Testing the ability of generative AI to write movie and TV plots

By Andy Oram
December 21, 2023

Can generative AI help studios write TV and movie scripts?

Leading up to and during the recent strike by the Writers Guild of America, observers suggested that AI would replace some professional writing tasks. Some have boldly claimed that generative AI could suggest plot lines and other elements of the script.

I decided to test this hypothesis, and was quite unimpressed with the result. Perhaps the studios can train AI to be more creative than the public ChatGPT service that I used today. What I got from ChatGPT didn’t rise to professional standards.

First try

For an experiment, I chose to tinker with George Eliot’s classic novel The Mill on the Floss, because its ending is considered weak by many critics (not by me). The plot is described in Wikipedia (I suggest giving a donation while you’re there). So I pasted the plot summary from that Wikipedia page into ChatGPT with the following prompt:

Given the following plot summary of a novel, write a continuation to the novel where Tom and Maggie do not die in a flood.

ChatGPT’s first response showed a sophisticated grasp of the novel, but suggested a very pat, cheerful continuation that wouldn’t interest anyone. The suggestion was also too vague, offering no details about how the main characters’ lives would continue.

The waters of the River Floss surged around Tom and Maggie Tulliver as their boat capsized, threatening to engulf them in its relentless grip. In the midst of this perilous moment, a profound sense of unity and forgiveness washed over them. It was as if the turbulent waters had cleansed their hearts of past grievances, leaving only love and a deep bond between brother and sister.

Desperately, they clung to each other as they fought against the current. Tom’s strong arms struggled to keep them afloat, and Maggie’s unwavering determination added to their strength. In that harrowing moment, their shared history and the trials they had faced together seemed to transcend the world around them.

As they battled the raging river, their thoughts drifted to their past, to the moments of laughter and tears, to the times they had stood by each other’s side in the face of adversity. It became clear that nothing could sever the ties that bound them, not even the deepest disagreements or the most painful betrayals.

With every stroke against the current, their love for one another grew stronger. They were no longer the same young children who had once quarreled and misunderstood each other. They had matured through hardship, and in the face of this ultimate test, they had found the true meaning of family.

As they finally reached the point where they could see Lucy Deane’s family trapped on the rooftop, their strength was waning, but their determination remained unshaken. Together, they reached out to their friends, pulling them to safety one by one until all were safely on their makeshift raft.

Exhausted and cold, the group made their way back to shore, where the villagers had gathered to witness the remarkable rescue. Tom and Maggie had become heroes, their names whispered with reverence among those who had once doubted their worth.

In the days that followed, Tom and Maggie were embraced not only by their friends but also by each other. The floodwaters had washed away the bitterness that had marred their relationship for so long, leaving only love and forgiveness in its place.

With their bond renewed, they set out to rebuild their lives together. The lessons they had learned from their past mistakes would guide them in forging a brighter future. Tom’s success in business and Maggie’s intellect and determination would be their strengths, and their unbreakable bond would be their foundation.

As they stood on the banks of the River Floss, watching the waters recede, Tom and Maggie knew that they had been given a second chance at life and love. Their story, once marked by tragedy, had now found redemption in the waters that had once threatened to tear them apart.

Expanding the results

I decided to give ChatGPT a chance to weave an interesting continuation by generating details.

How did they use Tom’s success in business and Maggie’s intellect and determination to forge a new life?

Again, the bot’s grasp of the novel is impressive. For instance, it detected that Maggie had been considering teaching as a career—although the plot summary I fed to the bot did not reveal that—and incorporated that into the suggestions. (Of course, teaching was an almost universal path for educated women without money in the period of the novel.)

I also liked the way that ChatGPT divided up the elements of a plot, making it easy for a writer to pick and choose.

However, the suggestions were boring. No one wants to see a movie like that. ChatGPT won’t get a job in Hollywood with suggestions like these.

With Tom’s success in business and Maggie’s intellect and determination, they embarked on a journey to rebuild their lives and create a future filled with prosperity and happiness. Here’s how they used their respective strengths:

  1. Tom’s Success in Business: Tom’s dedication and hard work in the business world had already yielded success before the flood. He had managed to restore the family’s estate and secure their financial stability. After the flood, Tom continued to manage the business efficiently. He expanded its operations, modernized the mill, and explored new business opportunities.
  2. Expansion and Diversification: Tom expanded the mill’s production capacity, tapping into new markets and creating jobs for the local community. He diversified the business by investing in ventures related to agriculture, trade, and transportation.
  3. Financial Security: Under Tom’s careful management, the Tulliver family enjoyed financial security. He ensured that they had a comfortable home, proper education, and access to the resources they needed.
  4. Maggie’s Intellect and Determination: Maggie’s intellectual curiosity and determination were instrumental in creating a fulfilling life for herself and contributing to the community.
  5. Education: Maggie continued to pursue her love for learning. She became well-read, gaining knowledge in various fields, and even started writing essays and stories that garnered local recognition.
  6. Teaching and Community Involvement: Maggie’s intellectual growth led her to become a respected figure in the community. She started teaching at a local school, inspiring young minds with her passion for knowledge. Her commitment to education brought positive change to the lives of many.
  7. Social Initiatives: Maggie’s determination extended beyond the classroom. She became involved in various social initiatives, advocating for the betterment of the village and the welfare of its residents. Her initiatives included supporting local charities, organizing cultural events, and promoting women’s education.

Together, Tom and Maggie complemented each other’s strengths. Tom’s business acumen ensured their financial stability and prosperity, while Maggie’s intellect and determination enriched their lives and those of their community members. Their shared experiences and newfound unity allowed them to face any challenges that came their way with resilience and love, ultimately creating a fulfilling and harmonious life together. Their story became an inspiration to others, a testament to the power of love, forgiveness, and the unwavering bond between siblings.

Being more explicit

Maybe my prompts didn’t give ChatGPT enough guidance about what I wanted. Certainly, writing a good prompt is critical to one’s results. So I tried the following prompt.

Given the following plot summary of a novel, write a continuation to the novel where Tom and Maggie do not die in a flood. Write a surprising, dramatic plot.

ChatGPT came up with a plausible scenario that wraps everything—but alas, again, as predictable and boring as the sixth sequel in an action series.

Part II: A Twist of Fate

As the floodwaters raged around Dorlcote Mill, Tom and Maggie clung desperately to their overturned boat. The powerful current threatened to tear them apart, just as it had torn apart their lives for so many years. But this time, they refused to be divided. With all their strength, they managed to right the boat and continue their perilous journey to rescue Lucy Deane and her family.

The storm raged on, and the once familiar landscape had transformed into a treacherous, waterlogged maze. Tom and Maggie navigated through the turbulent waters, their determination unwavering. The bond between them, which had been strained and tested over the years, had now grown stronger than ever.

Hours seemed like days as they searched for the Deane residence. The rain poured relentlessly, and the roaring river threatened to swallow them whole. But Tom and Maggie pressed on, driven by the need to save Lucy and her family.

Finally, they spotted the Deane house in the distance, its upper floor partially submerged. With great effort, they reached the front door, pounding on it with desperation. Lucy’s tearful face appeared at the window, and she quickly let them in. They found Lucy, her parents, and her brother huddled together, terrified by the rising floodwaters.

Together, Tom and Maggie managed to evacuate the Deane family to safety. The storm showed no mercy, and the once-sturdy Dorlcote Mill succumbed to the relentless force of the river, collapsing into the water with a deafening crash.

In the aftermath of the flood, the village of St. Ogg’s was left in shambles, but the lives of Tom and Maggie had taken an unexpected turn. The shared ordeal had rekindled their sibling bond, and they found solace and forgiveness in each other’s arms. No longer burdened by past grievances, they were determined to face the future together.

With the help of friends and neighbors, they rebuilt their lives in the wake of the disaster. Tom continued his successful business endeavors, while Maggie pursued her passion for literature and education, opening a school for the children of St. Ogg’s. The once-isolated girl had found her purpose in bringing knowledge and hope to the next generation.

As the years passed, Philip Wakem returned from his studies abroad and discovered that his love for Maggie had not diminished. He sought her out and, with a heart full of hope, declared his feelings once more. Maggie, now free from the constraints of her past, was able to reciprocate his love. Their love story, once marked by obstacles and family antipathy, had finally found its happy ending.

Lucy Deane, too, had found her own path to happiness. She married a kind and loving man from a neighboring village, and her life became a testament to resilience and new beginnings.

In the end, the tragic flood had brought not only destruction but also renewal and redemption to the lives of Tom, Maggie, and their friends. Their journey had been filled with hardships, but they had emerged stronger, bound by love and the unbreakable ties of family. In their survival and newfound happiness, they proved that even in the face of adversity, the human spirit could endure and flourish.

A Specific Prompt

Although ChatGPT had no enticing plot lines to offer on its own, perhaps I could elicit a good plot continuation by thinking up a surprising plot twist and asking ChatGPT to flesh out the details. So I wrote the following prompt:

Given the following plot summary of a novel, write a continuation to the novel where Tom and Maggie do not die in a flood, and Tom becomes friends with Philip Wakem.

ChatGPT’s response did not grapple with the inherent tension I raised between two characters who are adamantly opposed and a plot resolution that calls for their reconciliation. The resolution found by ChatGPT is rather desperate: It ascribes near-superhuman strength to the reclusive, scholarly Philip, who walks with a limp. But leave that aside. The denouement is just too easy. ChatGPT evades any confrontation with the emotions, moral stances, and interior conflicts that make George Eliot so faschinating.

It’s also odd that ChatGPT insists on preserving the flood as the central plot element in the story, even though my prompt explicitly asks ChatGPT not to put emphasis on the flood. A reasonable human author would carry out my request by eliminating the flood entirely, leaving the novel room to develop its characters in their natural setting.

Yes, the development of characters in their natural setting—that is the crowning achievement of effective story-telling. But only the most insightful of human authors can do it, because it calls on them to hook into their hard-won experience of human life and psychology. And that’s why ChatGPT diverted the plot so crudely to avoid such character development, which it has no possibility of conceiving.

The river’s relentless waters raged around Tom and Maggie as their boat capsized. In the midst of the turmoil, they clung to each other desperately, their hearts filled with fear, regret, and an unbreakable bond. The floodwaters seemed insurmountable, threatening to consume them, but they fought to stay afloat. As the current carried them downstream, their memories flashed before their eyes—their childhood at Dorlcote Mill, their clashes and reconciliations, and the deep love they shared as siblings.

In their struggle against the mighty river, Tom’s determination and strength, and Maggie’s unwavering spirit and resilience, shone brightly. They fought against the currents with every ounce of their being, knowing that they couldn’t give in to the fate that awaited them.

Meanwhile, the news of the flooding spread throughout the village of St Ogg’s, and a sense of urgency gripped the community. Rescuers scrambled to reach those in danger, and among them was Philip Wakem. He had returned to St Ogg’s, haunted by regret over how he had forced Maggie to renounce him years ago. The news of her peril prompted him to take action, for he still loved her deeply.

As the floodwaters surged, Philip joined the rescue efforts, searching for any sign of Maggie and Tom. His heart ached with worry for Maggie, the woman he had loved for so long. He knew he had to find her, to let her know how he felt and to make amends for the pain he had caused her in the past.

Back on the river, Tom and Maggie continued their struggle, their strength waning. Just as it seemed that they could fight no more, a strong arm reached out to them. It was Philip, who had finally found them amidst the chaos of the flood. With his help, they were pulled to safety, their lives spared from the relentless river.

As they stood on solid ground once more, drenched and exhausted but alive, a powerful realization washed over them all. The events of the past had shaped them in profound ways, and the bonds of love and forgiveness now held them together. Tom, Maggie, and Philip stood there, changed by the harrowing experience, their past grievances forgiven and forgotten.

The village of St Ogg’s, too, was forever changed by the flood. The community came together in the face of adversity, and old grudges began to dissolve. The tragedy on the river served as a catalyst for healing, uniting the people in a way that they had never experienced before.

In the years that followed, Tom, Maggie, and Philip continued their lives with a newfound appreciation for each other and the world around them. Tom’s success in business continued to flourish, and Philip pursued his passion for education and advocacy for those with disabilities. Maggie, with her deep well of resilience and love for literature, found her calling as a teacher, inspiring young minds to embrace the wonders of the world.

The river, once a symbol of both division and unity, now represented the strength of their bond and the power of forgiveness. The tumultuous waters had brought them to the brink of despair but had ultimately led them to a place of reconciliation and love.

As the years passed, the story of Tom, Maggie, and Philip became a testament to the enduring power of the human spirit and the capacity for forgiveness and redemption. Their lives continued to intertwine, and together they faced the challenges and joys that life had to offer, knowing that they were stronger together than they ever could have been apart.

No competition here

It looks like no new plots evincing George Eliot’s mastery are going to arise any time soon. And I think Hollywood writers will have to rely on their own imaginations for a while as well.

Could studios train a generative AI algorithm to produce plot elements that truly grip the heart? Think about the relation between formulas and creativity. It’s obvious that satisfactory plots need certain elements: Heroes must be vindicated, villains punished, loose ends tied up. But in a good movie, the writers, director, actors, and other contributors collaborate to provide a spark of surprise to the formulas—to touch human viewers emotionally and spiritually.

Feeding successful movie and TV plots to a generative AI machine will only recycle the formulas. I cannot conceive of a way to add the human spark, so plots from generative AI machine would be as sterile as the examples ChatGPT created for this article.

AI-generated music will be fine as background scores for games and movies, just as AI-generated art could be useful as decorations. I’m not counting those outputs as real creativity.

Could technologies to come lead to an artificial intelligence that goes beyond the recycling of common ideas, and think up truly creative content? It actually does happen, even today, in the form of oddball ideas (sometimes called hallucinations) that pop up in current generative AI output and that human viewers instinctively reject as absurd.

AI does not have the characteristics of the human anatomy that produce creativity, so it won’t evolve human creativity. But it might evolve its own AI creativity, though. The question will then be whether humans have any interest in that creativity. How could it speak to us?

The creativity created by AI systems might be of interest to other AI systems. These chatbots can organize editorial boards, award prizes, and hold symposia discussing critiques that are as derivative and empty of meaning as those presented by many humans at symposia today. So there will be a place for creative AI in the universe.

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