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7 On Structure: Top Heavy


SPOILER ALERT: 28 Days Later / Resident Evil/ 28 Weeks Later

Forgive me Bloggers, for I have sinned… It has been FIVE days since my last post on structure… How can you ever forgive me, especially you Dublin Dave?! 😛


Have I mentioned this screenwriting malarkey is like a house of cards? Oh yeah, I have. And also one of those tile puzzles where you move ’em around to get the pic. Oh, I’ve likened it to a jigsaw too, right right. I could say it’s also like a dress: get your measurements wrong and you aren’t going to the ball Cinderella — but hey, “We get the point Lucy!” I hear you all scream: it boils down to this – get one thing wrong, everything else goes wrong. Wow. Sure glad we had this talk, cleared all those issues I was having with my draft right up…

…What you mean there’s more?! Damn right. So I’ve already talked about structure meandering, which is heavily related to what I call The King Lear Draft in particular but also (and maybe even at the same time) The Top Heavy Draft, which just like Dolly Parton, has so much up top that it falls flat on its face (maybe it should be called the DP draft? Hmmmm).

In direct contrast to those drafts then where Act One is brilliant but the rest runs out of steam (we could do with a name for those too btw: any thoughts?), The Top Heavy Draft does not tend to start well. Usually there is a mountain of black on the page and usually (but not neccessarily) the reader will be introduced to a plethora of characters, story threads, observations of arena and dialogue that does not really go anywhere, sometimes disappearing altogether. Sometimes The Top Heavy Draft on this basis will dive, head first into WTF? Territory; other times it will just be confusing or worse, deathly dull. Whatever the case though, there is just one reason why a draft like this happens.

The writer has started too early.

Like all screenwriting terms, “start late and finish early” has become so much part of our collective consciousness via the osmosis of the teach-yourself-screenwriting industry via internet, books, TV and whatnot that we writers think we’re doing it even if we’re not. One reason for this I think is that writers don’t know what their story is properly, but I’ve posted about that before here. The other thing however is, I think writers fall in love so much with their characters and/or premise that they are no longer fit to rule the world they have created and must abdicate immediately for fear of bringing death upon their draft. (Finally: this is what this post is actually about. Halfway down the page you find this out – start late and finish early? Ahem. But please stay with me.)

The writer who produces a Top Heavy draft (usually) mistakes the notion of Act One’s “Set Up” as “setting up character” when really, “Set Up” refers not only to characters but the situation/s they find themself in. If you consider a film like 28 Days Later, we hit the ground running first with a little prologue with the Animal Activists letting out the infected chimpanzees to establish how the virus got out into the open; we never see those Activists or indeed Chimps again and nor do we need to – in short, that bit was solely about plot. We then cut to Cillian Murphy’s character waking up in hospital to find he is alone in the world. Or is he? As he wanders through destroyed London, we the audience are taking the journey with him: what the hell happened? As the audience we are privy to the information about the virus which he isn’t of course, but even so, we’re unsure of what that prologue *exactly* means until he is faced by the mentalist Priest in the chapel and is rescued by the girl with the parang knife and Mr. Curtis from Holby City. Niiice.

I think this is an excellent set up and it’s something its American counterpart Resident Evil shares. A similar premise but based on a computer game, again we are taken on a journey with the characters at the same time as plot: the marines enter The Hive, we are introduced to the Umbrella Corp, The Red Queen, the fact that Alice cannot remember if she is the spy who betrayed the cop’s sister and is she *really* the wife of James-Black-Beard-Whatsisface when her wedding ring is “property of The Umbrella Corp”? Whether you like Resident Evil or not, I believe like 28 Days Later (a film I eminently prefer) it presents a very neat set-up, bringing forth everything that is needed to pay off later, so as soon as you hear the zombie dragging the axe behind him when the marines open the doors to the labs by re-setting The Red Queen, you just “know” we’re being catapulted head-first in Act 2.

Compare both these set ups then with 28 Weeks Later. Apparently this film had some considerable difficulties from the outset in terms of development and I think it shows. In contrast to the first film, we’re treated to a lengthy prologue and meant to think that this film is about Robert Carlisle’s character. And I suppose in a way it is, since he ends up the main antagonist going after his children (even though the rest of The Infected are entirely indiscriminate whom they go after IN BOTH FILMS but hey ho), but why do we need that prologue to go on so long? We need to find out that Robert’s character is a coward. Okay, but couldn’t we have done that in a much shorter time? Or did we even need to, especially since he lies to his children later about their mother’s “death” WITH flashbacks AND their mother is found in their old house and speaks so could counteract his story?

In comparison then to both 28 Days Later and Resident Evil, I believe 28 Weeks Later starts way too early. This not only affects plot (in that we’re wondering “why” certain things are happening), it affects pace (how can a scene in which the army is firing on civilians and Infected be dull? Yet I thought so), it also bleeds into character: why does the wife say she still loves Robert Carlisle when he left her to die? Or was it on purpose so he would kiss her? Equally, for me the sacrifices Scarlett and Doyle make to save the children lose impact, since we haven’t spent enough time with them to care about them – or even know who exactly they are. Why is Scarlett so honourable? Why does Doyle desert his post? Had the lengthy prologue at the beginning been chopped off, all of these instances could be addressed. Without looking back into the past, we could still see Robert Carlisle’s character is a coward, thus meaning forward-looking momentum is established, so pace picks up; without loads on the past in the first instance, Doyle and Scarlett could be established as characters, so their sacrifices resonate.

The Top Heavy draft. Start too early and bore your reader or audience.

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21 thoughts on “7 On Structure: Top Heavy”

  1. In 28 Days Later we had that amazing scene where The Infected at the petrol station all go up when the other two rescue Cillian Murphy. That was amazing.

    In 28 Weeks Later, they burn so many Infected that by the time Doyle gets blasted too, we’re like “Meh”.

    You can have too much of a good thing. If by “good thing” you mean setting stuntmen and women on fire alot. But you know what I mean.

  2. I reckon 28 Weeks Later was an Aliens rip off but without any of the fun stuff or the save-the-kid believability. Shame tho, cos I loved the first one.

    Luv Mike

  3. Hey boys. You actually agree on something, I’m scared! ; )

    Funnily enough, I have it on very good authority that originally the little boy was going to be called NEWTON. I kid ye not.

  4. I kind of can’t believe anyone wd use 28DL as a GOOD example of opening. The prologue in the biotech lab is completely unnecessary and horribly played and written.
    If we began with Murphy waking up WITHOUT that prologue, then the audience wd be much closer to his state of mind. If we had a differnet prologue in which we saw Murphy’s accident, we’d REALLY be in his state of mind: a character we know a little (standing in for us) finds himself in a deserted London and has to find out what’s happened.
    What’s worse, this vastly preferable version could have been assembled from the exact footage used in the film.

  5. d – Looks familiar no doubt since this problem often links v heavily to the notion of meandering structure as I say in the article, unless you mean something else?

    David C – original prologue’s not the best in the world but don’t we need some explanation about where this virus has come from? Else it just comes out of nowhere and you gotta pay it off in dialogue somewhere – YUK. As for having a different prologue where we see blokey’s accident, I’d have to disagree – his accident has nothing to do with the main thrust of the narrative, which essentially is: he went to sleep. Wakes up and everything’s gone to shit! Who cares why he was in a coma? Not me – he was a courier or something wasn’t he? Whatever anyway. He was in a coma. Wakes up and the world is destroyed. Damn.

  6. I needed some sort of explanation for the virus, I liked the contrast then when we go from the hysteria at the lab to Cillian waking up and finding he’s all alone. But wasn’t keen on second film.

  7. Hmmm, think I’m gonna have to go with Dave c on the 28DL opener. The biolab sequence is pretty horrible stuff. Not strong, and not really necessary.
    It would have been FAR better just to go with CM waking up and finding a deserted London. That way the audience would have been full of questions and intrigue. As it stands, we go, “oh right, it’s the bio horror they let out. Got that- and?”
    Yes, the zombi- sorry, *infected* (nudge, nudge) turning up comes out of nowhere- but that’s GOOD. We have had suspense built up, tantalising questions- and BAM, in yer face action.
    They have to explain *exactly* what has happened via dialogue, anyway, when CM meets up with the other survivors (the panic in the crowds at the airports etc). Everything could have been tucked in quite painlessly with those conversations- conversations which might double up to shed light on character (also, a few more visual cues dotted around deserted London at the start – abandoned bio-isolation gear, bio-hazard signs etc – would have ratcheted up the suspense as to what really had happened, AND provided enough of the same information we get from the monkey lab opener).
    I do firmly agree with Lucy, though, that they shouldn’t have opened with CM’s accident. It isn’t really relevant, but also would have painted the film as something it’s not, in a tonal sense.
    I’m a great believer in the notion that you should set out your genre stall rigth up front, establish your rules and flash your credentials. If you’re offering up a scifi horror film, give us a hint that we aren’t in a “real world” – doesn’t have to be anything more than a flash, but it has to be there (for me there’s nothing worse than getting 20 mins into a detective thriller, and the writer goes, “oh, y’know, the guy who was decapitated on page one- he’s not really dead, COZ HE’S A ZOMBIE DECTECTIVE!” sod off, you lazy cheat). A bog standard bike accident doesn’t do that. Waking up in deserted London *does*. Audiences are genre savvy enough to understand what sort of film they are in from that.
    Mind, I’m not as fond of the film as so many other people are.
    I know they had a lot more money to stage it, but I prefer the first few pages of the recent remake of “Dawn of the Dead” which shows an absolutely nerve-shredding “End of the World Via Zombification” with great economy, and very subtle intitial hints (as Sarah Polley leaves her shift at the hospital, for instance, paramedics wheel in back past her a thrashing “victim” lashed to a gurney)

  8. “I’m a great believer in the notion that you should set out your genre stall rigth up front, establish your rules and flash your credentials”

    Now that’s interesting, since I think the prologue does exactly that – yes it’s daft, but then I took it as a homage to zombie films of the past and the girl going I’M BURNING like Wicked Witch of the West in Oz – in other words, your notion that this isn’t a “real world”, it’s all a bit silly, etc etc. And aren’t prologues a convention of zombie films in general anyway [yes I know they’re Infected, not nec Zombies but close!]? Resident Evil has one too with the lift. And didn’t Evil Dead have one?

    As for those conversations about what happened, I didn’t think they were expositional so much as a revelation of character – and Mr. Curtis’ talk of what happened at Paddington I thought was great BECAUSE we didn’t see it… They tried to recreate that scene in our sight in the second film when they lock all the survivors in that room and I didn’t think it worked.

  9. The teaser in Days gives an energy shot to the film up front and creates a dramatic irony – we know the infected are gonna jump out at some point, and Cillain doesnt, so it increses the suspense. Trouble is, as Dave C says it’s badly done.

    that said, the film would have worked either way – maybe they should have started with the words “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere” 😉

    i liked the teaser for Weeks tho, and again, dramatic irony – the kids don’t know that dads a wrong ‘un. Too many protagonists tho, and HUGE problems of credibility.

    Which begs another question – if these problems are obvious to a casual audience, then surely the filmmakers would have noticed? Is it just a case of script development being a low priority?

  10. Yes Martin, that’s how I feel about Days too re: suspense. And I can see why David C doesn’t like it. So I kind of agree with everyone. I suppose I like the *idea* behind it.

    In this same way then I like the notion that Robert Carlisle’s character is a big fat coward – it’s a nice differentiation from your average “hero” cos even anti-heroes are usually brave (or such nutters they do brave things). I also like the fact the kids don’t realise – why would they? But I hated the fact we needed so much time devoted to this aspect when really it didn’t matter that much in the long run since once he’s Infected he’s not really any different to the rest of the threat – even though magically he manages to keep himself under control in order to follow them when EVERYONE else who’s Infected is too mentalist to do that.

    But in answer to your thoughts on script development, I would say that it was a low priority thing, not the fact they didn’t realise.

  11. I still think 28 Days Later starts too early. I hate the prologue, because it’s unnecessary, over-explains what ultimately doesn’t need explaining at all, and casts an admittedly very funny comedy actor is a serious role that undercuts the whole frickin’ scene.

    I liked 28 Weeks Later though, found it properly horrific. But you probably could have lost the prologue.

    To hijack the thread a little, do The Infected actually kill anyone on screen in 28 Days Later? The obvious answer is yes, loads of people, but…

    None of the activists die on screen; Blokey from Holby gets killed by her from Pirates 2 & 3; Brendan whosits gets killed by soldiers; various soldiers get infected but not killed/killed definitively but by Jim; Christopher Ecleston’s fate is unknown. Not particularly positive, admittedly, but unknown. Could die, could get infected.

  12. 28 Weeks Later had to rely on extra gore like the Mum having her eyes pushed in ‘cos it couldn’t deliver on real horror and suspense. And I thought the point of first film was the infection and its spread, you do essentially “die”, right? There’s no turning back like with the T-Virus in Resident Evil? And whilst I’m here, why are we talking about ONE part of 28DL that wasn’t that great when the WHOLE of Resident Evil was crap? Apart from Milla in her lovely red dress of course. Tasty.

  13. 28DL didn’t need the prologue at all. It was just Alex Garland’s attempt at trying to stress to us that it wasn’t really a “zombie” movie despite what we might think. As the audience generally just went “Yeah, whatever – get back in your box, Alex!” it didn’t really work. Anyway, having the prologue didn’t stop them including the interminable exposition scene in the sweet shop where, if I remember, they explained it all again.

    Starting with Jim waking up in the hospital would have been fine. Worked for Wyndham in Day of The Triffids after all. “Night of the Living Dead” didn’t open with an explanation of the zombies either. I can’t remember if “The Omega Man” had a prologue explaining the war and the plague – I don’t think it did as I seem to recall buckets on rooftops being the opening scene.

  14. Sorry Anon, looks like they still want to go over the prologue scene in 28DL and not tear apart Resident Evil. I didn’t think it was *that* bad, thought it was a laugh – but then I think all zombie movies are a laugh and don’t expect much of them, since they’re all pretty samey… Even if Alex Garland writes them and says it’s different. Which actually it wasn’t, as Tim The Dragon says. I mean, what can you do with some dead/infected guys and gals anyway? They’re not as “transferable” plot-wise as vampires and werewolves I reckon, who as supernatural beasties have their own motivations, personalities and whatnot which dead people…don’t. Or am I wrong?

  15. Tom (formerly Dragon)

    In terms of structure, the prologue in Resident Evil was far better than 28DL because it relates to the rest of the film. It sets up the Hive, it shows the “serum” and introduces us to some of the later obstacles (dogs, water, the “AI”). I didn’t mind RE that much – not as much as the horrendous sequel anyway.

    Oh, and it’s Tom, not Tim.

  16. Oh, don’t – “My name is Alice and I remember everything”. Hmmmm let’s make it non-linear just to pretend it’s not actually as bad as it really is! Fantastic.

    Tom The Dragon, of course. Tho obviously you’ve just changed your profile in the last hour to fox me, I didn’t misread it. *ahem*

  17. In the 28DAYS commentary you can hear Alex Garland saying that he was really panicked about exposition and so the prologue was his attempt to “get as much of it out the way as possible”. I think we all know what’s wrong with that: the audience will be interested in exposition only AFTER they’ve been engaged by active questions. Staging the exposition in terms of a conflict beween animal liberationists and security guard at least allows it to emerge as dramatic conflict, which is good. But check out any Romero zombie film to see what happens if you don’t explain up front. The answer, to my mind, is that everybody gets much more interested in the goings on.
    Oh, and agreed that Cillian’s job isn’t greatly important, but I think it MIGHT be nice to start off learning something about our hero. Ordinary Bike Courier wandering about deserted London, baffled, is more compelling to me than Complete Stranger doing the same.

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