Speculations on the Future of Fiction Writing

by johnswentworth1 min read28th May 202014 comments

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Fiction (Topic)World Modeling
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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.

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Only tangentially related:

I should totally have expected this, but boy are film budgets heavy-tailed. According to your link, Terminator 3 spent $35 million on its cast, which consisted of:

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger: $29.25 million + 20% gross profits
  • Arnold's perks: $1.5 million
  • Rest of principal cast: $3.85 million
  • Extras: $450,000

Arnold's perks alone might have cost more than any other actor on set... (although it's not subdivided finely enough to know for sure).

I wonder if there's actually any way to know if a movie that has better writing makes bigger profits. From what I've heard, the main thing that determines how much a film writer gets paid is a track record of writing successful films. This makes sense if the producers know they don't have good taste in screenplays--they just hire based on the metric they care about directly. But it also makes sense if the factors that affect how successful a screenplay is have very little to do with "taste" in the sense you mean. Maybe the writers of blockbuster films know that more intelligent characters won't affect profits, but (for example) faster pacing will, and so they ruthlessly cut out all those in-universe decision constraints that take up screen time. Maybe they even want the characters to be kind of dumb, to get the reality-TV effect where the audience gets to feel superior because they never would have been THAT dumb.

This. The movie industry has been around long enough, and is diverse enough, that I'd be very surprised if there were million-dollar bills lying around waiting to be picked up like this. It can't just be that no one in charge ever thought about trying to hire someone to suggest plot-hole fixing tweaks. Plot holes are so easy to find and fix that the best explanation IMO is that finding and fixing them doesn't actually make money; perhaps it actually loses money.

Analogy: Lots of people on the internet care about historical accuracy. And it is utterly trivial to make movies set in some historical era more historically accurate; you can probably find dozens of history grad students willing to do the job for free. For example: "The flak coming off that aircraft carrier is way too thick; the Japanese relied mostly on CAP for defense. If the flak was that thick, more of the bombers would be dead." Or: "You want all the officers to charge down the street and engage Bane's thugs in melee? OK, there should be about 100 or so dead by the time they reach the steps; then the thugs should retreat into the doorway to create a chokepoint." The reason why this is not done is, obviously, that doing it doesn't make any money.

The movie industry has been around long enough, and is diverse enough, that I'd be very surprised if there were million-dollar bills lying around waiting to be picked up like this.

Prediction markets for box office results are more than a million dollar bill, I think, and yet reduce the power of the people who decide whether or not they get used.

Also, speaking of people caring about accuracy, it reminds me of the story Neil deGrasse Tyson tells about confronting James Cameron about the lazy fake sky in Titanic, and he responded with

Last I checked, Titanic has grossed a billion dollars worldwide. Imagine how much more it would have grossed had I gotten the sky correct.

But the ending of the story is that later they hire him to make an accurate sky for their director's cut, and he made a company that provides that service now.

It wouldn't shock me if a firm of smart rational-fic writers could do this sort of 'script doctoring' cheaply enough to be worth it to filmmakers, and the main problem is that the buyers don't know what to ask for and the sellers don't know how to find the buyers.

Fair enough. I definitely think it's worth a shot.

I was under the impression that movie producers DO hire experts for this sort of thing. At the very least, I know they hire science consultants for scientific accuracy problems; I assume they often do the same for historical accuracy.

I've heard of that happening too, even in movies that have enough historical inaccuracies that I can spot some myself. (Oh, also this happens for scientific inaccuracies, of course.) My guess is that they listen to some of the advice their expert gives them, and ignore the rest, using their judgment to decide which of the advice will boost profits and which won't. For example, in the police charging Bane thugs scene, probably someone told them that it was stupid for the thugs to stand there until the police got in melee range and stupid for them not to be mowing down hundreds of police, and probably they were like "whatever lol it looks cool." (Update: Actually the scene was stupider than I remembered; the thugs stopped shooting their guns and counter-charged the police! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCEo7SCvYH4 Also there were way more thugs than I remembered, probably enough to keep the police from ever successfully closing to melee, if they just stayed in a line and fired their guns.)

Note that the historical accuracy case avoids your response about the difficulty of hiring experts. It's not actually difficult to hire experts to tell you how heavy the flak should be or how many police officers should die or how the thugs should react. (I predict.)

That being said, I might be wrong, and I hope I am! I think we should look for opportunities to make this movie industry change a reality. High risk, high reward, etc.

Since you can only nitpick a movie after you've already paid to see it, where is the economic incentive for anyone to do this?

The actual problem is even more complicated than that, though. The movie business is run by producers -- the people who put up the money. They may have experience in the film business, but since there is no universally agreed criteria as to what constitutes a good investment, it is subject to bias, nepotism, superstition, etc. Favors are owed to people, the star or director has a pet issue that must be addressed to get them on board, etc.

This means that to a great extent the artistic direction of a film is determined by committee, many members of which have only the most superficial understanding of what is going on or what the film is about or anything else, and have no real desire to understand more deeply because such an understanding would not do anything useful for their own interests.

IOW, it's a values alignment problem of the same type that produces other forms of civilizational inadequacy, and the mere existence of better writing tools can't help it, for the same reason that the vast storehouse of existing wisdom and literature of telling effective stories on film doesn't help it that much either. The screenplays have to be effectively written to get bought, but once they're bought the connection between what was first written and what actually gets filmed can be quite tenuous indeed.

Wealth and taste should show some anti-correlation in the tails because one of the things taste gets you is a good life for less money.

I have long suspected that the problem of bad writing in movies is largely driven by questions of completeness and adaptation. For example:

  • We rarely see the whole story. Even if it is was shot exactly as written, what we wind up seeing is an edited-down cut of the film; which chunks of the writing get left out makes a big difference to me in my perception of the writing. Consider the case of the character that suddenly sprouts new abilities, which is shit writing. Watching a later director's cut, they often include the scene which includes the crucial explanation of why they have these.
  • The writing doesn't stay the same over the course of filming. There may be practical impediments to a key scene, like the weather ruining outdoor shots; it may prove infeasible to get a good enough set/costume/stunt arrangement to drive a part of the story; maybe the actor just can't pull it off to save their lives. This necessitates re-writes. I strongly expect these to lack the coherency of the original screenplay, because now there are lots of people with input rather than the group accepting a completed script with a single author.

Can you convert the percents into the usd amounts. The percents are kind of meaningless since the budgets differ a lot.

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.

Another hypothesis is that only a small fraction of the population would appreciate better writing, and the additional constraints that poses would reduce quality for the remaining people.

(I wouldn't be surprised if I fell into the latter category, though I'm not sure.)