ChatGPT Writes Like My Playwrighting Students Did

I decided to try using ChatGPT to write a short script to see how it might do. I began with the idea of the Old King/Young King ritual that Sir James Fraser wrote about in The Golden Bough (1890), an examination of comparative religion that pre-dates Joseph Campbell. Frazer writes that the new king kills the old king and thus becomes the new guardian of the grove.

My first prompt began with that premise and resulted in what I usually find in ChatGPT “creative” writing: overly expository dialogue, along with a general lack of depth of characters. So I refined the prompt and tried again. The result was a little better, and this wasn’t costing anything but a little time, so I did another refinement. In the third, ChatGPT added a new character, a fairy, who helps get the knight acclimated to his new position. I liked this addition, so I added it to my final version of the prompt:

“Write a 10 minute play set in a magical forest guarded by the Old Knight, a medieval knight, who is confronted by the Young Knight, who also seems to be a medieval knight, but something seems off in his brief greeting, such as the young knight taking a selfie with a phone. The old knight, not knowing what the object is, challenges the young man, and they have a brief swordfight, but the older knight can’t keep up with the young man. As he dies slowly, he tells the young knight that he is now the guardian of the forest, but the young knight’s responses (which are clearly anachronistic for the medieval period) reveal after the old knight is wounded that he is a time traveling tourist and the Old Knight realizes that the Young Knight is really not up to the job. Then a fairy shows up to help guide the young knight in his new task.”

Looking at all four versions, I found bits and pieces of each that I thought could work. And here’s the most interesting thing for me: the results of my prompt prompted me to refine my ideas and writing. Aspects of character or connections within the text that I had not previously considered suddenly occured to me.

To complete the play, I printed out all four versions (2-3 pages each) and laid them side by side on the desk. I then selected lines from each to go into the final Word document. (By final, I of course mean the next draft!) Along the way, I added some text here and there to further clarify points or provide better transitions.

Here’s something else my beginning Playwrighting students often did: drop in a paragraph of narrative to explain what happens. In a film it would appear as a montage, but on stage we need to see and hear it. When I would read this, I would write in the margin, “dramatize, don’t narrate.” (Yes, it’s back to Aristotle!). Here I copied the narrative paragraph and pasted it back to ChatGPT asking for a theatrical dialogue about said narrative. I did that with two passages. Wrap it all up with bits and pieces of the texts, with a little tweak here and there, and I have a completed short play ready for more reworking.

Is this piece going to be stage worthy? Perhaps as an offering in an evening of what I’m calling ChatGPTheatre. But for now, its another exploratory step for me in seeing how AI might be a useful tool for content creation.

For more examples of ChatGPT as author and playwright, check out the new StoryZStudios YouTube channel: Watch, subscribe and comment there, and here as well!

Published by stephenschrum

Associate Professor of Theatre Arts; interested in virtual worlds, playwrighting, and filmmaking. Now creating a podcast called "Audio Chimera."

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