10,000 hours. That’s how long it takes, at least according to author Malcolm Gladwell, to master a craft. Or, if you’re an AI, a matter of months, weeks or days.
When I read that ChatGPT is now such an adept writer that it has already written hundreds of books on Amazon’s self-publishing service, I experienced a mini-freakout. To be clear, OpenAI’s groundbreaking chatbot doesn’t just publish these volumes. People work with ChatGPT to develop themes, stories, and chapters for their books.
My immediate response was, “I’m doomed.” But as the icy chill of that cold reality lifted, I thought of something else. Anyone can write and publish a book, and most of them won’t be very good.
Why should we assume that ChatGPT, which learns from a lot of online writing, can write at Stephen King’s level, say, or even at my level?
In addition to writing for more than 30 years for technology publishing, I’ve also dabbled in fiction—primarily children’s books that I’ve written, illustrated, and published on the Kindle self-publishing platform KDP.
So what took me decades to accomplish, ChatGPT has done in a matter of months.
i will not lie; I was a little depressed. This deluge of AI content is likely to overwhelm the human product on the same platform. It also destroys the idea of talent, as in something you might need to write a book, publish it and get some attention. I fully expect a ChatGPT written book on it The New York Times Bestseller list by the end of the year.
Scenario of ChatGPT
What occurred to me, as I wallowed in the realization that I may never produce anything good enough to sell more than one copy to my mother, is that I had made an assumption.
Who says ChatGPT writing is good?
In most of my interactions with the OpenAI platform, I found ChatGPT to be informative, smart, polite, funny, and occasionally off-base. But I was never surprised by the word art.
To test my theory, I decided to ask ChatGPT to help me write a movie script. I gave it a very short synopsis, some characters and even a bit of casting, but otherwise I let it be written as it saw fit.
A script requires structure, but also, when it comes to dialogue, a real way with words. It also pushes the envelope on plot. Can ChatGPT reach the level of a must-see and read script?
My instructions were for a new one Star Trek franchise film starring both Captain Picard and Captain Kirk (each played by their original actors, Patrick Stewart and William Shatner, respectively). The plot would revolve around them, time travel to meet and then deliver dilithium crystals (opens in new tab) until 2023 to be used as a new global energy source. This would trigger a climate change reversal (in a twist, their actions would enable the creation of The Federation, meaning they don’t alter the timeline, only amplify it, but I digress). I left all other casting, plot, and action decisions to ChatGPT.
I must say that ChatGPT totally understands how to write a script with most necessary, albeit skeletal, screen orientation. It also did a fair replication of Kirk and Picard’s banter (last seen in the first Star Trek: Generations (opens in new tab)). Here’s a little preview:
KIRK: What’s going on here, Picard?
PICARD: I’m not sure, Kirk. We’re investigating an anomaly in space when you suddenly appeared.
KIRK: Anomaly? That’s one way to describe it.
This computer read all the blogs
The other thing that became clear is that ChatGPT had already absorbed all the Trek lore from both the original series and the Trek Star Trek: The Next Generation (opens in new tab). The script soon made use of familiar tropes and characters, including the omniscient Q (played by John de Lancie (opens in new tab)) who sets off the quest to save the Earth.
It threw Emma Stone (opens in new tab) as a scientist and later added Idris Elba (opens in new tab).
The problem with the first draft was that it was so short that it lacked a proper second and third act. It seemed to jump from the premise to the conclusion like it was in a race to make it to the credits.
This was my first indication that writing with ChatGPT isn’t a matter of telling the AI bot what you want and then letting it write everything. Our first script felt like the rough draft you might get from a freshman film student.
I asked ChatGPT to expand the script, add more characters from one of the original two series, and put up a roadblock in the form of terrorists trying to steal the dilithium crystals before Kirk and Picard can complete their mission.
First, ChatGPT seemed to lose interest and delivered half the script. When asked, it apologized and spat out the rest. This time the two captains failed. What kind Star Trek movie is this? I thought.
I asked ChatGPT to rewrite with the turn of Q to take the captains out of time so they can go back to 5 minutes before terrorists blow up half the crystals and make it impossible for them to complete their mission.
No more steam
At that point, ChatGPT seemed to forget that it was writing a movie script and just delivered paragraphs of dialogue-free text describing the action. It felt rushed, and like ChatGPT, it was bored with this exercise and just wanted to get done.
While I don’t want to post the script in its entirety for fear of accidental copyright infringement, here’s an excerpt from the hasty conclusion:
Kirk, Picard, Emma Stone’s character, and the Starfleet officers team up to install the dilithium crystals in power plants around the world, with the ultimate goal of ending the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and averting catastrophic events. which would have led to Earth’s downfall.
While working, Kirk and Picard find themselves in a strange new world, one where they are surrounded by strange technology and unfamiliar customs. They must navigate 21st century New York City, blend in with the locals and adapt to a world vastly different from the one they know.
In the end I didn’t get a usable script, which was a relief.
It’s not just that ChatGPT isn’t much of a writer, it also lacks the energy and determination to create content at scale. ChatGPT has no burning ambition to be an author – it has no ambition at all. Someone who wants to write a novel or screenplay can’t just run out of steam. Even as an employee, ChatGPT is missing. The prose and ideas declined in quality and maturity. I felt it ran out of ideas, which is why it kept trying to finish the story early.
This is not the profile of a future great author.
I feel like whatever ChatGPT helps people publish is usually, well, junk, and human authors and screenwriters are safe for now.