Speculations on the Future of Fiction Writing

by johnswentworth1 min read28th May 202014 comments


Fiction (Topic)World Modeling

If we look at major movies, writing is generally a relatively small chunk of the overall budget. A handful of examples from Wikipedia:

  • Unbreakable: story rights + screenplay ~8.1% of budget
  • Tomb Raider - Cradle of Life: story rights + screenplay ~3.4%
  • Terminator 3: screenplay ~2.8%
  • Spider-Man 2 - 2004 version: screenplay ~5%

Eyeballing these numbers, I’d guess that if you could consistently get a 10% better movie by spending twice as much on the writing, that would be a great deal.

Why aren’t studios already spending twice as much for 10% better movies? It doesn’t seem like it ought to be that hard; it’s not like the tropes on the bad writing index are hurting for examples. I’d guess that this is mainly a case of the difficulty of hiring experts: it’s hard to hire people with better taste than whoever’s in charge.

On the other side of the equation, writing techniques for intelligent characters are proving not just popular, but robustly popular. Scroll down the list at topwebfiction.com, and you’ll see an awful lot of consistent intelligence. The internet’s top writing doesn’t rely on artificial stupidity.

On top of that, the techniques for writing intelligent characters (at least level 1 intelligent) are largely agnostic to setting and plot. It’s largely about sprinkling in plausible in-universe reasons why characters don’t just do the obvious thing. Such techniques are well-suited to fanfiction for exactly that reason: they can be stitched in after-the-fact without completely throwing out the whole story.

Put these two pieces together. On one side, we have movie studios (and video game studies, and…) who’d love to throw more money at writing in order to make it better, but don’t have consistent formulas for how to do that. On the other side, we have a handful of setting/plot-agnostic techniques for writing intelligent characters, and such writing is already proving very popular online.

Sounds like there’s probably a market for intelligentification of characters.

At its simplest, this would be a service which takes in stories - screenplay, storyboard script, traditional books, what have you - and performs minimally-invasive surgery to make the characters not-stupid. It would involve tweaking background details of the universe to remove obvious exploits, or adding in-universe problem constraints to drive plot-relevant decisions rather than somebody holding the idiot ball, or having a character in a Dramatic Moment desperately search for a solution that never comes rather than give up immediately. It wouldn’t turn Captain America into the next HPMOR, but it would at least clean up the groan-worthy stupidity without throwing away the whole script.

Of course, the first customers of such a service probably wouldn’t be A-list movie producers. The first customers would be indy game developers or small authors or whoever usually hires an editor. It would be a specialized editing service. If and when such a service could demonstrate substantial value-add, it would have a pitch for bigger projects. At that point, it would be in a relatively-high-leverage position to raise the sanity waterline.