Over at Writers Supporting Writers, our latest chat included a discussion about Artificial Intelligence (AI). During the conversation, Audrey mentioned she might try an experiment. Feed some elements into ChatGPT or Bard and ask for a short story based on those elements.
I thought that was an interesting idea, so I tried something. I have a story about a carnival. I wanted to give ChatGPT some elements based on that story and see what it came up with. Here was my request:
Write a 2,500 word short story about two odd characters who work for a carnival in the 1950’s. One is an old man nearing his end. The other a younger man humored by the older man’s stories.
ChatGPT produced a story that was significantly shorter than the requested 2,500 words. What follows are two short pieces. One is ChatGPT, the other is my piece that inspired the request.
To me, which is the ChatGPT piece is pretty obvious. But I’m curious if it is obvious to other readers. Let me know in the comments. (And, if you’ve read Killing Berthold Gambrel, you should know the answer to this.). Beyond which version is which, I’m curious to know your thoughts on the version you think is ChatGPT.
The echoes of children giggling, mothers yelling, and men boasting still reverberated along the midway. A full moon hung without a net in the sky above the ferris wheel. The ground was tacky with spilled sodas and ice cream splatters. My nostrils were filled with the odor of popcorn and the vomit left behind by the punk coming off the tilt-a-whirl with a shit-eating grin on his face, convinced he was gonna knock down the bottles until his stomach started to rumble.
“Sallie, let me get that for you.”
I leaned against the booth’s frame. “Thanks, Buck. It’s like an ice pick borin’ a hole in me tonight.” I massaged the small of my back and then reached out to pat him on the shoulder as he reached up to bring the door down, the clanging rattle of the door on its tracks getting slammed to the ground chasing away the last echoes of the day and the quiet of the midway late at night overwhelmed me like it did most nights. Most everybody else had finished up, cleaned up, locked up and returned to their trailers in the boneyard, tucked away in the far corner of the parking lot, where I had a bed and a locker in the bunkhouse.
“Why they call you Sallie?” Buck asked, snapping the lock shut on my booth.
I sighed and looked over his shoulder at the shuttered midway. The flashing lights were off, the stuffed animals stowed away. This was my time. I could shuffle my old bones through the games and rides and remember …
… The Griswold Traveling Carnival. I was fourteen when I ran away. Ol’ man Griswold took me under his wing.
… The Elastic Girl, who just so happened to be my first. And Griswold’s daughter. And the reason I had to run away from the Griswold Traveling Carnival when I was sixteen.
“I mean, you an old white man. It’s not like you a girl or nothing like that.” Buck paused for a moment. I tried to laugh him off. It didn’t work. “You ain’t a girl, right?”
Apparently, I wouldn’t get the quiet I wanted.
“Why Sallie?” I muttered at Buck as I began to walk and motioned for him to follow. “Well, that’s a story we may not have time for.” I thought for a moment I might stall him. He was a 24-hour man and with the joint breaking down soon, he’d be gone in the morning, scouting out our next stop. We were barnstorming that summer and Buck had to get on down the road.
“Hell, at your pace, it mighta be a week ‘fore we get to the trailers.” Buck took a flask from a pocket and took a swig. “Whassa story?”
I noted he did not offer the flask to me and silently thanked Buck for that. Maybe he knew. It was always hard to know, in the little world of a traveling show, what people knew. Stories were told. Rumors shared. Maybe he knew I was on the wagon. At least for that day, I was. The problem was … there was no story to tell. I was born. I had a name. What it was didn’t matter. When I hit the road, somebody called me Sallie. And it stuck.
But sometimes, you know, you gotta tell a story. Buck and I, we were walking by the concession stands, where the smell of cotton candy and corn dogs and stale popcorn had stayed strong. Next up was the chump twister and a row of apple joints. Shuttered for the night. Quiet, except for the echoes that rang in my head of the carnies spinning their lines.
… Old man Griswold, I told him it was the boys on my street who came up with it. That’s all he needed to hear.
… And later on and further down the road, when I told a girl it was my momma’s name and when she died, I took as my own and that got me a whole lot of everything.
… And the truth.
That it was the Elastic Girl who called me Sallie one night when we were in her trailer because when you’re the daughter of the owner you get a trailer to yourself instead of a broken down cot in the bunkhouse – which is nothing more than an 18-wheeler pulled up besides the trailers – not that I was complaining because it was the trailer that provided the place where I discovered the things that men need to know.
The haunted house came up on our left. On our right, a coin toss game. Up ahead, the moon had dropped a bit, just touching the upper edge of the ferris wheel. And Buck waited while we walked.
“Her name was Katie.”
“She was the Elastic Girl at the first joint I worked. She said I wasn’t no rube. Or a clem. Or chump. No, Katie said there was something about me that she saw. I was a bit stronger.” We approached the arch at the entrance to the show. The empty parking lot awaited us. “She said she didn’t know a guy like me. ‘You can take a name like Sallie, can’t you?’ she said. I remember this, we were in her bed with the sheets wrapped around us. I was teasing her nipple with my finger. I’da ‘greed with just about anything she said at that moment.
“The next day, I was walking to my game – I was operating a cheese wheel, ‘cause it was all ol’ Griswold thought I could handle – when one of the freaks called out, ‘Hey Sallie, my boy.’”
Buck stopped. “You shittin’ me, man?”
“No. I learned something that day.”
“The freaks … they stick together.”
The old carnival stood as a worn-out relic of a bygone era, its faded colors and cracked paint giving it a certain melancholic charm. Nestled in a forgotten corner of a small town in the heartland of America, it welcomed visitors with its creaky gates and tattered banners promising a spectacle like no other. Within its tenuous embrace, two odd characters forged an unlikely friendship amidst the wonders and oddities of the 1950s.
Old Man Elijah, his withered frame clad in a patched-up suit, was a living relic himself. Wrinkles etched deep grooves into his face, and his rheumy eyes held a wisdom accumulated over many decades. He had been with the carnival since its inception, his stories as much a part of the show as the feats he once performed. A crowd-drawer in his youth, he had juggled fire, tamed wild beasts, and amazed audiences with his acrobatic stunts. But age had finally caught up with him, confining him to a quieter role as the carnival’s resident storyteller.
Young Tommy, on the other hand, was a sprightly soul with a perpetual glint of mischief in his eyes. Barely twenty, he found solace in the carnival’s whimsical world, leaving behind the dull monotony of his small-town life. Tommy was the carnival’s jack-of-all-trades, a wide-eyed dreamer with a knack for fixing rides, painting signs, and captivating audiences with sleight of hand tricks. He possessed a voracious appetite for adventure, which drew him to the charismatic tales spun by the aging Elijah.
Every evening, as the last remnants of sunlight painted the carnival in warm hues, Elijah and Tommy would gather beneath the flickering glow of the main tent. The old man would regale the younger one with tales of daring escapades, each word an invitation to a world of wonder and mystery. Tommy listened with wide-eyed fascination, marveling at the courage and audacity that infused Elijah’s stories.
“Picture this, lad,” Elijah began, his voice quivering with excitement. “The year was 1923, and we were traveling with the ‘Circus of the Extraordinary.’ We had a lion tamer who could whisper secrets into the wild beasts’ ears, making them dance like graceful ballerinas.”
Tommy leaned closer, hanging onto every word. “Really? That must’ve been something to see!”
“Oh, it was, indeed,” Elijah continued, his voice a melodic lullaby. “But the true magic was in the camaraderie between us performers. We were a family, bound by the shared thrill of the unknown. The world was our stage, and every show was a chance to become someone else, if only for a fleeting moment.”
The young man’s eyes sparkled with anticipation. “Do you think I could ever be a performer like you, Elijah?”
Elijah smiled, his eyes lighting up. “Ah, lad, the carnival is a calling that chooses its own. It takes a curious mind, a brave heart, and a touch of madness to truly embrace its enchantment. But who knows? Fate has a way of guiding lost souls to their rightful places.”
Ok so the second piece is chatgpt? You realise you’ve put us in a forked stick here. If I say I think the second piece is mediocre and it’s yours, I’ll be in the shit:)
Well … I’m sorry, but that’s part of the game. Before I disclose, I’d like a few more people to opine. But … what makes you think #2 is AI? And trust me, I’m not looking for accolades about my own writing. I’m just curious to know what people see in the two pieces. What are the differences … both good and bad?
Well at the risk of insulting a friend I’d say piece 2 is decidedly pedestrian.
You’ll be happy to know that Option #2 is the AI generated piece. To me, it is very pedestrian. Lifeless and cliched and just … blah. Hopefully option #1 is at least slightly better.
Option #2 must be you. It has your trademark sunny disposition, unrelenting cheeriness, and uplifting, Hallmark-like ending. 😀
Jokes aside, ChatGPT’s story isn’t… bad, exactly. It just doesn’t have any real punch to it. You can see what Audrey talked about in our chat, with the AI clearly being designed to be upbeat. Which kinda kills any drama.
Admittedly, this is likely just a “guardrail” designed to keep it from creeping people out. In principle, there’s no reason you couldn’t have an AI trained on the works of, say, Harlan Ellison, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Hardy, designed to be as dark and grim as possible.
Wait … are you really Berthold Gambrel? I thought he died a lonely death on the Mendocino coast! What the heck?!
As I mentioned to another commenter, I’ll wait to reveal what I think is obvious. I also think you’ve read that book so you already know.
True, but I think I’d have known even if I hadn’t read it before.
Having re read it, my reasons are hard to list because they rest on minutiae as much as anything. Piece 1 uses interesting word constructions, piece 2 gives you nothing unexpected. Piece 1 hops about plotwise, making the reader work for it. Piece 2 has no surprises. Piece 1 evokes real people in their element, piece 2 is cloyingly sentimental. Piece 1 gets from a to b in a quirkily roundabout way. Piece 2 zips straight there, that’s why it’s short.
When I first started writing, I was bothered that I was an A to B to C writer. Following a logical, predictable course from beginning to end. That you see what you see in option #1 is music to my ears. Maybe I’ve grown as a writer, after all.
Thank you for giving me this feedback on this.