the beginning, editors see a lot of prologues that don’t work. Sometimes these are prologues that are needed but need to be reworked. So those might be too long, need to do double duty so it’s setting the tone too, etc. More often, the prologues just need to come out altogether. Some I’ve seen like this are basically an info dump-style history lesson. These give an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the world. They’re most common in epic fantasy or science fiction. Usually something that takes place in a secondary world, which means it’s all completely fictional. Or sometimes the sole purpose of the prologue is to hook the reader or make up for a boring Chapter One. Likewise, if a prologue is only there to set up the world or atmospheric vibes, it probably isn’t an effective prologue. Something else I see sometimes is a prologue that really has nothing to do with the main story, or alternately, the reader has no idea how it might connect to the main story until really late in the novel--which, let’s face it, by then, they’ve probably forgotten the prologue altogether. So just really consider the function of your prologue and, again, if there’s a better way to do that.

Carly: So how do you fix a broken prologue OR what to do with the backstory if you take the prologue out? If you are trying to fix your prologue, make sure it has forward momentum. That is usually how they fall flat, they are just information that you are passing along to the reader, they aren’t a story. Your characters need to move through a scene that will impact the rest of the story. So you need to make sure it is actually a scene, albeit a short one. Add in action and make your characters active in the scene. In this movie, so much happens in the prologue, it is a mini story in its own right. There is tension, stakes, action, suspense, and an ending (albeit a temporary one). Once it is a scene in its own right, find ways to make it grip your readers and compel them to read on. It is your chance to dazzle your readers. So give them something that shows them where your book is going and the tone of your book. Is it a murder mystery and you’re showing a limited view of the murder? Is it a villain’s POV that sets up the rest of the story? Is it a moment that explains exactly who your main character is and how they will react throughout your book? All of these moments will set the tone of the rest of your book, but they are high-impact scenes that catch your readers’ attention. And then make sure you transition into a chapter one that is just as compelling so that it doesn’t feel like a let down. If you’ve decided to dump your prologue, then you need to find a way to convey that backstory more naturally in the rest of your story. It all comes down to peppering in that worldbuilding and backstory. Have your characters come across information, let your readers learn with your characters. Or have your characters interact with stimuli that allows you to fill the prose with information that the reader needs. There is actually part of the prologue in this movie that could’ve been cut. We actually get almost two prologues. We have the first one that shows the antagonist, but then we have a secondary one that shows Rick first discovering the tomb or temple. It shows that the tomb is dangerous, that Rick was actually there, and it introduces some characters. But for the most part, it is an info dump. We don’t need to see his experience at the tomb, because we learn about it through the action of the main story. We see his interactions with his old friend that was at the temple with him, the whole plot of the story is that he had been there so could guide them back, and we are reintroduced to all the characters later. You could almost completely lift that scene out and show us the same information as they became pertinent in the main storyline. It is a perfect example of both a phenomenal prologue and one that could be cut. Which is impressive for one movie.

Carly: This month our query also sounds like it has a lot of suspense. Jeni, what are your thoughts on this query?

Jeni: Wow, this story sounds amazing. There’s a great balance of giving us the information we need to understand the plot, stakes, and character’s motivations but then really teasing us with hints of more to come. I feel like this query really embodies something I tell authors a lot, which is that queries are more like writing for marketing or advertising than writing a novel. I think that’s at the heart of what makes writing queries so hard--in a lot of ways, it’s a totally different skill set from writing books. For me, this query does its job. It makes me want to read more of this book. In other words, I call dibs.

Carly: Well then, I don’t even get a chance to call dibs. I was being too respectful of letting you talk about the query. Next time, I’ll just call dibs before you can even talk. Anyway, agreed! This query is a great marketing pitch. It sets up a lot of mystery, without giving too much away, it connects us to the main character, and it shows a lot of tension and stakes. My only criticism is that it mentions spooky vibes, but I don’t really see any hints of that in the query except for one line where it mentions eugenics. Which… definitely bad and spooky. But I wanted the query to deliver a little more on tone. But that would just take this query from great to fantastic. As a note for authors: when you comp something and are saying it has X element, you want to make sure that that element is also reflected in the query. If the story is “laugh out loud funny” the query needs to have humor to reflect that. Don’t make them take your word for it that it has that element, show them that it does.

Announcement

Jeni: Okay, so is it time for our big announcement now?

Carly: Yup. Do I get to say it? We are starting a Patreon! This will give our listeners an opportunity to support the podcast and also to deepen their understanding of the elements we discuss on the show.

Jeni: Yes! I’m especially excited that it means we will get to start sharing the queries and blurbs we critique on each episode. That’s something a lot of listeners have been asking for, so I’m really happy we’ve found a way to provide that.

Next month, we will be watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We will also have another query or blurb critique. If you want your query featured on the podcast, you can find the details about how to do that on our website or Twitter page.
You can also find our podcast on our website, storychatradio.com. Or you can follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or many other streaming services. While you’re there, please leave us a rating. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @StoryChatRadio.

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