Writing the Writer

  • a screenwriting research project funded by THE NORWEGIAN ARTISTIC RESEARCH PROJECT PROGRAM
  •  Kristiania 2023 - 2026

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Photos from Project Workshop 1, August 2023, taken by Ole Christian Solbakken & Siri Senje (see WtW Project blog for more)

Writing the writer: An exploration of the biographical screenplay - project description.

Writing the Writer focuses on the screenplay genre as a distinctive form of artistic practice and its subgenre, the historical/biographical drama. With the advent of quality drama for television and, more recently, streaming, serial drama has emerged as arguably the most widespread form of storytelling in today´s world. While the feature film has been considered the director´s domain, the serial drama has foregrounded the screenwriter´s authorial position. Since screenplays form the basis upon which major artistic choices for audiovisual productions are made, this altered storytelling paradigm calls for increased focus on screenwriting practice and the serial drama as an object for practice-based research. 

Writing the Writer responds to this altered reality. The project´s main artistic outcome will be a biographical, serial screenplay, based on the “chaotic years” of writer Henrik Ibsen. In recent years, scholars like White (2006), Rosenstone (2012), and Thanouli (2018) have heralded historical screen drama as an essential medium for interpreting and making meaning of our past. This project will explore how a biographical screenplay, through specific poetic tools such as incarnation and reenactment, can contribute a different and unique kind of knowledge of its subject. Alternative creative tools such as visual material, writerly improvisation and writing from specific geographical spaces will be tested out in the process. Since the screenplay is an “intermediate text,” intended for production, the project will also situate itself within the industry context, using the setting as a laboratory for new development models.


This project asks:

How can fiction writing be an alternative route to making meaning of our past and its central characters? 


Screen drama is, by definition, fiction. A biographical screen drama involves invented narrative elements that risk being defined as “untrue”. Thus, the genre is frequently discredited and antagonism between historians advocating “truth” and filmmakers demanding freedom has dominated the discourse. Also, the “biopic” has been associated with Hollywood´s formulaic storytelling paradigm. Today, a reconceptualization of the form has occurred: In 2006, historian Haydn White (2006) coined the term historiophoty, aligning “historying” on screen with classical historiography. Rosenstone (2012) and Thanouli (2018) have shown how the forms complement each other. 


However, the discourse so far has foregrounded historiophoty´s use of images as opposed to text,pronouncing the two a dichotomy of cinematic versus written history. The fact that a written fiction text - a screenplay - precedes the filmic one and provides the basis for major artistic choices, has been largely ignored. WtW will address this blind spot in the discourse and explore the idea of truth through fiction.


The art of dramatic writing is an ancient genre and since the birth of the moving image, the screenplay has evolved into a complex text type (Sternberg, 1999), taught in the academy, and receiving research attention. Contained within a screenplay is the essence of its filmic future: A screenwriter writes plot, character, theme, dialogue, visuality, and sound, corresponding to the “six aspects of tragedy” (Aristotle, 350 BC); mythos, ethos, dianoia, lexis, opsis, melopoeia


As a mimetic mode of narration, drama is mimesis praxos; incarnated characters in embodied fiction. Through identification with them, an audience experiences pity and fear (Aristotle, ca 350 BC). While traditional works of biography provide factual knowledge, the screen drama makes us see, hear, feel, and identify with its characters. WTW explores how the biographical screenplay, through sensual and emotional immersion, can generate a different and unique kind of knowledge. Such knowledge has been defined as affective (Batty, 2020, Bentham, 2022), and may deepen our understanding as well as our ability to empathize. 


The artistic outcome will be a serial screenplay in four episodes, presented as a permanent artefact in the form of a published book. In the book artefact, the screenplay text will be enriched by material from its generative process, such as photos, drawings, excerpts from Ibsen´s plays and letters, and the screenwriters´ reflections (for details on the book, see 2.2, 2.4). 


“…a writer’s life really exists inside his own imagination, so how can you tell a writer’s life without telling his stories.

Paul Schrader 


In Writing the Writer, the main method of investigation will be the development of a screenplay for a drama series. Through the creative labor of “imagining for the screen”, a screenplay in four episodes, approximately 240 pages, will be developed. The writing will take place in the collaborative space of a “writers´ room”, comprising three screenwriters: Siri Senje, Ole Christian Solbakken and a doctoral candidate in the screenwriting field. An experienced dramaturg, Iben Gylling, and an expert from the field of Ibsen studies, Professor Ellen Rees, will serve as the screenwriters´ dialogue partners throughout (see pt.2.3, Organization).


As for methodology, our intention is to depart from the conventional, pre-descriptive methods of the audiovisual industry, avoiding formatted standard documents like synopses, step-outlines, and treatments in the initial phase. Creative tools described in my earlier research (Senje, 2017), such as the original impulse, the central dramatic idea and improvisational writing will be tested and further refined. Alternative writing tools such as visual material, drawing, and writing from specific geographical spaces will be employed. Two workshops with the members of the core research group and the consultants will be arranged during the early development period. The project group will be in active dialogue with its industry partners throughout.


Like the traditional biographer, the screenwriter must do extensive research on the chosen subject´s character and life. Henrik Ibsen´s own dramatic works will also be essential material for study. As fiction writers, we will select, compress, visualize and blend fact with fiction in shaping the audiovisual narrative. Simultaneously, the material will, of necessity, be filtered through the “camera lens” of our own subjectivity, adding an auto-ethnographic dimension to the work (Bentham, 2017, 2022). In WTW this dimension will be explored, thematized and reflected upon.


In speaking of method, Aristotle advises the writer of drama to “place the scene before his eyes” and engage with it, for “…those who feel emotion are most convincing through natural sympathy with the characters they represent (…). Hence poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness. In the one case a man can take the mold of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his proper self."  In other words, the writer must actively identify and empathize with the characters and their struggles during the generative process.


The design member of the research group, Frederik Eive Refsli, will be instrumental in gathering, selecting, and arranging the various materials for the book artefact. The process of making it will be explorative, shifting between producing and compiling “raw material”, and giving visual form to it. The outcome is uncertain, but the aim is to make it understood/interpreted as a book. What makes an object a book is a meaningful combination of physical size and format, its materials and tactile qualities, the visual composition of the elements on the pages and the assembling and binding of the physical pages and/or sheets. Through varied visual information, the artefact will encourage the reader to actively participate in a continuous process of interpretation and negotiation between the text’s “content” and its visual form. In effect, such an exploration into the genre’s visual characteristics will lead to a genre transcending book artefact, and as such contribute to the graphic design field.