My son is into artificial intelligence, which is a good thing because as a parent, I sometimes fear he lacks commonsense intelligence. Just a joke! Actually I am quite proud of my son. But like most younger people, he fears I have not yet embraced all the potential that new technologies offer an aspiring writer.
Specifically, he asked me, “Why are you still spending days on end plotting out a story when artificial intelligence can simplify the process so easily. Really? I didn’t believe him, so I took the challenge and signed up as a use of ChatGPT, a program available on the internet offered by OpenAI. The program is easy to acquire, and more importantly, easy to use.
At least…at first.
ChatGPT works in a very simple manner. You provide a Prompt to the program – a description of what you want. I started with a simple prompt:
“write a 10 chapter outline for a science fiction novel in which an intelligent female graduate of exobiology is recruited to a secret government organization”
Within seconds, the program started churning out a one and a half page ten-chapter outline of a fairly interesting plot for a possible story. The story starts out with my heroine being recruited, then briefed on the organization she has joined, and followed by training. Chapter four launches my heroine and her team into space, to a nearby star, with potentially habitable planets. They discover an advance alien species who shares information with the humans.
Conflict arises when a rival organization learns about the intelligent species and seeks to exploit them for their own gain. Elena and her team must protect the alien species from the evil humans. Further, the heroine learns that the man who recruited her is part of this evil organization. The heroine and her team are rescued, return to earn, and learn that the bad organization has been dispatched. The heroine is celebrated for protecting the aliens. Then she has to decide whether to share what she’s learned about aliens with the rest of humanity. Of course, she decides to do just that, and becomes the world’s leading expert on alien life as she considers what else to do with her life.
The story is a good start, but it reveals several structural problems with the AI program that you as a writer will have to deal with.
First, you have to remember that ChatGPT is a bot. This means that it wants to interact with you, as much as it can. After all, what other purpose does a bot have in life but to interact with humans? You will have to refine your prompts, add more detail, break your prompts into sub-prompts. It is a learning experience, one that is quite enjoyable (and time-consuming, to be honest – chatbots can be more pernicious than two women gossiping over the backyard fence.)
Second, the designers at OpenAI (bless their hearts!) have only good intentions in mind. So your story will automatically tend in several very predictable patterns: A happy ending in which there is much rejoicing and celebration, success for the hero, and nobody getting hurt. If you try to kill a character off, ChatGPT will remind you that violence is generally to be avoided in life.
Third, most good stories incorporate elements that foster anticipation in the reader. In this example, the recruiter is a double-agent, a fact that is revealed late in the story. You as the writer must set this up for the reader so that it’s not a complete surprise. Of course, when a program provides a ten-chapter outline in less than a minute, it isn’t hard for you to revise the plot outline to incorporate all the fore-shadowing you need.
Fourth, the program will plant seeds of a good plot in the outline, but not show how those seeds got there or what they will grow into when fully developed. For example, how did the evil organization learn about the aliens when the aliens were on their home planet and the human team had to go there to meet the aliens? How could the evil organization exploit the aliens when it presumably was still on earth? As I said earlier, the program is a bot and bots live to interact with humans. So all you have to do is think of prompts to solve each of these thorny little problems.
ChatGPT is great for prose writing, linear thinking, and documentation. On Monday morning, the OpenAI site was overwhelmed with users, effectively shutting down the site. This was probably because everyone coming back to work on Monday morning were asking ChatGPT to write their work emails, reports, and explanations for why nothing works anymore.
Writing fiction with ChatGPT is still in its infancy, but soon it will become another useful tool in the writer’s toolkit.
Until then, I have to get back to plotting and writing the old-fashioned way- by sitting down in front of my computer and pounding out one to two thousand words a day.