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ChatGPT for Creative Writing - the Good and the Bad
An account by two of ours writers about their experience using ChatGPT to help them write stories
At Stories by AI, we’re fascinated by the intersection of human creativity and the capabilities of AI, and we strive to showcase the potential of these tools by sharing short stories written with the help of AI. Our last several published stories have been written with the aid of ChatGPT, and in this post we reflect on our experience using it.
When ChatGPT first blew up the world, I assumed that it was all hype. Then I sat down to use it to help me write stories for this newsletter. My first few minutes with ChatGPT blew my socks off.
I started out asking ChatGPT for some story ideas. After a few misses, ChatGPT gave me the basic concept of the story.
We workshopped the concept:
And then ChatGPT wrote a great opener:
I was both blown away and a bit disappointed. If the process was this easy, what was the fun of it?
I’m working my way through a great craft book, Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, and each chapter provides several fantastic writing prompts at the end, which I always aspire to do but never quite motivate myself to complete. Why not get AI’s help?
Unfortunately, ChatGPT did not shine in this task. When I asked it to write a scene in which a man asks a woman about her mother. In response, I got ten very bland paragraphs where a woman raves about her wonderful mother and her interlocutor is suitably impressed.
I asked for a continuation in which the woman’s mother has a dark secret:
“The woman's mother returned to the table and the three of them sat in silence for a moment. It was clear that she had something on her mind. Finally, she took a deep breath and spoke.
"I need to tell you both something," she said. "I was in prison for ten years for embezzlement. I made a mistake and I paid for it. But I've turned my life around and I've been trying to make amends ever since."
The man was shocked but he could see the sincerity in the woman's mother's eyes. "I'm sorry for what you've been through," he said. "But I'm glad you've been able to turn your life around."
The woman's mother smiled, relief etched on her face. "Thank you. It's been a long road, but I'm grateful for every day."”
Wow. How novel. How dramatic. How interesting.
With all the stories I’ve used ChatGPT to write, the first attempts by ChatGPT were banal and trite. It was only through repeated effort that I got anything slightly unexpected, which stands to reason given the design of these systems which, at the end of the day, are only predicting the next word in a text stream. Everything it comes out with should revert to a mean of the most common things others say in the same situation. It’s a recipe for basic.
I’ve written my last two stories, I Think I Am Starting to Fear Death and An Account of The Machine Wars, partially with ChatGPT and largely agree with Celeste that it’s both exciting and kind of underwhelming.
For the first story (I Think I Am Starting to Fear Death), I had a pretty fleshed out idea of what I wanted and had already written more than half of it, and used ChatGPT to try and help me finish it up. Its output was certainly valid as far as ways to conclude the story, but it felt pretty… lame? There was no subversion, no twist, no interesting aspect to it really — it went in a sacharine direction that felt at odds with the generally bittersweet vibe I was aiming for.
But, it did help me out a lot later, when I decided to revise a finished draft of the piece. At first I went with an unusual approach of including almost nothing but dialogue, with no interspersed commentary on character’s expressions or tone. It was a fun thing to try, but after re-reading it I definitely felt something was lacking, and I decided to add more text along the lines of “Despite the heavy subject, Cassy’s tone is light and playful, as if she's looking looking forward to one of our drunken philosophical dialogues.”
ChatGPT was really useful for this! The dialogue already conveyed emotion pretty well, so the added ‘flavor text’ by ChatGPT pretty much seemed right.
It was still not perfect — “trying to keep my voice steady.” is off the mark, as the delivery in the story is meant to be more casual, as if it’s just banter. But I could still mostly use what ChatGPT provided, and it did speed up my editing process.
For the second story (An Account of The Machine Wars), I had already written a full draft, but wanted to add more details to it and refine the writing a bit, so I basically asked ChatGPT to do a full revision of the story:
At first I asked it to revise the whole story, which was already somewhat long. Instead of revising the story, it for some reason created a sort of summary without adding anything to the original story:
I was kind of surprised and tried to get ChatGPT to course correct, only to be met with this response:
It was pretty obvious at this point I used up the context window of the language model, and this was pretty easy to confirm:
I did have some success getting it to work by just having it revise the first and second half of the text separately, and it added some decent details without really altering the writing much. But the general reaction I had to what it did was “meh”. I later decided to instead use SudoWrite’s guided writing feature to instead directly add in paragraphs with the details I wanted in the middle of the story, and this worked much better!
Now I am working on my third story with ChatGPT, and this time I started with just a general outline from which I wanted to get ChatGPT to write a draft.
It wrote a pretty reasonable draft, which I then worked to revise with follow up requests like “make this story even more detailed” , “Describe what the man went through in the jail cell in more detail.”, and “Describe the physical appearance and layout of the jail cell in more detail”. Like before, the results were valid, but also kind of… boring.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ChatGPT tends to output predictable and bland writing, and it’s not easy to steer it in the direction of something that better resembles your “voice”. My take-away is that it can be good for edits that don’t require it to do anything interesting, but otherwise tools that are specifically aimed to help authors with AI (such as SudoWrite and Laika) are far more useful.
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