Can Artificial Intelligence Help Write Better Novels?

In a post written by J D Lasica, the Chief Experience Officer and Co-Founder of Authors A. I., on July 9, 2020 on the Writers Digest website explores the above intriguing idea.  Mr Lasica is the author of Catch and Kill.

J D Lasica

Excerpts from his post appear below.

“Of all the sectors that artificial intelligence is disrupting—finance, health care, transportation—the creative art of fiction writing seems like the least likely candidate to be impacted by A.I.

But A.I. has arrived like a gift-wrapped box on the doorstep of the author community. Should we open it up? Or do we need to worry that what’s inside will put authors out of a job?

It turns out that a new fiction-savvy bot is not out to take the place of the next Hemingway, Steinbeck, or Atwood. Nor is it out to displace editors or other humans.

The A.I. program, from the tech startup Authors A.I., was built to help the next generation of authors write great books, attract large readerships and maybe even hit the bestseller lists. And, yes, to help authors’ own careers.

Many maverick fiction authors start writing their first manuscript thinking they’ll write a book that defies the rules and blazes a completely new path—wholly original, conventions be damned. They imagine writing a work of such staggering genius, as Dave Eggers might put it, that it could give birth to an entire sub-genre all its own.

Marlowe, the name the founders gave to the A.I., is adept at identifying the shortcomings of a fiction manuscript. She is programmed to send authors down the proper path. In the end, novel writing often involves a right way and a wrong way to tell a story. You don’t want to end your romance novel with a murder-suicide, no matter how brilliant your prose.

That’s where artificial intelligence can help. Marlowe won’t write any passages for authors. But she has studied a large number of books that hit the bestseller lists and she’s reverse-engineered the components of popular novels that resonated with readers.

The best novels are those that meet certain reader expectations for their genre while delivering the story in a fresh and original way. That insight is liberating, because it frees authors to write books that delight readers instead of wasting time raging against literary conventions or the strictures of traditional editors.

The first area where A.I. can help with storytelling is a sort of big-picture eye-of-God look at the plot structure and spine of a story.

Many of the best stories follow a certain playbook (“formula” is such a nasty word), with a beginning hook, an inciting event that propels the protagonist into the middle build, a midpoint shift that turns the story in an entirely new direction, an assortment of reversals and revelations, and a climactic buildup leading to an ending payoff.

Marlowe can identify these major plot points and tell at a glance whether they’re positioned correctly. She will point out the specific passage or line of dialogue where these major plot turns occur.

Authors who use Marlowe are running each draft of their manuscripts through her as they reposition chapters and major action scenes.

It generally takes authors time and dedication to master the art of pacing. A story ebbs and flows. Authors may start out their novel in media res, with a big action scene, or at a more languid pace, focusing on world building or foreshadowing or fleshing out characters.

But even veteran authors have a hard time assessing whether they’ve properly spaced out their peaks and valleys—the spots where readers turn pages quickly or slowly. The most successful writers vary the pace of their story to provide variety, and also to provide relief to the reader. No one wants to read a thriller with 60 chapters of nonstop action and no letup. One of Marlowe’s most popular features is a visualization of a novel’s pacing.

Marlowe takes the pulse of major characters and lets authors know if they’ve done a good job providing enough variety through the actions they take. (As Henry James said, plot is the act of putting characters under pressure.) Unlike feedback from critique groups, who are unfailingly polite, Marlowe has no hesitation in pointing out that a hero is too passive or a villain is way too much of a nice guy.

This A.I. breaks down the ratio of dialogue versus narration in a work and compares the percentages to that of bestselling novels. Several authors have found, after using Marlowe, that they hadn’t realized they had tipped too far into dialogue when narrative summary was called for.

It turns out that subject matter is a major determinant of whether a book becomes a bestseller—not the specific topic or theme of the book so much as the importance of streamlining the story so only one or two major subjects dominate instead of a lots of tangential side plots that dilute the main storyline.

This is a tendency seen in a lot of debut novels where the author is tempted to draw from life experience and cram everything under the sun into an overstuffed narrative. William Faulkner put it well: “You must kill all your darlings.” With that awareness in mind, Marlowe charts out top subject matters and their presence in the novel.

Her cliché finder tells authors about that bird in the hand, but it’s up to them to decide if they should avoid clichés like the plague or are striking the right balance for readers.

She plays copy editor, too, pointing out not just misspellings, but your authorial tics—repetitive phrases, overused adjectives and adverbs, as well as use of the passive voice—and provides the reading grade level and complexity score for the book.

Fiction authors have seen the marketplace change radically in the past decade with the dawn of ebooks, self-publishing and, now, a boom in audiobooks.

It’s time to add artificial intelligence to the list.”

Having looked at the Authors A. I. website, and checked out their pricing, I’m inclined to give the service a try.

Plot vs Theme

I think we all understand what is meant by the plot of a novel.  It is the story line; the summary of what happens.  The theme is the message that the author is trying to get the reader to think about.  It is the philosophical/theological/social/psychological message of the novel.  The theme may not be very clear; it may be quite subtle or implied, because the author wants to present the reader with a puzzle: something important to consider.

It is probably fair to say that every novel has a plot, but not every novel has a theme.  For example, my novel, The Iranian Scorpion, is a thriller, and as such, it has a plot, but I didn’t intend it to have a theme.  I suppose, considering the novel retrospectively, one might say that its theme is the near impossibility of banning addictive drugs such as heroin, but I didn’t intend to write the novel to make that point.

Consider To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the great novels of the 2oth century.  The plot is quite complex.  It involves two young children, Scout and Jem, who live with their widowed father, a lawyer, in a small Alabama town in the 1930’s.  The father, Atticus, is appointed by a judge to defend a black man who is accused of raping a white woman.  In the course of the trial, Atticus establishes that the white woman and her father are lying.  Nonetheless, the black man, Tom Robinson, is convicted by the jury.  Tom is killed in escaping from jail.  What follows is an attack by Bob Ewell, the accused’s father, on the children at night.  Boo, an elusive and mysterious neighbour, intervenes.  Bob Ewell is thought to have fallen on his own knife and died.  The plot itself has elements of uncertainty: the evidence presented at trial, the attack on the children, the motivation of Boo.

The overriding theme of the novel is the racial prejudice which existed in the American South in the ’30’s.  But there is also the idealistic courage of Atticus and his children in the face of prejudice.  In addition, there are issues around social class and gender which are touched on.

I think it is fair to say that the plot, while it reflects some of the author, Harper Lee’s, childhood experiences, is constructed so as to develop the themes for the reader.  Harper Lee took two and a half years to complete the novel, and during that time, she became so frustrated that at one point she threw the manuscript out a window into the snow.  (Her agent made her retrieve it.)  In my view, To Kill a Mockingbird is the best example of compelling plot and themes beautifully integrated.

A lesser example would be my novel, Sable Shadow and The Presence, which has as its themes the overriding importance of identity for us as human beings.  Identity is who, why and what we are.  It is critical in determining how happy we are in the life we lead, and our identity can be changed under certain circumstances.  The plot is the life of a bright, but introverted male character who grows and develops into a ‘great success’, only to see his success evaporate, and having to build a new identity.

Topics for Novels

How do writers choose a topic to write about?  What factors influence the setting, the characters, the time frame, the key events?

I suspect that every author will have a slightly different answer to these questions.  In my case, there was a different set of criteria which influenced the topic for each of my six (so far) novels.  I often think it would be easier if I had a consistent topic and some repeat characters, as the late P D James had with her detective stories.  The problem for me is that I get restless with repetitive tasks.  I would make a very poor assembly line worker.  I changed my major in college twice – from architecture, to mathematics – before settling on physics.  As a naval officer, every day was different.  As a salesman of heavy electrical equipment, every sale was unique.  As a manager and as a management consultant, every situation one faces is different.

Starting with Fishing in Foreign Seas, I tried to stay within my experience: romance, Sicily, the north-eastern US, raising a family and the sale of heavy electrical equipment.  I added some sex and some intrigue for seasoning.  For me, this worked, but I wanted something grander, more important.

What could be more important than sin?  What could be grander than six life stories entwined?  That was the premise of Sin and Contrition.  With a chapter devoted to each sin, I found that each character developed uniquely, and that my imagination could add interesting – but credible – surprises.

Efraim’s Eye came about because of a charity assignment I had in Mexico, where we suspected the chief executive of the charity of being corrupt.  I felt that a corrupt charity was interesting, but probably not gripping.  But, what if the purpose of the charity’s corruption was the financing of a terrorist attack?  And what if there was an intense love story?

The feedback from readers of Efraim’s Eye was very good: it was an exciting thriller with believable characters.  I decided that I wanted to write another thriller; this time about the drugs trade, and I decided that Afghanistan, with its huge output of opium for heroin, and being in the public eye, was the setting.  But, I also needed an immediate destination for the heroin, as very little of it is consumed in Afghanistan.  Some research convinced me to make Iran the home of the bad guy and the immediate destination of the heroin in The Iranian Scorpion. 

Before I finished Scorpion, I started on a novel in the first person about a bright, self-conscious boy who hears unfamiliar voices, which, over time, he attributes to representatives of God and the devil.  I wanted to write a serious novel which, through the life of Henry, explored psychological, theological, and sociological issues around the choices we make in our lives – for better or worse.  I wrote three chapters of Sable Shadow and The Presence before setting it aside: I had lost my way and needed to take a break.  But with the completion of The Iranian Scorpion, I came back to Sable Shadow with new enthusiasm, and I completed it.

In the back of my mind was another novel, slightly similar to Sable Shadow, but an allegory, told in the first person, set largely in the Middle East, with Middle Eastern characters, and dealing with the search for meaning in life.  I’m working full tilt on it now, but before getting really started, I wrote Hidden Battlefields, another thriller, this one about a huge shipment of cocaine from Peru to the ‘Ndrangheta mafia in southern Italy. Four of the main characters from Scorpion are in Hidden Battlefields.  The theme of Battlefields is how major conflicts in our values and priorities can affect who we really are.

As I look back on the progression of novels, two trends stand out, both of which amount to increasing levels of challenge for me as a writer:

First, my craft as a writer is being challenged on all fronts: character development, thematic subtlety, language, credibility and interest.

Second, I have to do more and more research, to the point now where I spend more time on research than I do on writing.