Artistic research on script development and feedback

Siri lecturing at "Seriedagene" (annual symposium on serial drama) in Oslo, september 2023.

My artistic research focuses on the poetics of the screenplay, creative processes, screenwriting methodology and feedback as a phenomenon.  In my current artistic research project, Writing the Writer, the biographical drama will be explored within the context of screenplay methodology  and alternative scriptwriting processes.

In my recent research on feedback culture I explore the possibility of creating more informed feedback environments, in the field of screenwriting and also in educational screenwriting programs. In recent years, the number of professionals participating in mainstream script development has greatly increased and current development settings are characterized by virtual choruses of contributing voices. 

While individual “script-doctors” have been used in Hollywood since the 1930s (Bordino, 2017), processes in today’s development industry have been likened to “an intricate dance […] during which the various parties controlling the script present their ideas for how the screenplay should be modified” (Hansen & Herman, 2010, p. 121). The outcome can be a collaborative chaos through which screenwriters must navigate. 

Also, script development, especially in the film field, tends to stretch out in time, keeping projects in the limbo of uncertainty for years rather than months. As a result, professionals in the field refer, as a matter of course, to the concept of “development hell”. The term may appear flippant, but it also gives associations to agonized artists exposed to conflicting opinions and orders from “bad-guys” in the shape of self-serving development executives with disparate agendas.  More about this research can be found under Articles and Texts.

Articles & texts 

Den intrikate dansen, et blikk på tilbakemeldingskultur i film og seriefeltet. NMT 2022.

Formatting the Imagination,  a reflection of screenwriting as a creative practice, Journal of Screenwriting.



by Siri Senje


A poet only learns his intention after the poem is completed, for if he knew what he meant to say before writing the poem, the poem would already be written.




In this article, I argue that there are significant aspects of the genesis of original screenplays that are not sufficiently acknowledged in the development field and in screenwriting programmes. It is a widely accepted practice that screenwriters produce formatted prose documents, predicting the details of their screen stories, before the writing of an actual first draft is initiated. This predictive methodology  plays down the invention that takes place in the moment of writing, and de-emphasizes such aspects of creativity as improvisation and the accessing of subconsious resources – widely assumed to be significant in the genesis of creative works. This article foregrounds screenplay writing as creative writing practice and points to alternative approaches to the writing process. It draws on the author´s practice-led research and extensive practice as a stage director, script consultant, teacher and screenwriter. Referring to a case study, I ask whether certain improvisation techniques used in theatre rehearsals can be adapted to a screenwriting process and suggest how structured improvisation may be a road to discovery in the writing of original screen fictions.





Between 2011-2013, I completed a doctoral fellowship project named Imagining for the Screen, the Original Screenplay as Poiesis (Senje, 2013) at the Norwegian Film School. The project was partly a methodological study, partly an investigation into the possible autonomous status of the screenplay. The two themes are closely related, as the genesis of an original screenplay text clearly has bearing on how the status of that text is defined.

The main task was to write two original screenplays using contrasting methodologies; one within the conventions of the development field, the other in an alternative context. Each process would be documented and analyzed after completion. Another goal was to publish the two original screenplays, an assertion of their assumed status as autonomous fiction texts[1].


With the first screenplay,  Days of Winter, I followed the traditional chronology of  planning documents like synopses and treatments, with a strong emphasis on story and structure. The screenplay was written with financial support from the publicly funded Norwegian Film Development (now the Norwegian Film Institute). Through interactions with that consultants, producers, and director, Days of Winter was exposed to what is known as a Screen Idea Work Group (Macdonald 2010)[2] and I produced a number of drafts based upon the feedback received. This process has been documented in a video essay named Sculpting for the screen - the story of the making of a story (Senje, 2012).


For the second screenplay, September, a contrasting method was to be designed. The framework of the academy and the fellowship presented a unique opportunity to choose my method independently. Craig Batty has defined the practice of screenwriting as research as

a practice in which the screenwriter makes use of the intellectual space offered by the academy and those within it to incubate and experiment with ideas, the intention being that their processes or screenplays – or both – change as a result.

                                                                                                (Batty, 2014:3)

Informed by the analysis of the first writing process, I intended to choose specific tools for the latter. Since I had previously practised for 20 years as a stage director, I also carried a wish to activate existent knowledge of creative processes from the theatre field. In the second half of this article, I describe my experiment, in which improvisational techniques from the theatre were a source of inspiration. 


The Norwegian title of the project was Å dikte for film – original-manuskriptet som diktverk. For lack of the evocative word dikte/diktning in English (Dicthung in German), I borrowed here the word poïesis from ancient Greek. An act of poïesis is an act of making, of bringing into the world something that was decidedly not there before[3]. The Norwegian verb å dikte is usually translated with ”to write”, but denotes more specifically the act of making up or inventing. Further, the activity of diktning can be conceived of as something taking place in-the-moment: One can easily envision a writer practising her art by writing, a composer as sitting by her piano, composing, a painter wielding her brush; all as ”acts of creation” taking place in the moment. It is precisely these moments of creation and the actual, physical writing process that are the primary concern of this article.


Aristotle, when describing a dramatist at work, envisioned the ideal creative process and its practitioner as follows:


In constructing the plot and working it out with the proper diction, the poet should place the scene, as far as possible, before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the utmost vividness, as if he were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is in keeping with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies. (…) Again, the poet should work out his play, to the best of his power, with appropriate gestures; for those who feel emotion are most convincing through natural sympathy with the characters they represent; and one who is agitated storms, one who is angry rages, with the most lifelike reality. Hence poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness. In the one case a man can take the mould of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his proper self.

                                                                                           (Aristotle, 330 BC, Ch. XVII)


The writer here described appears to be envisioning the actual, physical scenes of the dramatic work whule writing them down. I believe, like Aristotle apparently did, that much of the work of poïesis of a dramatist happens by the keyboard, in the momentary act of writing down what is envisioned in the theatre - or movie theatre - of the mind. Assuming that screenwriting can be defined as a creative writing discipline, this practice surely is its essence.


By using the term original poïesis, I also meant to move the emphasis in screenwriting away from technical terms like structure  and development and into the world of art, in which concepts like creation and invention are paramount. No doubt, the strong emphasis on technique and craft in the field has been an important factor behind the marginalization of the screenplay text as a venue of individual expression ( see Price 2011: 42-44, Boon 2008: 3-35) and the negation of the screenplay as a work of autonomous artistic worth.  A central premise for my research, then, was that anything with the ambition of becoming a work of art must be built at least in part upon acts of original poiesis; of bringing something new into the world.


The film field habitually defines filmmaking as a practice balancing between art and industry. Unfortunately, the terminology of industry has long since conquered the terminology of art in the audiovisual world. While a prose text or poem is something its author writes, a screenplay today is something a a screenwriter develops, or even more passively, has in development - the latter usually indicating that funding has been given and a Screen Idea Work Group (SIWG) is engaged. Thus, we habitually speak of new screenplays as if they were industrial products, not something the writer invents, creates or even makes. Obviously, the industrially oriented vernacular also affects the status of the actual textual ”product” (it would be unusual to speak of a novelist developing her latest work). 


Within this article I will refer to original screenplay works only. I will define and treat screenwriting as a creative writing practice and leave aside the discourse on whether the screenplay is a rule-bound planning construct for a film or an original, creative work. Rather, I build these reflections on my belief – much discussed in my earlier research – (Senje 2013) that some screenplays are works of autonomous worth on the same level as stage plays or novels.  The recurrent calls for originality and ”films with a personal voice” would also seem to point toward that definition. Teachers, producers and even authors of prescriptive handbooks frequently encourage writers to probe their own psyches for ideas and personal material ( Seger 1999:31, Rabiger 2006:15). This would contradict the popular belief that directors are the sole ”authors” of films and that their writing partners are storytelling technicians rather than co-authors or ”poets of images” (Pelo 2010: 113).  



Some years ago, I had the privilege of attending a Master Class, arranged by the Norwegian Film Institute, with renowned screenwriter Jean Claude Carrière. The five days turned out to be a practical exercise in the development of screen ideas through improvisational thinking. To this game, our teacher applied the following rules:

·  On the second seminar day, each of us was to bring an idea.

·  The ideas must contain a catalyst and serve as starting point for stories (in other words, themes or characters were not allowed).

·  To know one´s storyline or specifically, the ending, in advance was strictly forbidden

Sitting in a circle, twelve professional screenwriters dealt, collectively, with one idea at a time. The ideas were close to what I would call, my screenwriting classes, inciting incidents. We imagined out loud, proposing the various chains of events, twists and turns, that could have developed from a particular situation or dilemma. Intermittently, our revered teacher also decribed at length how his screenplay work with director Bunuel relied heavily on such an introductory, improvisatonal processes, in which the two spent a period of isolation in their own world of imaginative exchange, frequently trying out, in a physical manner, the situations that were explored. A main credo of Carrière´s, repeated throughout the workshop, was that  “a synopsis can only be written after the film is made”. How else would the writer´s imagination be able to do its work?  


Carrière´s aversion to the pre-written synopsis foregrounds the role of the associative, subconscious mind in the writing of screen fictions. Although he never criticized, nor mentioned, prescriptive methodology or practices, his lessons clearly contradict the predictive, structure-oriented approach of the development field and of screenwriting manuals. In other words, the mehodology of the arguably most revered of European screenwriters runs counter to not only what has been named the doxa or the gospel of the development field (MacDonald 2011, Millard 2006), but also to the common methodology practised by development agencies, producers and in screenwriting programmes. In all these contexts, the practice of predicting one´s screen story in prose, first as a synopsis, then as a treatment, stands firm[4].



As a seasoned gatekeeper and script advisor, accustomed to reading and evaluating projects solely based on synopses, I found Carrière´s teachings a significant corrective. In European film culture, including the country in which I practise, professional screenwriters routinely seek funding for their writing work through producers or development programmes similar to that of the Norwegian Film Institute (NFI) where I worked as a script consultant. A universal norm is that written material in the form of a four to six page synopsis is submitted before a contract can be signed or funding granted. In the standard contracts between the Norwegian Writers- and Producers Guilds, price tags for synopsis, treatments, and first drafts are specified, indicating a default chronology of the work process. Further, after having submitted the required synopsis, the screenwriter is commonly required to rewrite it several times before being allowed to move on to the next formatted document, the treatment. A treatment may be an extensive prose document, describing the screenplay´s action and structure scene for scene, required to include “everything but the dialogue”. Treatments, which may number between 20 and 40 pages, are, like synopses, frequently rewritten several times. Thus, most screenwriters work within a strictly formatted development methodology and are required to produce a sizable number of planning documents in prose before they begin practising the text genre they specialize in, namely, the multi-dimensional screenplay form that the making of a film actually requires. The passionate dramatist of Aristotle´s description is barely visible in our present-day development field.


The need to pre-plan and predict is, not suprisingly, a driving force of an industry.  One might conclude that the financial and practical constraints of a costly and frequently subsidized, art form, manifest their presence from the very outset of a creative process, whether funded by public or private money. However, whether the methodology, and the activity of the multiple SIWGs it generates, actually produces higher quality screenplays, or is even useful if the goal be original and interesting works, is uncertain. That these proceedings are so rarely questioned is surprising.


In examining current practices, I choose to call these conventions of modern screenwriting practice the Set Stage Chronology of Documents. As a link in the chain of a creative process, the practice has a paradox at its core, which might be named the paradox of predescription: How can the screenwriter describe a work that does not yet exist, or exists only as an idea - “a piece of clay to be formed” (Senje 2012)? A novelist would hardly be expected to compose a summary of her work before the writing process began; nor could one imagine Henrik Ibsen working out a treatment for his psychological thriller, Hedda Gabler. While principles of structure, composition and other aspects pertaining to form – such as dramaturgy – are commonly studied and applied in all artistic genres, the dominant practice of the Set Stage Chronology of Documents is unique in that it prescribes, step by step, the how of the individual screenwriter´s process, indicating that such processes are not diverse and unique, as creative processes are commonly thought to be. During my years at the NFI, I regularly had screenwriters guiltily asking whether it was possible to drop the treatment and start directly on the screenplay itself (and whether this would mean receiving less grant money). These writers probably sensed that the production of a detailed prose document might mean leaving little to discover in the writing process itself. 


The point here is not to claim that technique, planning and narrative structure are unimportant aspects in writing for the screen. Rather, it is to take issue with their dominating position and default status in development, teaching, and screenwriting literature, at the expense the process of invention taking place by the keyboard as a writer envisions a multilayered fiction written specifically for the screen. Just as right and left brain processes complement each other, pre-planning and associative writing are not necessarily incompatible. The question is, rather, what kind of planning is done and what alternative roads one can take in mapping out a screenplay process.


Leaving room for creation-in-the-moment might be especially important when working with an intermediate text type like the screenplay, in which words are written to be translated into action, images, sound and emotional subtext on the screen. A completed screenplay has a multi-dimensional form which is unusually complex (Sternberg 1998: 232 - for an analysis of such texts, see: 65-220). Most often, the screenplay text will contain the six elements of the drama outlined in the Poetics (Aristotle 330 B.C. Ch. XI), namely plot (mythos), character (ethos), words (lexis), thought (dianoia), visuality (opsis) and sound/rythm (melopoeia). The complex format demands a writing process that is more multi-faceted than that in most other text genres. The screenplay´s function is to describe the totality of the filmic universe, not just the story and dialogue (see Mehring 1989, Berg 2008).


At this early stage in the history of screenwriting research, little is written by screenwriters about their writing processes, and we can mostly conjecture about what takes place by their keyboards.  As a script consultant at the NFI, I was granted a unique chance to observe the processes of writers who entered our screenwriting programme. In 2008, during my first period at the Norwegian Film Institute, I received a proposal for a screenplay by young writer Bjørn Olaf Johannessen, consisting of a long, opening scene and a short description of an idea. The scene described how a writer, driving through a snowstorm, believes that he has run over a small boy playing by the road. For a few moments he imagines himself to be a killer. His relief is enormous when he finds the boy, alive and well, behind the car. Having escaped this ultimate guilt, the writer experiences a few moments of clarity and elation. He assures his troubled wife on the phone that from now on “everything will be fine”. He believes it. Until a few moments later, when he finds out from the boy´s mother that there is another child, a brother - now lying lifeless under the car. 


Johannessen stated in his application that he wanted to write a screenplay about how this writer carried on after the accident. How would it affect his emotional self, his personality, the course of his life, and his career as a writer? He also said that he could not write a synopsis. He did not yet know what would happen to his character; that was indeed the very subject of his exploration. Based in the NFI´s system regulations in 2008, I was able to fund the writing without a synopsis. Since then, application systems have been digitalized, and today, a proposal without a synopsis could not have been accepted. The project Everything Will be Fine (Johannessen/Wenders 2015), was realized, directed by Wim Wenders, and the film premièred at the Berlinale in 2015.


It appears then, that the dominance of the Set Stage Chronology of Documents could actually be an impediment, not just to writers´creative processes, but to the development of quality projects. Johannessen left predictive documents behind and developed his screenplay from a strong inciting indicent by inventing his story and seeking its emotional truth as he wrote it.  In other words, he used a method that emphasized creation-in-the moment, with significant elements of what we might call improvisation.  



Could an alternative methodology in screenwriting be suggested through the study of improvisational techniques? In touching upon improvisation in screenplay work, Kathryn Millard cites novelist Anthony Burgess as saying that ’one doesn’t over-plan; so many things are generated by the sheer act of writing’ (Millard 2004:16).

For the methodological experiment with my second project screenplay, I wished to investigate

•       whether there might be ways to write screenplays that emphasize creation-in-the-moment and that access more easily the sources of the imagination

•       whether moving the common first step of plotting and structuring to a later phase in the writing process could give more room to explore the emotional core and subtext of the material

•        whether conventional industry practices like the ”Set Stage Chronology of Documents” and the ”Screen Idea Work Group” can be counterproductive to originality and personal expression - more so than the much criticized dramaturgical models

•       whether such an ”alternative screenwriting process” could possibly also represent to more efficient methodology


The purpose of improvisation in the arts world has always been to generate raw material and achieve emotional truth by activating subconscious resources. Simultaneously, deactivation of the censoring carried out by our social selves has been important. Like most screenwriters at the outset of a work process, I had already chosen my raw material. Now, I was looking to design an alternative method for the writing. My knowledge of improvisation stemmed mainly from my years of directing plays and, eventually, teaching actors at the Norwegian Academy of the Arts. Thus, the theatre was the natural sphere from which I would activate knowledge and research improvisational technique.


The term improvisation stems from the latin word improviso which means unforeseen, or ”not seen before”. The improvised scenarioes of the Italian Commedia dell´arte are well known, as is the work of Joan Littlewood and The Living Theatre in the 1960ies. A main source of inspiration from the early 1980ies up until today have been the methods of Keith Johnstone, originally a playwright, who laid out in his seminal work Impro! (Johnstone 1979), marketed as ”a hundred practical techniques for encouraging spontaneity and originality by catching the subconscious unawares”.[5] My own training in the theatre was based upon a tradition that owed much to the teachings of Russian stage director Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) and his followers, among them, Russian stage directors Maria Knebel (1898-1985), Georgy Tovstonogov (1915-1989), and Irina Malochevskaya (1944 -).The fact that improvisational techniques are a central feature of Stanislavsky´s rehearsal method is not well known outside of theatre circles. I became acquainted with this method, known as Active Analysis[6] during the 1990ies, while teaching at the Norwegian Academy of the Arts, while Malochevskaya served as the head of the directing programme. In contrast to the playful method of Carrière or Johnstone, Active Analysis offers a highly structured model for improvisational work. Structure may sound like the very antidote to improvisational spontaneity, but Active Analysis has proven very effective in activating the subconscious resources of actors. In the following, I will attempt a brief description of a method, the mastership of which may take years to develop (see Knebel 1971, Thomas 2016,  Kipste 2014, and Malochevskaya 2002, for more complete accounts).


During the first half of his career as a director and researcher, Stanislavsky started his rehearsal processes with a detailed analysis of the play´s text, together with the actors, around a table. While this analysis was underway, lines were gradually memorized, before the cast went on to blocking and exploring the text ”on their feet”. Similar rehearsal procedures are common in Western theatre tradition. In his later years, however, the master rejected this chronology, and Active Analysis was developed. The method entails the breaking-up of the the play´s text into the smallest units of human action, each of them designated by an active verb, subordinate to the character´s goal in the scene/play. The actors will start the rehearsal period doing improvised etudes of these micro-actions, one unit at the time. A major point in this work is not to memorize any of the play´s text before the improvisation work begins. Stating ”the mechanically memorized text often serve as a kind of protective screen for the actor” (Knebel 2016:89), Stanislavsky sought to avoid the actors´ freezing their conception of material into some preconceived, static version. The new form of analysis was performed, not only with the actor´s mind, but with her emotional and physical apparatus, hence Active Analysis.


In a scene involving, for example, a proposal or a seduction, the character´s goal is easily defined, while her way toward it would include a number of different obstacles. These would demand numerous changes of tactics, each producing wins or losses, triggering new attempts. A scene of three to four pages may easily translate into ten such units-of-action. Working through a full stage text by improvisational etudes, one action at the time,  will take several weeks of rehearsal time. The approach thus places Aristotle’s mimesis praxos  - imitation of action - at its very core, translating the text into units of human praxis that together make up the inner, emotional structure of the play, second by second. Doing the improvisational work before learning the lines or studying the plot of the play, encourages the actors to activate their own, inner resources in this research. The structured improvisations are perfectly designed to elicit spontaneous, often rich, ”psycho-physical material”. The director will then select the most interesting parts of this material and integrate it in the final performance. The acclaimed Norwegian stage director Tyra Tønnessen, in her practice-based doctoral project named Planned intuition, conscious roads to the unconscious, employed Active Analysis in three different theatrical productions, and concluded that


With the use of these methods, I think the result becomes more unexpected, more original, more personal, more emotional and almost always more contemporary and modern.

                                                                                    (Tønnessen 2009:6)


Comparing the practices of pre-analyzation and pre-memorization of text with the practice of writing predictive documents like synopsis and treatments,  I sensed that a type of parallell could be drawn between the methodologies of my two fields. ”Planned intuition” may sound like a contradiction in terms,  but it was precisely the idea of exploring and researching one´s own material consciously, prior to storylining and structuring it, that appealed to me. It appears that actors, when made responsible for  smaller sections of improvised action at a time, feel secure enough to access subconscious and emotional resources. Similarly, the dividing up of a writer´s raw material could mark out the ground for excursions into the unknown.



Writing a full-length screen fiction with the three-dimensionality that the genre requires, without storylining it in advance, seemed a neckbreaking adventure.  Also, the raw material for the September screenplay was a highly personal and emotional experience; namely, that of the six weeks my father spent in a hospital before his untimely death, 20 years ago. The weeks were marked by mystery, as he had been strong and healthy until right before hospitalization, and there was no clear diagnosis. At the time, my life situation as a working artist and a mother to a small child was ridden by tension and conflict. The sudden, intense needs of a sick, old man came as a shock. I did not know, at the time, that my father was dying, but his constant pleading to be taken out of the hospital, which he abhorred, indicated that he sensed the end was near. In retrospect, I deeply regretted missing the opportunity to give him a more dignified death, in surroundings where he felt at home and at ease. That regret, and my fantasies about how he and I together could have taken his death into our own hands, were the personal triggers behind the project. My ambition was to turn this emotional raw material into a drama which could engage a broad audience.


How to apply principles of structured improvisation to an individual screenwriting process? Stanislavsky himself drew a comparison between acting and writing when he stated that ”the improvised text born in the actor during an etude” could be compared to ”those innumerable draft copies done by a writer when refining his work” (Knebel 2016:90). Still, there is no one-to-one relationship between an actor´s work with a play text and a writer´s work on her raw material, and my knowledge and study of rehearsal techniques served more as inspirational trigger than process guide.  In addition, there are major differences between improvisational rehearsal work and the work done in solitude by a keyboard. Most obvious is the absence of the creative collective. The immediacy of having to respond to the ideas and impulses offered by other human beings, is a powerful antidote against exactly the kind of anti-creative self-censoring that improvisation aims to defeat. Carrière, Johnstone and Tønnessen all practise their improvisational methods in group settings. In the theatre, one also has a concrete text to build the spontaneous explorations on. Without a collective or a text to draw on, I had to design a method of my own.


I had started out with a vague idea of wanting to write about the modern individual´s relationship with death, and an interest in the possibility of taking death into one´s own hands and somehow shaping it. I also knew the screenplay would be, in some way, a father-daughter story, but I did not wish to write an autobiographical text. My first step was to establish a framework for the work process; the second was to employ the Stanislavskyan principle of dividing a large and overwhelming substance into smaller, more manageable parts. The latter task would be achieved by choosing certain guideposts to enable me to venture into improvisational terrain. The dividing tools were not mainly structural, rather, they were markers that formed ”security zones” within which I might venture to explore unknown territory.


The work chronology:

·      PHASE 1: Generative and improvisational phase

·      PHASE 2: Processing and shortening phase

·      PHASE 3: Feedback and structuring phase


In Phase 1, I would, above all, generate raw material by ”writing it through.” I would do so without the use of predictive prose documents of any kind; no synopsis, treatment or outline. I would work alone, without a Screen Idea Work Group. There would be no feedback from other professionals. The writing would be in dramatic form only. I would make no attempt to follow a linear chronology, the scenes I wrote would move freely in time and space. This first phase would last until a rough draft, with some kind of – at least tentative -  beginning, middle, and end could be said to exist. Phase 1 contained the experiment; this was the phase that set the September work apart from conventional screenwriting processes.


In Phase 2, the processing phase, I would put the shapeless rough draft aside for three distancing weeks, while it was exposed to selected readers (audience) for the first time.  These would be experienced readers who had no professional stake in the project, meaning they did not comprise a Screen Idea Work Group.  Based on their feedback,  and my own fresh reading of the draft after the break, I would rewrite it. This would involve a certain selective process, which would presumably tighten the material enough to make it presentable for submission to the éQuinoxe screenwriting program as an application for workshop participation[7].


In Phase 3, I was planning to attend the équinoxe workshop, as I had done with the first project, Days of Winter.  For seven intensive days, the draft would be exposed to feedback from experienced professionals. Immediately after the workshop, I planned to write a third version. In this phase, I would shape the material and apply a conscious structure.


The signposts

Next, for the aforementioned scheme of division, I had extracted certain terms and concepts from my ”story of the making of a story” (Senje 2012). The thorough analysis of the first writing process had given me a renewed understanding of elements that most  screenplay processes contain. With the Days of Winter process,  these concepts were defined after the work was completed. The new process gave me the chance to put them to practical use in a generative process, from the very beginning. The four chosen signposts were as follows:

·      The original impulse (or “the poetic idea”)

A key concept was what a fellow screenwriter and researcher has called the original impulse (Berg 2010: ). The idea of the first impulse for a screen work has been given many names. Adrian Martin describes it as a “germ, seed, nucleus, matrix, core” (Martin 2014: 16). Friedrich Schiller calls it “the poetic idea” (quoted in Kallas 2010:5). In the case of September, the original impulse was formed partly by regret about my own uncertainty when facing calamity and partly by the fantasy about somehow ”shaping” my father´s death. I found an image to express it in a Pietà figure, painted by Paula Rego, depicting a a woman cradling a man. In my interpretation, the young woman was helping the older man to cross the threshold.  I now had a landmark, a point around which to start navigating through unknown terrain.


·  The main characters

A drama needs characters. I knew my protagonist this time would be someone close to myself, or my former self, without being me. I called her Ebba Enge and made her a stage director, age 36. Her father, Eilif Enge, 68, was proposed to be a nature photographer and author of several books. Ebbas boss, the artistic director of a theatre, Ebbas five year old son, Ebbas ex-husband and Ebbas mother were other characters, of whom I knew little at the outset. In addition, I knew there would a theatre, thus, actors, and a hospital, thus doctors and nurses.

·    The ”what if” – or inciting incident

The action of a screen narrative traditionally begins when something hits the main character and throws her off balance, necessitating action and the gradual birth of a goal that will demand a struggle. My raw material contained such a seed, in the crisis/change that would develop from Ebba´s father´s hospitalization. To this situation I added the classic piece of stage direction known as ”sharpen the circumstances”. The inciting incident for September became: A young, ambitious director has just landed her dream production at the National Theatre, when her father falls seriously ill.

·  Three cinematic landscapes

The three cinematic landscapes represented the three worlds in which I imagined that Ebba´s  story would unfold. The first was her place of work – a major repertory theatre; a colorful and partly chaotic location, full of dark corners, vivid characters, rivalry and emotional charge.                                           The National Theatre (Photo: Siri Senje)

The second was the hospital into which Eilif would be taken, a place of cool cleanliness, order, regulations and scientific analysis.


The Hospital in the city

The third landscape was inspired by my own childhood and family life. It was a small, simple cabin – a place I had spent my summers in as a child - miles outside of the city, with an astounding sea view.  That cabin was the longed-for, peaceful place to which Eilif, in his illness, kept asking to be taken. These three worlds  - art, science and nature - were projected to become the main locations of the screenplay. The three landscapes also provided me with a visual outline of  the story, and resounded with themes of which I was not yet completely conscious.

The cabin by the sea (Photo: Siri Senje)


·      The screen idea

Together, these four elements of idea, character, incident and image, formed something that I sensed could, even without a synopsis, qualify as a Screen Idea - a concept first decribed by Philip Parker (Parker, 1998, p.40) and later developed by Ian Macdonald, who defines it as ”a singular concept intended to become a screen work” (Macdonald, 2004, p.5).



A complete account of the writing process is not possible within the context of this article. What follows is a short summary, with main focus on Phase 1. Phases 2 and 3, less relevant to the theme of this article, will be touched upon briefly.


Phase 1, during which the first, rough draft of September was written, took about seven months, and resulted in 140 pages of text. The first weeks of work were explosively creative. I was excited about the new idea, and felt liberated by the open-ended working method. Writing without a linear chronology, I almost immediately produced several scenes which I felt had a strong dramatic nerve and an interesting premise. They were pivotal scenes of great conflict and consequence, and almost all are kept in the final, published version of the work. The scenes seemed to have been stored in my imagination, and ”poured out” in quick succession, with no particular links between them. Using my original impulse, my inciting incident and the three landscapes as instruments of navigation, I wandered into the unknown narrative and emotional landscape I had chosen to inhabit. I generated an enormous amount of material - I would say twice as much as usual - due to the uncensored and unstructured process. I entered the minds, rooms and places of my characters; I spied, listened, watched, and acted out, in the solitude of my writer´s room.  These acts of spying, listening and acting out are in and of themselves a kind of improvisation. In other words, I took literally the advice of Aristotle when he proposes how those who write mimesis praxos for the performing arts should behave. Indeed, perhaps his labeling of the creative flow as ”a strain of madness” is precisely a reference to the improvising, imagining writer´s attempt to allow words to flow without knowing what will come next.


While writing in this new way, I also noticed that the freedom from predictive and structuring tools made me change focus. I began to adapt creative methods from my experience of rehearsing and directing stage plays. Soon I was writing scenes, with complete dialogue and action, over and over, trying them out, changing them, reading out loud, writing them again; much like I had had my actors try out scenes in various versions while I sat in the back of the theatre watching and wondering. In Norwegian, the word for rehearsal is prøve, which translates into ”testing session”. In most theatre rehearsal room, whether improvisation is involved or not, a process of ”trying things out” will take place for several weeks before a performance. To write a scene out several times is, similarly, to test it. Write it. Then write it again. Read it. Does it work? Does it create exciting cinematic life in your movie theater of the mind?


The idea of rewriting as a way of researching the material by writing it repeatedly is reminiscent of the actors´ work with etudes. Also, it may be applied to the well-known and much discussed phenomenon of multiple drafts and versions in the screenwriting field. Claudia Sternberg has dealt with the phenomenon, and compares multiple screenplay versions to various theatre stagings of the same play, referring to them as “interpretations” (Sternberg, 1997, p.40). Ian Macdonald has suggested that each draft represents a type of “stylized version of the screen idea” (MacDonald 2004 ). After my experiment, I am more convinced that the screenwriter´s process of writing multiple versions actually represents a parallell to the practice of the theatrical rehearsal, in which director and actors “write” the performance-to-be over and over again, researching, deepening, refining, before they settle on the version that is the most compelling. The intermediate nature and the multi-dimensionality of the screenplay text may necessitate precisely such “rehearsal-like” tehniques as multiple rewrites, which most screenwriters perform and see the value in.


In Phase 2, after three of my personal readers´ feedback, I wrote a second draft, which was taken to an eQuinoxe workshop and exposed to intense feedback, six hours a day, from a team of  five experienced, international script advisors, one after the other. The workshop is a setting and experience worthy of an article of its own.  Suffice it to say, in this context, that after the workshop, I drew a chart of a complete, emotional structure, with a new first act and a step-outline for the rest of the piece. Also, I received considerably feedback on the emotional core of the material, which triggered a deepening and clarifying of emotional content and character journey. At that point, I was so sure of where I was going that I produced a third draft of 98 pages in two weeks.



Based on the September experience, I came to the following conclusions regarding my experiment and initial questions:

·      Yes, I found that the method I chose with September helped me access the sources of my imagination more easily (although the personal quality of the material made me circle around the emotional core of the material for a long time)

·      Yes, I found that avoiding, in the first phase, the usual treatments and outlines of the screenplay process liberated creative energy for the writing, made me more spontaneous and inventive, caused less self-censorship, and  - not least - made the writing process more interesting and enjoyable.

·      In addition – in spite of the voluminous drafts - I found my new working method more efficient. After a shorter, and far lonelier, process, the September screenplay has become farther advanced, in a shorter time, than my earlier screen works have done. Not listening to the din of multiple voices og the SIWG during the most generative stage was also an excellent strategy for me.

·      Articulating the original impulse from the outset, as well as the full screen idea soon after, heightened my awareness of my goal and made it easier to remain with it, even when showered with feedback from script advisors at the workshop.

·      I became thoroughly convinced that the Set Stage Chronology of Documents can be counterproductive to the dynamics of the writing process. ”To synopsis” one´s material from the outset may actually be to limit, reduce and control it in ways that discourages both originality and emotional depth.


I believe, after my experiment, that to free screenwriters – or screenwriting students -  from precriptive methodology and the writing of predictive documents could open up for more original content in films. In the words of Carmen Brenes, ”a screenwriter is someone who does not know what he will find until he writes the story and rethinks it.” In the end, we must ask ourselves - as writers, teachers and script advisors – whether the screenwriter´s role is that of narrative technician or ”poet of images”. The answer is, of course, that we need to master both roles, but at different times. However, the endangered species of the two appears to be the poet, not the technician.


[1] The book, Frosten og September, containing the two screenplays and an essay, was published by Vidarforlaget in 2012.

[2] The process behind Days of Winter is documented and reflected upon in the digital media essay called Sculpting for the Screen (Senje 2013).

[3] Andersen (2008), Poetikk: ix

[4] By comparison, funded stage play processes are generally not formatted at all.

[5] A few years before he invented the popular performing medium that came to be known as ”theatre sports”, Johnstone began developing his improvisational techniques while leading the Royal Court Theatre´s Writers Group.

[6] The results of Stanislavskys´s research during his later years was never written down in book form, but developed in three different schools led by his followers. Maria Knebel´s essay on his methods (Knebel 1959 and 1971) is the closest we come to an account by a contemporary. The ”Method of Physical Actions” that preceded ”Active Analysis” contains many of the same elements (see Thomas, 2016).

[6] For a description of the équionoxe program, see Senje, 2012, or




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