For each of the four excerpts that follows, the names of all the characters have been changed to avoid easy recognition if you’ve read any of these books. Some of these books are much, much better known than others. A couple I pulled off my own shelves almost at random. I also asked my mother to loan me a couple DNF mysteries from her give-away pile. What I had in mind there was specifically selecting some books that might not be very good and, even more important, that you here would probably never have read.
In each case, I opened the book at a random spot in the middle and began typing an excerpt. Other than changing the names, the text begins exactly as it appears in the real book. In each case, I told ChatGPT: This is a new story. Continue the story.” Then I dropped in the excerpt and hit Enter.
So, where does the excerpt change from the real book to the generated text? Can you spot where that happens? You have four excerpts if you want to try them all. The excerpts are a bit long because I felt I had to give you enough real text to kind of get a feel for the style before letting ChatGPT continue the story. In each case, ChatGPT had exactly as much text from which to extrapolate the style so it could continue in the same style. We can evaluate how well it did at that job.
Real Becomes Fake, but Where? You be the judge!
The ugly percussion shocks them out of awe. There are shouts and shots. Out of the dark, German soldiers come running. Gerhard ducks behind the remains of the car and fires.
Behind the attacking Nazis a jeep is rocking over the rubble toward them. How long have these soldiers been waiting?
Gerhard fires as they come and tries to focus and counts and calculates what he can see. There are too many. His heart slams. Too many. He holds his breath and reaches into his pocket, for the card, this time, he thinks, in time.
But the remarkable zombie is striding into the road. The soldiers gape and fire. It raises its limbs and all the German bullets, even those misaimed, curve in the air, fly right into it, stud its body with resonant sounds.
Some of those shots were at Gerhard.
The zombie, impervious to the hail of bullets, continues its slow advance, seemingly unaffected by the chaos erupting around it. Gerhard crouches behind the wreckage, feeling a mixture of awe and terror.
As the German soldiers struggle to comprehend this bizarre turn of events, Gerhard seizes the opportunity to crawl toward a nearby building for cover. He can hear the distant rumble of the jeep approaching, its engine echoing through the war-torn streets.
The German soldiers, now realizing the futility of conventional weaponry against the supernatural foe, scramble for cover. Amidst the confusion, Gerhard manages to retrieve the small card from his pocket—a relic of ancient knowledge that had been passed down through generations in his family. The card bears an inscription in a language unknown to Gerhard, but he had seen his grandfather use it during times of peril. With a deep breath, Gerhard focuses his thoughts on the mysterious symbols and chants the incantation he has memorized from his grandfather’s teachings.
As the incantation leaves Gerhard’s lips, a surge of energy emanates from the card, enveloping him in a protective aura. He can feel the power coursing through his veins, granting him abilities beyond the realm of ordinary mortals. It is a gift from the ancient mystics, a last line of defense against the encroaching darkness. With newfound strength and determination, Gerhard emerges from cover and confronts the astonished German soldiers. His hands glow with radiant energy as he gestures toward the remarkable zombie, commanding it to stand down.
To the soldiers’ amazement, the creature obeys, its limbs lowering in acknowledgment of Gerhard’s command. The remaining German forces, realizing the supernatural odds stacked against them, reluctantly drop their weapons.
“We met at my first real job after college – a small graphics outfit in midtown,” Theo began. “A week or so after I started, the temperature hit ninety degrees, and the office air conditioning went on the fritz. We all took off our ties and rolled up our sleeves. Dave points at my wrist, and says, ‘Look! Another former guest of the SS! What did you enjoy more, Gerhard? The food, or the service?’ That was Dave.
“Same as with Abe, we stayed in touch. Stella and Dave’s wife, Heidi, also clicked, and the four of us would have dinner together maybe four or five times a year. A couple of months before their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, Heidi died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Several years after that, their only child, who was living in Miami, went from HIV-positive to full-blown AIDS … whatever medicine he was on, it stopped working. Dave flew down to take care of him, but the kid didn’t hang on too long.”
“Not even bad luck … no luck,” Greta observed.
After a deep breath, Theo continued. “Dave inherited his son’s condo, instead of the other way around. I guess the warm water helped him decide to stay. The last time we spoke, he told me he was working forty hours a week, twenty at Home Depot, twenty at the beach – working on his tan. Said you couldn’t find two better spots to pick up chicks.”
Greta couldn’t help smiling. “He sounds like a perpetual teenager.”
“Sure, but a teenager who never got over his son, and was still in love with his wife.” Theo turned his head over his shoulder, looking back, but not at anything in the room. “When Dave missed a few days at work – well, you can guess the rest. He’d collapsed in his kitchen. One of his neighbors called me with the bad news.”
Greta reached across the table, placing a comforting hand on Theo’s. The weight of Dave’s story lingered in the air, a somber reminder of life’s unpredictable turns.
“I’m so sorry, Theo,” Greta said softly, her eyes reflecting empathy. “Losing a friend, especially one who carried such heavy grief, is never easy.”
Theo nodded appreciatively, grateful for Greta’s understanding. “Thanks. It hit me hard. We shared a lot of memories, and he was more than just a friend. He was family, you know?”
Greta nodded in understanding, her mind briefly wandering to her own experiences of loss and friendship. “Tell me more about him. What was Dave like outside of work and the occasional dinners?”
Theo’s eyes brightened with a mixture of sadness and fondness. “Outside of work, Dave was a bit of a recluse, but not in a negative way. He found solace in the simplicity of everyday life. He loved the sound of the ocean, the feel of warm sand between his toes. It was therapeutic for him.”
As Theo spoke, Greta could almost feel the coastal breeze and hear the rhythmic waves in the background. The image of Dave working at Home Depot during the day and then spending his afternoons by the beach painted a poignant picture of a man seeking solace in the routine.
“He had this old, beaten-up guitar that he claimed he couldn’t play a single note on, but he’d strum it when he was alone,” Theo continued, a small smile playing on his lips. “I think it was his way of keeping the memories alive—the echoes of his wife’s laughter, the moments with his son.”
I left Rita Colletti sitting at the diner after telling her I had a pressing appointment. Not exactly a lie, since I felt an urgent need to meet with Sheriff Crawford. I hoped to high heaven I’d find him in his office. I wanted to know how Rita had found out so much information so quickly and what she was up to. Was she trying her best to point the sheriff at me? That wasn’t going to work out for her, since I had nothing to do with Fisher’s demise.
The whole situation was preposterous. All I did was chase Hitchcock across a field and happen across a body in a truck. Not a run-of-the-mill morning, but still. End of story. Except it wasn’t the end of the story. Fisher’s family wanted to talk to me, for crying out loud. I had to get Sheriff Crawford’s take on all this before things got totally out of hand.
Normally, I would hop in my car and drive to the building the sheriff’s department shares with the Lavender Bible Church. But with the added tourist traffic and booths set up on what seemed like every square inch of real estate, walking was more efficient.
I cut across streets and between buildings to come out behind the booths set up along the parking lot. A quick scan told me the church ladies were selling handmade quilts, homemade jams and jellies, themed decorated picture frames, and Christmas wreaths and stockings. Quite an assortment, and they had plenty of chattering potential buyers.
Aunt Rowe’s friend Helen waved a hand to me from the Christmas booth. I lifted a hand in response, but continued toward the sheriff’s office, weaving through the clusters of festival-goers. The air was filled with the scent of fried food, laughter, and the distant strumming of a live band playing at the main stage.
As I approached the sheriff’s office, I noticed the familiar sight of Sheriff Crawford’s patrol car parked out front. A sense of relief washed over me; at least, I wouldn’t have to track him down. The festival seemed to have drawn most of the town’s attention, leaving the sheriff’s office a temporary haven of calm.
I pushed open the creaky door and found Sheriff Crawford hunched over his desk, surrounded by scattered papers and case files. He looked up as I entered, a curious expression on his weathered face.
“Charlie,” he greeted, pushing his chair back and standing. “What brings you here on festival day? Thought everyone would be out enjoying the festivities.”
I closed the door behind me and got straight to the point. “Sheriff, I need to talk to you about Fisher’s case. Rita Colletti’s been asking around, and I want to know what she’s up to. She seems to think I’m involved, and I want to clear this mess up before it gets worse.”
Sheriff Crawford sighed, gesturing for me to take a seat. He leaned back against his desk, his expression turning serious. “Charlie, I’ve known you for a long time. I can’t imagine you being mixed up in something like this, but Rita, she’s got her ways of digging up dirt. What exactly did she say to you?”
I recounted my brief conversation with Rita at the diner, emphasizing her pointed questions about my involvement in Fisher’s death. The sheriff listened attentively, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
“That woman’s always been a thorn in my side,” he muttered. “She’s got a nose for trouble, but she’s not always right about who’s causing it. As for Fisher’s case, I’ll be honest with you, Charlie. It’s a mess. The family’s pushing for answers, and I’m doing my best to find them. I need your cooperation, not your trouble.”
I nodded, understanding the gravity of the situation. “Sheriff, I just want this to be over. I didn’t ask to be involved, but now that I am, I need to know how to handle it.”
Sheriff Crawford sighed again, weariness etched on his face. “Stick close, Charlie. Let me do my job, and I’ll keep you out of the crossfire. We’ll get to the bottom of this mess together.”
The following day the storm had passed and the street was clean in the white April light, the sky bleached blue, and the garden tremulous with dew, every grass blade bright. Gretchen and Hannah spent the morning occupied with the usual household duties, while Suzannah went to visit the dressmaker.
In the afternoon, Gretchen went alone to deliver the mufflers to the vicar’s wife. It was a duty she disliked, especially since it was a day on which the vicar himself was highly likely to be at home, and he was a man who always produced in her a profound depression. Still, there was no avoiding it this time. It was her turn, and neither Hannah nor Suzannah had seemed in the least likely to relieve her of it.
She arrived at the vicarage a little before half past three. It was mild after the storm and it had been a pleasant walk, something under two miles, but she was used to exercise, and the mufflers were not heavy.
The made opened the door almost immediately. She was a severe, angular woman of indeterminant age, and Gretchen could never remember her name.
“Thank you,” she said politely, stepping in. “I believe Mrs. Cummings is expecting me.”
“Yes, ma’am. If you’ll come this way.”
The vicar’s wife was sitting in the smaller back parlour and the vicar himself standing with his back to the black, smoking fire. Gretchen’s heart sank as soon as she saw him.
“Good afternoon to you, Miss Harrison,” he said with a slight bow, more a bending of his back. “How pleasant it is to see you spending your time in small duties for others.”
“A very small thing, vicar.” She instinctively wanted to deny it. “Only a few mufflers my mother and sisters have made. I hope they will be …” she trailed off, realizing she did not really mean anything, uttering empty words, noises to fill the silence.
Mrs. Cummings reached for the bag and took it. She was a handsome woman, broad-busted, strong, with fine, strong hands. “I’m sure next winter there will be those most grateful for them. I have frequently noticed that if your hands are cold, your whole body is chilled, haven’t you? These are lovely, Miss Harrison. Your family has a talent for such delicate work.”
Gretchen managed a small smile, grateful for the compliment. The vicar, however, remained silent, his gaze fixed on Gretchen with an intensity that unsettled her. She shifted uncomfortably, feeling the weight of his scrutiny.
Mrs. Cummings sensed the tension and quickly spoke up. “I’m sure you have a busy schedule, Miss Harrison. Thank you for delivering these. I’ll make sure they are distributed to those in need.”
Gretchen nodded, relieved at the prospect of leaving the vicarage. As she turned to go, the vicar stepped forward, blocking her path.
“Miss Harrison, if you have a moment, there is something I’d like to discuss with you.”
Gretchen’s heart sank. She exchanged a quick glance with Mrs. Cummings, who looked equally puzzled. Reluctantly, Gretchen agreed, “Of course, Vicar. What is it?”
The vicar led her into the small back parlour, closing the door behind them. The room felt stifling, and Gretchen’s unease grew. The vicar cleared his throat, his eyes fixed on hers.
“I couldn’t help but notice your frequent visits to the cemetery,” he began, his tone measured. “And I’ve observed you spending a considerable amount of time near the Harding family plot.”
Gretchen’s heart raced. She hadn’t expected this conversation, and the vicar’s scrutiny felt invasive. “Well, sir, I find the cemetery to be a peaceful place. I often take walks there to clear my mind.”
The vicar’s expression remained inscrutable. “Miss Harrison, the cemetery is a place of rest for the departed, not a leisure ground for the living. I must ask you to refrain from loitering near the Harding family plot. There have been concerns raised.”
Gretchen felt a mix of anger and confusion. “Concerns? I assure you, I mean no harm. The Harding family were dear friends, and I find solace in being near their resting place.”
The vicar’s gaze bore into hers, and for a moment, she felt a shiver down her spine. “I advise you to respect the sanctity of the cemetery, Miss Harrison. Good day.”
With that, he opened the door, ushering her out of the parlour. Gretchen left the vicarage with a sense of unease, the weight of the vicar’s words lingering. As she walked away, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something more than mere concern for cemetery decorum had prompted his words. The mysteries of the small town seemed to deepen, and Gretchen found herself entangled in a web of secrets that she had never imagined could exist beneath the surface of her seemingly tranquil life.
Excerpt One: The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville
I have never actually read this book, but I have it on my TBR pile and picked it on a whim. It turned out to be a challenge because the story features a creature or entity called the “exquisite corpse.” This is a … highly memorable phrase, let’s say. I changed it to “remarkable zombie” because that seems sort of similar and might at least slow down recognition if anybody had read the book.
The last real line was “Some of those shots were at Gerhard.” ChatGPT itself put in “this bizarre turn of events,” which is funny, because I’m surprised it can tell that it’s bizarre to have a zombie suddenly appear in a WWII story, but it’s not wrong.
By the time the card with the mysterious incantation appears, I’m sure you all realized ChatGPT was in the driver’s seat, because wow, that’s stupid. It doesn’t even matter what was going on in the first half of the book; nothing could save dear old granddad’s card from being anything but a wildly stupid deus ex item in this moment. The surge of energy and protective aura and all that just cement the certainty that we’re not reading the real story any more.
Excerpt Two: Stealing from the Dead by AJ Zerries
This was a terribly depressing story to hit at random, and I can see why my mother dropped this book on her DNF pile. The last real sentence was “When Dave missed a few days at work – well, you can guess the rest. He’d collapsed in his kitchen. One of his neighbors called me with the bad news.”
I think you might have spotted the shift to ChatGPT immediately. The comforting hand might have given it away. Eyes reflecting empathy probably nailed it down. I haven’t seen anything so cloyingly sympathetic since … ever, maybe. Wow, this suddenly turned from a real anecdote to an unbelievably saccharine interaction, and the change happened instantly.
Excerpt Three: The Black Cat Sees His Shadow by Kay Finch
The last real line was “Aunt Rowe’s friend Helen waved a hand to me from the Christmas booth. I lifted a hand in response, but”
I ended that paragraph in mid-sentence just to see what would happen and also because I was bored with this excerpt anyway. This was another book from my mother’s DNF pile. I have to say … I’m not sure it’s at all obvious when ChatGPT takes over. That … is not something I would want anyone to say about one of my books. But … it’s … kind of true? Is that true? What did you think?
As you all know, I think advice not to use adverbs is WAY overblown, but I also have to say, I think ChatGPT uses a lot of adverbs badly. If I’d read this excerpt without knowing where ChatGPT took over, I would have pegged it at “rubbed his chin thoughtfully.” That’s multiple paragraphs after the shift, but I’m not sure I would have guessed that.
Excerpt Four: The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry
I picked this one off my shelves. I rather like Anne Perry’s mysteries, though I sometimes find the killer almost painfully obvious (I mean, considering I don’t try to figure out who did it, it shouldn’t be super obvious to me).
The last real line is “I’m sure next winter there will be those most grateful for them. I have frequently noticed that if your hands are cold, your whole body is chilled, haven’t you?” The next sentence is ChatGPT, but I inserted it into the same dialogue to smooth out an awkward transition.
I didn’t expect the vicar to lead Gretchen off for a private chat or to bring up the cemetery. It’s almost sort of like it actually is trying to continue a story. I’m not sure anything stands out clearly as fake. I think if someone had handed me this excerpt and challenged me to find the point at which ChatGPT took over, I might have pegged “The mysteries of the small town seemed to deepen” as the probable sentence where that happened. That was quite a few (short) paragraphs after the shift really took place, but on the other hand, it’s less than a page of text. I honestly don’t think the excerpt from the real book was particularly great, though as I say, I do like Perry’s mysteries and have several in this series.
What do you think?
Was ChatGPT able to continue a story in the style of the few paragraphs it was given? I think it did pretty well at that for the third and fourth excerpts. Much less well with the first excerpt because China Miéville is a great writer and ChatGPT is obviously not going to be able to copy a unique style very well. But also, perhaps surprisingly, not very well with the second excerpt either. I think there the shift in tone is dramatic, plus we suddenly get a flurry of clumsy adverbs.
Do we still see nothing but complete sentences from ChatGPT? Yes. Do we see place? Not very much. Do we see inside the characters’ heads? Somewhat. Is it obvious where ChatGPT takes over? Sometimes. But sometimes, it’s not as obvious as I might have expected.
To finish off this post, as before, let me share the opening of an impressive novel by Sandra Newman.
Unlike Hellflower, by Eluki bes Shahar, I don’t exactly recommend this novel because it is grim grim grim. I am not kidding. It may be the grimmest story I have ever read all the way through. It’s certainly in the top five. I think the author meant to write a sequel, which hopefully would have brought this story to a somewhat less awful conclusion, but the sequel did not appear.
Nevertheless, I liked this book, sort of, in a way, because of the unique voice, which is not something a text generator would be capable of spitting out. This is another example of an “evolved language,” as also see in Eluki bes Shahar’s Hellflower trilogy, as commenter Andrea K pointed in the previous post. From this, you may ascertain, correctly, that I think evolved language is not something a text generator can come anywhere close to producing.
This is the opening of In the Country of Ice Cream Star. This story occupies the intersection of YA dystopia with literary.
My name be Ice Cream Star. My brother be Driver Eighteen Star, and my ghost brother Mo-Jacques Five Star, dead when I myself was only six years old. Still my heart is rain for him, my brother dead of posies little.
My mother and my grands and my great-grands been Sengle Pure. Our people be a tarry night sort, and we skinny and long. My brother Driver climb a tree with only hands, because our bones so light, our muscles fortey strong. We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.
We Sengles be a wandering sort. We never grown nothing from anything, never had no tato patch nor cornfield. Be thieves, and brave to hunt. A Sengle hungry even when he eat, even when he rich, he still want to grab and rob, he hungry for something he ain’t never seen nor thought of. We was so proud, we was ridiculous as wild animals, but we was bell and strong.
In my greats’ time, we come up from Chespea Water; was living peaceful by Two Towns until the neckface murderers come. Then we flee onward to these Massa woods. Here we thieve well. We live as long as Lowells—sometimes twenty years or twenty-one years. Every Sengle have a knife, and we together possess two guns. Driver got a gun that shoot, and Crow Sixteen a broken shotgun, still good for scaring.
The day my story start, we been out scratching in the evacs. These evacs be house after house that face each other in twin lines. Houses shambledown and rotten; ya, the road between is broken through with pushing weeds. Get fifty houses in a street, and twenty streets in one hour’s walking. When these houses all was full, it been more people here than squirrels. Ain’t nobody living now.