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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Organizing Event

Ah - autumn in Los dusty Santa Ana winds and half the town is on fire again. Well, the fire is in the Valley but still...

The Santa Ana's create a strange atmosphere - literally. Not just the increased dust and the bone dryness of it, not just the palm fronds that litter the streets, it's a mood, something that descends upon Angelenos like a stealthy Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Here is a passage from Joan Didion's essay "Los Angeles Notebook":

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

Now think about your script. Your comedy, thriller, horror, drama - genre doesn't matter. What is it that is inexorably descending upon the characters in your script like a hot, uneasy wind? What is making the maid sulk and the baby fuss? What is not quite right in your fictional world?

The organizing event is closely related to be not exactly the same as the ticking clock. The organizing event is what set that clock to ticking in the first place. The organizing event may have occurred on page negative ten, page negative 25 or it can happen on page one. It can be what everything is racing toward on page 75. The organizing event can be a national spelling bee, a devastating earthquake or the arrival of the aliens.

The organizing event is the sometimes ephemeral, sometimes quite clear event that is pulling everyone and everything toward itself in your story. It can be the event that sets everything in motion - but it can also be the event that everything is racing toward. The organizing event can be something that happened on page negative ten which set everything in motion so that on page one, as we jump in late, the effects are felt.

In JUNO the organizing event was Juno's pregnancy. In DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR it was the theft of the car at the top of the script. In RAT RACE it was the race - not the getting to the money on time, that's the ticking clock, but the race itself. In REDS it's the Russian Revolution. In SUNSET BOULEVARD it's the murder of Joe Gillis. In THE GRADUATE it's Ben Braddock's recent college graduation. In MEMENTO it was the murder of Leonard's wife. In JAWS it is the first shark attack. In DONNIE DARKO it's the jet engine falling into the Darko house. In THE RAINMAN it's the death of Tom Cruise's father.

So give this some thought, Wavers. What is the organizing event in your script? If you aren't sure, ask what the ticking clock is and then pause and think about what set that clock to ticking in the first place. Having an organizing event can illuminate what your negative page ten (recent back story) is. It can ensure that your ticking clock is organic and powerful. It gives your characters something around which to gather, strive for, avoid, or fight against. Like the Santa Ana's, it's something in the air, something which has descended upon your fictional world which makes extraordinary decisions and actions necessary.

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1 comment:

Anthony Peterson said...

A very interesting post Julie. In my current script, I have given considerable thought to the distinguishing the "inciting incident" from the "organizing event". Whilst the two are connected, I defined my inciting incident as the one which not only sets the ticking clock, but launches my hero on the biggest challenge/change of his life.