Articles on AI are running thick and fast right now, so I forgive that little sigh you made when you saw the title for this one pop-up. If, as a screenwriter, you have time for one blog on the subject however, please make it this one, because I feel it’s time for a little balance and realism before many writers realise it’s too late to change their approach and find themselves rapidly left behind.
This is an awkward topic to approach in today’s climate, especially with it being a key issue within the current WGA strike, but I’ve wanted to say a couple of things for a while. It feels like anything that can be taken as supportive of artificial inteligence (AI) in any form, right now, is immoral and akin to choosing the dark side. Writers absolutely do need protection from the implications of AI, but that doesn’t make AI evil overall, or mean we have to pick a side that’s either for or against. In fact, I warned against potential issues over five years ago in my “Dehumanisation; The Black List U-Turn Has Unveiled Something Terrifying” blog, which highlighted just the kind of approach to AI that we shouldn’t be encouraging.
What I see is an argument that’s so emotional for many it immediately becomes oversimplified into dogmatic statements along the lines of “AI will never replace humans when it comes to art!” shortly before heads are shoved firmly into sand and the conversation is over before it’s even really started.
I’m putting myself in the firing line here and saying a couple of things, because I’m worried many are going to miss the boat, due to a narrative that often demonises technology as a whole, rather than looking at both the issues and the opportunities within the detail. What I feel we’re facing here is the biggest fork in the road writers of all kinds will face in modern writing history. All I ask is that people chose which path to take wisely.
Derivative Content Isn’t Exclusively an AI Issue
How bitter this pill is to swallow depends on your awareness of how art, particularly art within pop culture, is created. All art that exists currently owes its thanks to elements that have inspired its existence in the past. There is always a path of causality meaning no art is truly original. If this is your first time facing this concept, and it causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, that’s understandable.
The key argument against how AI generates art is that it pulls from content that already exists (mainly via the Internet). This criticism is further compounded by how that impacts copyright. It’s seen by many as stealing other artists’ intellectual property. The issue is however, is it’s precisely how most human artists operate already, except when we do it it’s mainly via the subconscious, and we prefer to call it “artistic inspiration” rather than “outright theft”.
Those with experience within the arts should already be well aware of this. Back when I worked at my first marketing communications agency, the guys in the ideas department had this great phrase, “Creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” which jokingly described this principle in a very succinct way. Pablo Picasso famously stated, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. He was self-aware enough to know his work was the direct result of influence from others, that none of his ideas were ever truly original, and that it was his execution of those ideas that made him special.
This phenomenon is far from hidden in the film world. The first Star Wars instalment is well documented as the result of George Lucas reading up on every form of religious legend he could and cramming it into one epic story that he wanted to make as a movie version of Flash Gordon. One of my favourite films ever, Mad Max, while still incredibly original for its time, lifted from the likes of the little-known indie biker film Stone, the epic Lawrence of Arabia, and the pulpy Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. 28 Days Later took the overdone cliche of countless zombie films before it and simply turned slow-moving zombification into fast-paced rage, to radicalise the concept into something fresh. In some cases, filmmakers openly see themselves like DJs, mixing up elements from old films with their own twist, as Quentin Tarantino is known to do verbally when describing how he plans to shoot a scene. Plus, of course, satire exists as the most up-front form of derivative content, and has resulted in the likes of new cult classics, such as Rick & Morty, which started as a parody of Back to the Future.
I myself am inspired by the likes of Tarantino, Oliver Stone, Hal Needham, Tony Scott, and Martin McDonagh. They themselves had their own heroes too, and maybe one day a new writer will be inspired by me, and thus there will be a chain, a lineage going back generations, that’s always inevitable.
If I learn a writer doesn’t know the above, and see where they fit into the mix, I question if they’ve done their homework when it comes to understanding craft. It’s only amateurs who think they are completely original.
Now, if this sounds like an argument championing derivative content, it isn’t. The problem comes when someone’s art is more imitative than it is original, and that’s where some criticism of AI really holds weight. The key point I’m highlighting here is however, human-created imitative content within the screenwriting world is a huge issue that’s conveniently brushed to one side.
In the past eleven years, I have seen so many space operas that are just blatantly versions of Star Wars with different character names. I’ve watched writer after writer pitch concepts about a mystery alien ship found in a rainforest that contains a highly effective extra-terrestrial killer, basically Predator. Twilight, still to this day, is spawning pale imitations focused on the tween love stories of vampires and werewolves.
It’s not just an obvious imitation of existing popular films that’s the problem either. Real-life events trigger fads that writers think they are the only ones to find inspiration in. I’ve witnessed it most noticeably in the wake of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which triggered a glut of spec scripts trying to explain the mystery, many of which were so eerily close to Lost that they may as well have been regarded as fan fiction. Ironically, I’m currently seeing it the most with new spec scripts about AI going rogue.
Writers, particularly new writers, are often found complaining within communities that some new cinematic release has “stolen their idea”, when in fact it’s clear they’ve just been beaten to the finish line by filmmakers who executed the same obvious idea a lot earlier. Hell, I’ve had producers read spec scripts of mine and come back to me with “new ideas” a few months later that are blatantly barely developed twists on what I originally sent them.
The point I’m making here is that, when it comes to our critiques of AI, we have to be wary of throwing stones when we live in glass houses. I stand by the strength of my voice and the originality of my portfolio, but I’ve certainly fallen foul of jumping on fads, reaching for low-hanging fruit, and writing some highly derivative content in the past. I think my most hilarious and misguided step was the supernatural thriller I wrote located in Seattle that played out like a straight-to-DVD cash-in copy of Chronical. That spec now lies within my drawer of shame, but, for all its failings, was an essential part of my development as a writer.
I also know that the key reasons I fell into the trap of writing something so unoriginal were two-fold; I was desperately trying to give the big studios in Hollywood what I thought they wanted, and my personal life was dull at the time.
This is sadly something I see a lot of; uninspiring people writing uninspiring content. I don’t mean to offend and come across as arrogant with that view. It’s a problem all writers can face, and choosing to spend our lives isolated from the world, typing frantically in a room for eighteen hours a day, consuming only what’s popular, speaking almost exclusively to other screenwriters, and focusing intently on what the industry is doing, will inevitably lead to the production of mediocre uninspired content akin to that we mock from AI — because we have turned ourselves into robots with limited inspiration to pull from through that process.
At its most apparent, this manifests itself as stories about writing itself, typically featuring writers in the form of protagonists getting a lucky break and going a little mad with fame and fortune in the process before rediscovering their roots. It is the result of a mind turned completely introspective and the sign of a writer obsessed with themselves and their trajectory. Besides, Charlie Kaufman already captured it brilliantly with Adaption, which is only appreciated by critics and other writers who understand that plight.
What I’m ultimately saying here is that the flaws we see behind AI when it comes to originality we have to be able to see in ourselves, for our own good, and be prepared to better ourselves to address them in the process. As artists, we have to nurture our creativity, and understand as much about how to do that as we do about our craft and how our industry operates. The great news is that AI only has archives like the Internet to work with. The lives we live, providing we live them vibrantly, daringly, and curiously, indulge us with inspiration that’s unique to us and locked safely within our minds ready to be spun into something new by our imagination, when the time is right. We are not better than AI by default, but we have fundamental advantages we can exploit that AI will most likely never have, definitely not now, and certainly not any time soon.
AI Isn’t the Competition, Other Screenwriters Utilising It Wisely Are
I’m the first to admit that the attempts I’ve seen of AI trying to write fiction are laughable, and for all the terrible scripts I’ve struggled through penned by humans, none have been as bad, or even close to as bad, as that I’ve seen spat out by the likes of ChatGPT or Bard AI. But this is a dangerous distraction from where the real threat lies.
You’re almost certainly already using AI to help you write, and you’ve most likely been using it for a very long time too. While it’s a rudimentary form of artificial intelligence, your spellchecker has been there to not only proofread your work, but even act as a thesaurus when you need it too, and just lately, even guess what you’re trying to write as you type it. Just stop and think about how much, as a writer, your creative life would be impacted if you had to proofread your writing 100% by yourself and refer to a dictionary not only for the words you know you can’t spell but for every word you’re unsure about too. It would cause a monumental amount of additional workload for most of us, yet we take it for granted and reap the benefits every day. As a dyslexic, the humble word processor puts me on par with those I simply couldn’t compete with if we all had to resort back to mechanical typewriters and fountain pens.
You probably use Google for research too, which means you’ve relied on search bots and complex algorithms to decipher your inquiry and provide instantaneous answers that would have previously taken a day trip to a library, or contacting a consultant to obtain. There was a time screenwriters would spend months embedded within communities just to get an idea of what life was like for them and pick up on how they spoke, as Joe Eszterhas did when researching for F.I.S.T. — Now you can just go to YouTube from the comfort of your home office.
For most of us, AI already plays such a key part in our writing process, we would struggle to live without it. It is a great equaliser, and we are using it by default, with little thought it’s there, and without exclusivity.
The next generation of AI, however, as of now, is not passive and is not built into our everyday tools. It requires a degree of proactiveness to utilise that may exist for some time, and bring about a similar gap that we saw between those who embraced the Internet via dial-up eagerly in the nineties, and those who avoided it until they joined Facebook via their smartphone in the previous decade. We will have our first adopters and we will have our laggards within the space of creative writing, a space where this very rarely occurs.
For all the failings AI has at generating polished screenplays, it more than makes up for in terms of rapid brainstorming and drafting. If you don’t believe that, then you simply haven’t tried it for yourself, or don’t yet know how to generate the best results. Within days of ChatGPT allowing public access, technically proficient writers found themselves blown away by the ability to generate character backstories, build worlds, and sculpt story ideas in seconds, most importantly with inspiring results good enough to build upon. This is where AI holds it superpower for those willing to wield it; it automates robotic work, leaving creatives to be creative. Approached with the right attitude, AI can be your assistant rather than your enemy.
Where a writer finds an advantage right now is up to them and subject to some pioneering on their part. I’ve been very open about the fact I generated all my spec poster and pitch deck images via MidJourney. After some learning and experimentation, it took me about a day to do and cost me $10 in CPU time. I did not go looking into AI image generation with that intent, because I didn’t know how good it was and how capable I would be at writing prompts until I decided to open my mind and have a play around.
Another remarkable and unexpected example came about in the comments section of Rick Garrison’s blog “Turn Your Screenplay into a Novel and Make Hollywood Come to You” where, upon being asked how long it takes him to convert a screenplay to novel prose, he responded with the following;
Before ChatGPT, it probably took me six months to convert Reno Nevada Rides to Hell into the first-draft of a novel. With AI, you can get your rough draft done in a fraction of the time. Pay close attention, because I’m going to explain how to do it and frankly, it’s going to blow your mind!
Start a new ChatGPT conversation and type this:
For this series of chats, I will provide you with a scene from a screenplay. I want to convert the scene into narrative prose by only changing the verb tense to past and replacing screenplay dialogue with fiction dialogue, using normal dialogue attribution tags when necessary. Understand?
Understood! Feel free to provide the scene, and I’ll convert it into narrative prose as per your instructions. Go ahead whenever you’re ready!
[Me] Here is the scene:
INT. DETECTIVE’S OFFICE — DAY
Jack sits before the desk of DETECTIVE WARNER. He’s young, handsome, tall. He’s dressed in a white dress shirt and tie. Leaning up against the wall, observing, is DETECTIVE MARTIN RAMIREZ. He’s a little older, wizened.
So tell us again about this dream you had.
Jack fidgets uncomfortably in his chair. As he squirms, we hear what’s in his head.
I had decided early on, even before entering the station, to avoid mentioning the whole thing about the attic and the old typewriter I’d found. For some reason, going down that rabbit hole made me see myself being dragged to the funny farm in a strait-jacket, with no one to blame but myself…
Jack clears his voice and speaks.
I woke up in the middle of the night, could see what had happened pretty clearly. Like I said, the guy from Channel Nine News was there…
You wake up in the middle of the night and you’re dreaming of…
(refers to his notes)
Harold Jackson, the news anchor?
Jack looks up; the Detective’s tone is funny, almost one of ridicule.
That’s right. Harold Jackson. He was there, he went to her apartment with a purpose.
Jack glances up at the other cop, Ramirez. The guy’s face is impassive. No clue there.
See, she had printed her home address on her business cards, which I personally thought was a bad idea, but…
How did you know that?
Jack tugs at his shirt collar.
How did you know her business card had her home address?
She — she gave me one of her cards the day we met for lunch.
A day before she was murdered.
Jack nods. An odd thought suddenly rushes to him. We hear his internal revelation…
My heart was pounding in my chest. The idea of needing an alibi suddenly popped into my head. Why hadn’t this thought occurred to me before?? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think they were looking at me as a suspect.
Jack swallows hard.
In the dream.
Jackson went to her apartment and caught her off-guard. She thought they were supposed to meet at the gym. I guess they’d scheduled an appointment together.
His eyes dart from Ramirez back to Warner.
Maybe she had that written down somewhere, like in a day timer or something.
Warner locks eyes with Jack. Jack feels the pressure building, takes a deep breath.
Anyway, she lets this guy in, into her apartment, and as she finishes getting ready, he barges into her bedroom, beats her up and then rapes her.
Jack’s gaze falls to the floor.
I guess that’s when he decided to take the phone cord from beside the bed and strangle her with it.
Jack doesn’t notice (or does he?) but this last bit of info causes both detectives to perk up and trade glances.
We need you to stay in town, Mr. Harrison.
Warner stands, motions to the door. He smiles reassuringly at Jack.
It’s just that we may have some more questions for you. We’ll be in touch.
Jack leaves the office. Outside, in the hallway, Jack stands there alone, a little confused and unsure. Finally, he gathers himself and leaves.
[ChatGPT responds] In Detective Warner’s office, Jack sat before the desk, facing the young, handsome, and tall Detective Warner dressed in a white dress shirt and tie. Observing from the wall was Detective Martin Ramirez, a little older and wizened.
“Tell us again about this dream you had,” Detective Warner requested.
As Jack fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair, he couldn’t help but let his thoughts wander.
“I had decided early on, even before entering the station, to avoid mentioning the whole thing about the attic and the old typewriter I’d found,” Jack’s inner voice narrated. “For some reason, going down that rabbit hole made me see myself being dragged to the funny farm in a strait-jacket, with no one to blame but myself…”
After clearing his throat, Jack began to speak, “I woke up in the middle of the night, and I could see what had happened pretty clearly. Like I said, the guy from Channel Nine News was there…”
Detective Warner interrupted, glancing at his notes, “You wake up in the middle of the night and dream of Harold Jackson, the news anchor?”
Jack looked up, sensing a hint of ridicule in the Detective’s tone. “That’s right. Harold Jackson. He was there, he went to her apartment with a purpose.”
Jack then glanced at Detective Ramirez, whose face remained impassive, revealing no clues.
“See, she had printed her home address on her business cards, which I personally thought was a bad idea, but…” Jack began.
Interrupting Jack, Detective Ramirez asked, “How did you know that? How did you know her business card had her home address?”
Jack stammered, “She — she gave me one of her cards the day we met for lunch.”
“A day before she was murdered,” Ramirez pointed out. Suddenly, a thought struck Jack.
“My heart was pounding in my chest,” Jack’s inner voice revealed. “The idea of needing an alibi suddenly popped into my head. Why hadn’t this thought occurred to me before? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think they were looking at me as a suspect.”
Swallowing hard, Jack continued, “In the dream… Jackson went to her apartment and caught her off-guard. She thought they were supposed to meet at the gym. I guess they’d scheduled an appointment together.”
“Maybe she had that written down somewhere, like in a day timer or something,” Jack added encouragingly.
Detective Warner locked eyes with Jack, applying pressure, making him take a deep breath.
“Anyway, she lets this guy in, into her apartment, and as she finishes getting ready, he barges into her bedroom, beats her up, and then rapes her,” Jack revealed, his gaze falling to the floor.
This last piece of information caught the attention of both detectives, causing them to exchange glances.
“We need you to stay in town, Mr. Harrison,” Detective Warner said.
“Of course,” Jack replied.
Detective Warner stood, gesturing towards the door with a reassuring smile. “It’s just that we may have some more questions for you. We’ll be in touch.”
Jack left the office and found himself standing alone in the hallway, feeling a little confused and unsure. After a moment, he gathered himself and left.
If you can’t see the advantage in condensing six months of tedious work into a few minutes, or don’t see the benefit in a writer being able to almost automatically turn their material from one medium to another, then perhaps the AI revolution just isn’t for you.
There are other interesting areas AI can help do the leg work too, areas a screenwriter perhaps doesn’t want to spend too much time, or lacks the skills to do. Pitch decks for example, which the ScriptHop platform can effectively generate from the script pdf and present in an interactive form. You may not be 100% happy with the initial results, but you’ll be 100% further from where you started and in a position to polish what’s there.
While we rightfully should have a lot of concern about our industry trying to replace us with artificial intelligence, and need to put protections in place to stop that ever happening, we need to adjust our attitude from simply fighting AI to one that’s more open to utilising it for our own benefit. That may sound a little mercenary to some, but there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle here. It’s a new world, just as ripe with opportunity as it is fraught with issues. While we can be idealistic, it’s against our own interests to be stubborn.
Something I keep trying to remind writers is that harder work doesn’t necessarily mean better work, because it seems like so many want to believe it does, and it feels like the whole AI argument hooks into this inability to separate typing from writing, and legwork from creative work. While I appreciate that it’s passion that drives us to overcome obstacles, eliminating some of those obstacles isn’t inherently dispassionate in itself, on the condition the energy we’ve saved goes into other areas that may be more important. Will there be a lot of dispassionate material generated via lazy use of AI? Absolutely. But, if you see those writers as a threat, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself why that’s the case.
Writers with no deadlines, who are happy to write slowly, will be impacted by upcoming changes the least, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with indulging in what we find charming. If you love the process of writing with a pen and ink, going through countless drafts, thinking through every thought, have at it. A happy writer is often what leads to a good writer. For those on the clock however, those who are prolific, and those treating this as a hobby with limited time per week to spend on it, there are benefits here that would be crazy to walk away from.
AI doesn’t have an artistic voice, even when it can be told to imitate one, and it doesn’t have human experience, despite having the entire internet to pull from. That’s what we can bring to the table for a long-long time to come, provided we ourselves live like true creatives should, which means exploring and absorbing as much of the real world around us as we can. However, those refusing to embrace AI in all its forms, to see how it can benefit them personally in terms of workload and efficiency, may as well be one of those writers in the last century, furious that word processors are making other people’s lives easier and convinced using a typewriter makes them more of an artist because it feels more romantic. Now is the time to stop fearing artificial intelligence tools and start exploiting them, using them as inventively as possible to fuel our imaginations and reduce tedious tasks, ultimately allowing us to save our creative energy for where it really makes a difference.