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Guest Post: I asked ChatGPT to Outline a Christmas RomCom

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Jeevani Charika writes romcoms and women’s fiction about smart women and nice guy heroes, some of whom happen to be South Asian. She also writes romcoms as Rhoda Baxter. Her latest is Picture Perfect. Jeevani can be found on her website or on Twitter (@rhodabaxter).

I asked ChatGPT to outline a Christmas romcom – here’s what happened.

There’s been quite a lot of interest in ChatGPT and some talk about how it’s going to replace writers. Someone has even self published a picture book using text and images entirely generated through AI bots (ChatGPT and DallE).

The AI uses what was written before to work out structure, tropes and common elements and then spins them into a coherent story. It’s actually pretty good at this. The sentences are grammatically correct and the story flows logically.

I write romance – a genre which loves its tropes. People (not romance people – other people) keep telling me that romance is ‘easy to write, because there’s a formula’.

So, if there’s all there is to it, then the AI should be able to write one, right? Let’s see.

I asked ChatGPT to come up with an outline for a Christmas romcom.

Here’s what it came up with.

Please generate a christmas romcom plot about a woman working as a christmas elf in a shop and a workaholic businessman

Once upon a time, a woman named Sarah worked as a Christmas elf in a bustling shop in the heart of the city. She loved her job, but it was hard work and she often felt overwhelmed by the demands of the holiday season. One day, a handsome and successful businessman named Jack walked into the shop. He was a workaholic who had no time for the holidays, but something about Sarah caught his eye.

At first, Jack was rude and dismissive to Sarah, but she refused to let his attitude get to her. She continued to be cheerful and kind, even when he was at his grumpiest. Slowly but surely, Jack started to see the magic of Christmas through Sarah’s eyes. He began to help her out with her work, and they spent more and more time together.

As the days went by, Jack and Sarah grew closer. They discovered that they had a lot in common, and they began to fall in love. But just when it seemed like they were meant to be together, Jack’s work threatened to tear them apart. He was offered a promotion that would require him to move to another city, and he wasn’t sure if he was ready to give up his career for love.

In the end, Jack realized that Sarah was the most important thing in his life. He turned down the promotion and stayed in the city with her, and they celebrated their first Christmas together as a couple.

It was a happy ending for the two of them, and they lived happily ever after.

That’s not too bad, but it’s pretty generic.

We don’t know much about Sarah (apart from she loves being an Elf!) or Jack as people. The only specific elements in there are taken from my prompts. But the story hangs together and has the right sort of shape for a Christmas romcom. In theory, you could summarise a lot of Christmas romcoms like this.

But it seemed pretty generic and surface level. So what if I asked it to do more?

I asked it to come up with a 25 scene outline.

Please can you turn the above summary into a 25 scene outline.

Here is a possible 25-scene outline for the story:

  1. Sarah works as a Christmas elf in a shop, but she feels overwhelmed by the demands of the holiday season.
  2. Jack, a successful but workaholic businessman, walks into the shop and is initially rude to Sarah.
  3. Sarah remains cheerful and kind, and she begins to catch Jack’s eye.
  4. Jack starts to help Sarah with her work, and they spend more time together.
  5. They discover that they have a lot in common and start to develop feelings for each other.
  6. Jack’s work threatens to tear them apart when he is offered a promotion that would require him to move to another city.
  7. Sarah tries to convince Jack to stay, but he is unsure about giving up his career for love.
  8. Jack’s friends and family encourage him to follow his heart and choose Sarah over his job.
  9. Sarah is disappointed when Jack seems to be leaning towards accepting the promotion.
  10. Jack has a change of heart and decides to stay in the city with Sarah.
  11. They celebrate their first Christmas together as a couple.
  12. Sarah and Jack go ice skating in the park.
  13. They have a romantic dinner at a cozy restaurant.
  14. They go shopping for Christmas gifts for each other.
  15. Jack surprises Sarah with a trip to a Christmas market.
  16. They attend a holiday party together.
  17. Sarah helps Jack decorate his office for Christmas.
  18. They volunteer at a soup kitchen on Christmas Eve.
  19. Sarah and Jack exchange gifts on Christmas morning.
  20. They have a traditional Christmas dinner with their families.
  21. Jack takes Sarah on a sleigh ride through the snowy streets.
  22. They go to see a Christmas play together.
  23. Sarah and Jack spend New Year’s Eve together, watching the fireworks and making resolutions for the future.
  24. They go on a winter hike and enjoy the beautiful snow-covered landscape.
  25. Sarah and Jack continue to be happy together, and they look forward to many more Christmases together.

This was interesting. It’s a pretty good list of scenes. Although, really, the story ends around scene 10 and the rest is a HEA montage. (I asked it to redo it – the new list was almost the same, with some minor changes in wording).

But we still don’t know anything about Sarah and Jack as people.

  • What are their emotional journeys?
  • Why is Jack buried in his work?
  • Why is Sarah so chirpy all the time?
  • Why does Christmas bring out those particular traits in them?

Almost every piece of feedback I’ve ever had from readers has been about characters. It’s never “I love the scene where X happens.” It’s always “I love that X did this” or (my favourite) “This character looks/sounds/acts like me.”

What the AI misses is the emotional core of the story – which, really, is what we read romance for. The feelings, and how those feelings change. Those are the bits that move us to tears or smiles.

What’s also missing are the little telling details that authors bring, either from lived experience or from doing their research. The tiny habits or individual quirks that make a character identifiable without dialogue tags, for example. These make the characters feel like real people.

Am I worried about AI taking my job? No, not really. We writers have voices that are uniquely our own and human brains that will make weird, non-logical (but not illogical) leaps from one concept to another. The AI cannot do that and still maintain a coherent story.

All this comes with a caveat that the technology moves super fast.

Some authors, when they’re starting out (before they learn about stuff like theme) might produce a beat sheet that’s not too dissimilar to the one the AI produced. They’d learn to write more nuanced stories through trial and error – they write more, get feedback, adapt.

The AI will do the same, only much, much faster.

So sure, we might get AI written romances pretty soon. AI learns fast and it has a vast dataset to learn from, but the data set is heavily weighted towards what has been published before and ‘mainstream’ fiction is biased. So even if the ‘typical’ characters get fleshed out with some sort of realism, any characters from minority or marginalised groups (this includes disabled characters or plus size characters as well as people of colour or LGBTQ+ characters and others) will be written to stereotype.

This could go one of two ways. Publishers and TV execs could recognise that while the AI can write something passable, it won’t have anything new to say and lean towards using actual creatives with different stories to tell – so that we get more stories from a wider pool of writers. Or they could go for more generic stories because they are cheap and easy to produce.

Ultimately, it depends what consumers will buy. There will be those who like flat, derivative AI written stories, but I really hope that most people would choose to read and watch stories that are written by real humans, with realistic portrayals of human life in all its myriad forms. Personally, I read romance for the feelings. I don’t think an AI is going to be able to get those right for a long while yet.

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