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GPT-4 Just came out, and it’s a major upgrade from GPT 3.5, which powered ChatGPT. With just one update, GPT went from scoring in the bottom 10% of students taking the bar exam to the top 10%. GPT is improving dramatically every year.
Microsoft announced that they have started rolling out GPT to Microsoft Word. One day soon, you’ll click “update” in Word and find a “Write” button that has GPT powers. And don’t expect the US copyright office to protect you from competing with authors using GPT to augment their writing. Soon, everyone who wants to write quickly will use it just like everyone uses spell-check.
GPT likely scores better than you could on the bar exam or a calculus test, which may not matter much to you. But since you are a writer, how can you ensure that GPT will never write a better book than you?
How does GPT “write” and how can you write better?
To understand how to write better than GPT, we must understand its core limitations.
GPT is a mimic. It is like a parrot that repeats words but doesn’t understand them. GPT can write a book similar to the 50 bestselling books in a genre, but it doesn’t understand why those books were successful.
This brings up an important question:
Why do people read books?
Why are the bestsellers bestsellers?
Why do people read fiction? Why do people read romance? Why do they gravitate to timeless plots like Beauty and the Beast, even after thousands of years of reading similar plots?
GPT can never understand why, and frankly, most humans don’t know why either. But once you know why, you will be equipped to always write better than GPT and AI writing machines, even though they are quickly and continually improving.
We won’t have time to talk about why each reader likes each book, but we will hit the most popular genres to get your mental gears turning.
To help us on this journey, I tapped Christy Award winner and bestselling author of more than 150 books in multiple genres, Angela Hunt. Her books have sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. She is the author of Writing Lessons from the Front and a friend of the Novel Marketing show.
In this episode, Angela and I will discuss some of the most popular genres and talk about the core psychological reason readers read books in that genre. Spoiler alert: we may have different opinions about aspects of various genres.
Reader Expectations Rule
Thomas: When we write novels, we need to know who we are writing to, but we also need to understand what readers want a story to do for them. When they read a certain genre, what mood do they want to experience during and after reading?
Angela: I asked people on my Facebook page about their general reasons for reading and got various answers:
- Nothing good on TV
- World travel and time travel (curiosity about how people lived in a different time and world)
- Escape from reality
- To live vicariously through the protagonist
- To understand others and their lives
- To remember—historical fiction
Why do people read dystopian?
Thomas: Dystopian starts with an idea, philosophy, or religion and follows it to its logical conclusion. Communism seems like a good idea until you read Animal Farm.
Dystopian is typically a tragedy where the protagonist fails and often dies. If it’s not a fun read, why do people read dystopian?
Curiosity makes us who we are as humans. We want to know, even if that knowledge forces us out of paradise. Curiosity is a core psychological motivation. Given the choice between ignorant bliss and the knowledge of good and evil, humans reach for the forbidden fruit every time.
Dystopian is the fruit that opens our eyes to evil. It allows us to see the wolves dressed as sheep and the dangers of seemingly innocent ideas.
Curiosity is the number one reason people read. Most readers of nonfiction books are motivated to read because of the psychological motivator of curiosity.
Angela: I think you’re right about dystopian scratching the curiosity itch to know what another world is like. We have a yearning for knowledge about how other worlds or ideologies work. That’s why books like 1984 and Animal Farm were required reading in high school.
We see the same phenomenon in more recent stories like The Hunger Games, where the system is set up to take advantage of the less privileged people. Freedom is nonexistent, and suffering is everywhere. Dystopian fiction shows us the natural consequences of our ideologies as they’re lived out.
Thomas: I would argue that The Hunger Games explores the evils of decadence. The protagonists are the victims of decadence, just as ancient Roman slaves and gladiators were the victims of Roman decadence.
Some stories like Quo Vadis are all about the Romans, but The Hunger Games are about the folks fighting in the arena, so to speak. Dystopian stories aren’t merely making the point that “things are sad in the future.” They explore or debunk an ideology. The Hunger Games takes the shine off decadence.
Many books touch multiple genres, and I think The Hunger Games touches the adventure genre because many of the scenes are adventures.
Why do people read mysteries?
In dystopian stories, the question of the good or evil ideology lies outside the book, but in mysteries, the question lies inside the story. Reading the book is like solving a puzzle, and the reader participates in figuring it out. Many mystery readers have a deep desire for the world to be in order. Solving a puzzle (or a mystery) is emotionally satisfying because it brings order to chaos. Mysteries start with chaos and end in order as the question is answered and justice is done.
Readers love Sherlock Holmes not because he is smart but because he brings order to chaos.
Mystery scratches the curiosity itch, and keeping the question inside the book allows the reader to stay in paradise and participate in solving the puzzle, helping to bring order to chaos. In that way, mysteries are fun to read.
Angela: Mysteries usually open with the murder of a character we don’t know and aren’t emotionally invested in. A mystery is a puzzle. People love mysteries because they love to challenge their minds, learn something new along the way, and achieve the goal of figuring out “who done it.”
Why do people read thrillers?
Thomas: Humans can be both predator and prey. Lions ate humans, and humans ate lions.
The dynamic between predator and prey is often demonstrated in children’s games. For example, in the game of Tag, one child is the predator known as “it,” and the other children are the prey who run away. Hide and Seek is similar, except the prey hides instead of running.
My kids love the game Boom, Boom, Boom, where I pretend to be a giant and chase them around the house saying, “Boom, boom, boom!” When I catch them, I tickle them. Dads have probably been playing a version of the game since the dawn of time.
Thrillers are the game of Tag in story form. Typically, the protagonist starts as the prey, and at some point in the story, they become “it” and start chasing the antagonist. Sometimes the roles flip back and forth.
The thriller genre can be summarized in one line from a Rambo movie: “You’re not hunting him. He’s hunting you.” The interplay between predator and prey is at the heart of what makes a book a thriller. Suddenly the protagonist gets some knowledge or power, and the antagonist becomes afraid of the protagonist. It’s when James Bond starts chasing the villain rather than the villain chasing James Bond.
Angela: Thrillers and mysteries both fall under the umbrella of the suspense genre because they both bring order, but a thriller is a race between good and evil. A good character faces an evil character, and they battle throughout the story until the big confrontation. Throughout the story, the villain will have had more intellect, money, power, and opportunities than the good guy.
But in the end, good conquers evil through some virtue. It’s a morality tale at its core.
Even early children’s stories like Peter Rabbit teach children not to do dangerous things or visit dangerous places because danger has serious consequences. Mr. McGregor ate Peter’s father after all!
Why do people read suspense?
Thomas: The most basic form of competition is a race. Suspense is a race against a clock, a competitor, or both. Give your protagonist and antagonist a strong motivation to get something, and then throw obstacles in their paths as they race to overcome them and be the first to obtain the goal.
One key to good suspense is adding twists and turns to the race. The 100-meter dash is not an interesting race. Barring a photo finish, you can determine the winner of the 100-meter dash before runners cross the finish line.
Twists, turns, obstacles, and blind corners make a suspense novel un-put-downable because you can’t tell whether Indiana Jones will get to the Holy Grail before the Nazis.
But suspense is satisfying. You’re anticipating and enjoying the adventure of watching the race.
As an author, you can incorporate race or suspense elements into thrillers, mysteries, or any other genre. Characters may be racing against a person, but they could also be racing against the clock.
Maybe your character has only seven days to find and disarm the bomb before it goes off. Perhaps the beloved plans to marry the wrong man in seven days, so your protagonist has a week to break up the wedding.
Adding a ticking clock of some sort adds tension to your story and gives it the race element.
Angela: Those stories have other commonalities, such as the best friend who helps the main character three-quarters of the way through the journey and then suddenly betrays her.
Thomas: Understanding these psychological motivations will inform your writing and help you know when to add those elements. GPT will add those elements randomly, but you can do it on purpose, knowing why overcoming the obstacles is fun.
You are not a node on the internet. You are a human, and you can insert that joy because you understand there’s a childlike joy in knowing that it’s fun to save the world.
Why do people read science fiction?
Most modern science fiction is actually dystopian. True science fiction is rare. In true science fiction stories, like the Jetsons and Star Trek, everyone is rich and has dignity and purpose. Star Trek has a strict meritocracy where the best, most competent people have the jobs that require the most competence. Everyone is in exactly the right role.
These utopian science fiction stories are paradise. Humans long for a break from the broken world that they live in. They want to spend time in a paradise world where the struggles are external. In Star Trek, the struggles are outside The Enterprise, and the ship is a place of safety, competence, opulence, and plenty.
Science fiction started as a very optimistic genre based on the underlying belief that things are getting better and will continue to get better. Reading this kind of fiction is a welcome break from the real world.
Science fiction is like the Garden of Eden. Dystopian is like the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil that takes us out of the garden. We read science fiction when we want to feel optimistic. We read dystopian when we want to know the truth.
Angela: It’s utopian versus dystopian.
In high school, I loved the science fiction of Isaac Asimov and Michael Crichton. Crichton’s Andromeda Strain wasn’t utopian because it was about what happens when we overstep our bounds and start messing with nature, and nature bites back. We see the same theme in Jurassic Park.
I found that theme a lot in what I would call science fiction. It’s not necessarily planetary exploration, but it deals with science, particularly medical science.
Thomas: In terms of the psychological motivators, I would put Jurassic Park and much of Michael Crichton’s work in the dystopian genre because he’s exploring chaos theory.
As Malcolm is preaching chaos theory, dinosaurs are nibbling on the bars of the room. He’s lying in the medical bed talking about chaos theory.
Because Jurassic Park shows the bad things that happen when we try to over-control nature, it may be placed on the science fiction shelf. The GPT robots will think, “This is science fiction, just like all the other science fiction,” but it actually has a fundamental difference.
Dystopian science fiction or science fiction with dystopian elements is far more popular. Star Wars is very dystopian. The aesthetic design of it communicates that the former greatness has fallen. All the ships are run down and broken, the locations are messy, and most of the people are poor and suffering.
Star Trek, on the other hand, has lots of shiny ships, things work, the cities are beautiful, and the story has a much more optimistic worldview.
Different genres go in and out of fashion. Right now, people are feeling melancholy and pessimistic, so dystopian elements resonate with people more. If you follow the pendulum theory of cultural proclivities, in 20 to 40 years, that milieu will shift, and it’ll be just the opposite.
Why do people read epic fantasy?
To Effect Change Through Choices
As humans, we want to believe that we matter and our choices make a difference. The core element of fantasy is that human choices matter. Fantasy tends to start with a character who is a nobody with no power. (Harry Potter living under the stairs; Frodo Baggins living with his uncle; Eragon the poor peasant, etc.)
By the end of the story, that little person who didn’t matter has become the most important person in the story world. When Frodo fights with Gollum on Mount Doom, he and Gollum are the most important people in the world. They determine the fate of all races of Middle Earth.
Many humans aspire to take the journey from nothing and nobody to something and somebody.
Something deep within us wants dragons to be real, but even more than that, we want to believe that dragons can be slain. The world is a scary place, and we want to feel brave. Epic fantasy can give us that feeling.
To Experience Magic as Real
Humans long to escape the mundane. Something inside us wants to believe in magic, elves, vampires, and wizards.
Historically, one difference between science fiction and fantasy is morality. Fantasy used to have clear morality. Elves good, Orcs bad. For example, Dungeons and Dragons has a moral system built into the core of the game.
Lawful Good Matrix
Science Fiction, on the other hand, has complicated morality. The Klingons are not evil, and the Vulcans are not good. With this view, Star Wars is a space fantasy with space wizards, rather than true science fiction. It is also more dystopian than utopian.
Angela: I actually don’t like fantasy, so as you were explaining, I was trying to psychoanalyze myself. Why wouldn’t I like to think my choices matter? I don’t know. I used to think I didn’t like fantasy because I was so pragmatic and practical. All my novels are rooted in reality.
But I think you have a point. Everybody feels special in some way, and we get irked when the world doesn’t realize how special we are. If we publicize our feelings, then we’re full-blown narcissists, but I think you’re right about why fantasy appeals to people.
Thomas: On the nature-versus-nurture or free-will-versus-predestination spectrum, where do you land? I’m curious if that impacts whether you believe your choices matter.
Angela: I’m firmly in the camp that God is sovereign, and everything is predetermined. That probably does impact my feelings for the genre.
Thomas: Whether you’re religious or not, the debate is basically the same. Religious communities use the terms free will and predestination, and scientific communities use the terms nature and nurture. In both communities, people argue on both sides.
The epic fantasy genre allows you to talk about that core debate. Am I the way I am because of my choices or my environment and other people’s (or beings’) choices? Epic fantasy allows you to explore that question.
I think the core of epic fantasy is the desire for free will to be real, and epic fantasy lets me feel that it is, even if deep down I believe I’m a product of my environment.
Angela: To clarify, I believe we have free will on our plane of existence, but I also believe there’s a higher plane of existence than ours where we can’t control everything. There are limits to human abilities, and maybe that’s the belief I can’t suspend.
Thomas: No one is a fan of all of these genres.
When you’re writing a novel, you need to know who you’re writing to and what mood they want to experience while reading.
GPT can’t ask those questions, but you can. The answers to those questions will help you refocus on what makes your book work.
Why do people read romance? (Beauty and the Beast plots)
Angela: Romance is the most popular genre in the world, but I’m not particularly keen on romance either. I like books with romantic elements. I’m happily married and believe in love and marriage, but a book whose sole purpose is to get a guy and girl together so they live happily ever after doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather pick up something else.
Thomas: I think we need to separate romance into sub-genres.
The theme song lyrics in Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast call the story a “tale as old as time.” And it’s true. You can find beauty-and-the-beast tales in the murky ancient history of humanity. You’ll even find one in the Bible!
Why has this beauty-and-the-beast type plot captivated readers of the Book of Ruth, Cupid and Psyche, Pride and Prejudice, as well as millions of Disney movie viewers?
What is the appeal? Here is my theory:
Some women long to feel beautiful, wanted, safe, and rich. Ruth falls in love with Boaz’s food and wealth before falling in love with him. Elizabeth Bennet falls in love with Mr. Darcy’s house before falling in love with Darcy. Belle first falls in love with Beast’s books.
After they fall in love, the woman helps civilize the man. Beast learns table manners, Darcy learns humility, and Boaz learns he is not too old for love. These stories resonate with readers because women have a civilizing effect on men. It’s as true today as when a woman first handed a man a bar of soap in the ancient past.
In beauty-and-the-beast stories, order is brought to chaos. The man brings order (provision, protection, preference) to the woman’s chaos, and the woman brings order (civilization) to the man’s chaos. When the story is done well, this plot structure is emotionally satisfying.
When Beast jumps between Belle and the wolves, the viewer finally starts rooting for Beast. Beast is the villain, but he transitions to the hero, and Belle follows him home and cares for his needs. It’s unattractive for a man to hide behind his woman in the face of danger. But it’s attractive when the man gets between the woman and danger.
Angela: I disagree that the woman is attracted to the man’s books, wealth, or house. Love is about the person, not about the things. The books may have attracted Belle to Beast’s palace. Sometimes a man’s physical attractiveness draws a woman. Still, women in romances always see the man as a beast, not necessarily in appearance, but in manners, understanding, or lack thereof.
In romances, a woman is drawn to the man, but she has to “tame him” so that the man can be who the woman needs him to be, which he probably would’ve been all along if she could have seen past his beastliness. But as I said, romance is not my genre.
Thomas: It’s not my genre either, but if you’re reading this and you think we’ve missed something, please comment below the blog post or in the comments at AuthorMedia.social so that other romance readers and writers can chime in and help us all write better than ChatGPT.
Why do readers read romantic comedies?
Thomas: While beauty-and-the-beast stories tend to be serious, romantic comedies focus on how silly romantic love can be. While men and women are similar in many ways, they are also incredibly different. Differences lead to relational confusion, which makes readers laugh.
Bawdy humor is one of the oldest forms of humor. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is still funny today.
While romance is deadly serious and a core element of human survival, it is also ridiculously funny.
Angela: Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. It’s always been that way and always will be.
Why do people read monster hunter books?
Thomas: The beauty-and-the-beast plot is structured from the woman’s perspective. The male perspective on that same sort of story is a monster hunter book.
A man dreams of protecting his family from bad guys. In the movie, A Christmas Story, even young Ralphie daydreams of shooting burglars with his Red Ryder BB Gun.
You can also see the protector’s daydream come to life when Conan the Barbarian puts himself between the monster and the woman in danger.
The modern story that plays to this fantasy is Monster Hunter International. In the MHI books, rednecks with shotguns keep the world safe from vampires, zombies, and all manner of evil creatures.
Angela: I cannot think of a romance where the man is the main character, and the story is told from his point of view. I think a man demonstrates his love for his wife or child by defending their honor or physical safety.
In Liam Neeson’s movie series Taken, he proves his love by showing, “You’re not gonna take my daughter or my wife.” Technically those movies aren’t romances. They’re thrillers because he always goes after the bad guys to rescue his beloved person.
Why do people read coming-of-age stories?
I want to make the distinction that coming-of-age is a plot structure, and YA is an audience. Any of the above genres could be written for a YA audience. Coming-of-age is a type of plot targeted toward younger readers.
Coming-of-age stories have fallen out of fashion to some extent. Ancient people viewed manhood and adulthood as two different things. You could be an adult male, but being a man was something else entirely.
Ancient cultures often had a process that involved great rituals that celebrated the boy’s entrance into manhood. Such rites of passage are still practiced in tribal cultures around the world and in the Jewish celebration of a bar mitzvah.
A coming-of-age story where the main character is male offers an answer to the question, “What does it mean to be a man?”
The story of Old Yeller answers that question. Being a man is about learning how to do the difficult thing to protect your family. When the young man’s beloved dog gets rabies, he has to protect his family from harm. Rabies was dangerous, especially in that setting when there was no rabies shot. He didn’t want to shoot the dog, but the painful thing was the right thing to do.
But that is not a popular genre today. Even the idea that manhood is separate from being an adult male has become very controversial.
Angela: To me, a coming-of-age story is when a person tells a story, either in real-time or as an extended flashback, of a time in their life when they matured and learned an important life lesson. There are lots of coming-of-age stories for women.
To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind since the story is told from Scout’s point of view about that summer when she learned so many lessons.
Another female coming-of-age novel was, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Bloom.
Thomas: If you’re thinking of a book that’s a perfect example, please drop the title and your thoughts in the comments of this post at AuthorMedia.social or in the comments below the blog post.
Your Advantage Over GPT
Hopefully, your gears have started turning, and this conversation has triggered an emotional response. Whether you’re happy, sad, or angry, your emotional response is your competitive advantage that will help you write better than GPT. Robots can’t have or provide an emotional reaction.
Angela: Novels are emotional journeys that people want to learn from, and that’s one of the most important things to remember as you strive to write a better story than GPT can.
Thomas: Whatever genre you write, figure out why people read books in your genre. If your book scratches the itch that people have for reading, you’ll out-write the robots. You’ll also be better able to pitch, sell, and convince readers to try your book.
You can’t fix a bad book with good marketing. If you don’t write the kind of book that people want to read, none of the rest of it matters. GPT can write a grammatically correct book with good prose, but it can’t understand what readers want and why.
Once you write a good book that people want, you’ll write a better book than GPT ever could, and everything else gets easier.
Books on Craft Help You Write Better Than GPT
If you need help writing a good book, I highly recommend Angela Hunt’s excellent book on craft called Writing Lessons from the Front, a 10-book volume of writing lessons. “Lessons cover plot structure, characterization, point of view, evoking emotion, self-editing, creating and maintaining tension, writing historical fiction, writing the children’s picture book, plans and processes to get your book finished, self-publishing, and a complete writer’s checklist that will take you from prewriting to publication, including details on how to publish on Kindle Direct Publishing.”
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Daniel Bishop, author of Place of Refuge
Dyanna Jo knew she was meant to be a mom. Her body disagreed. After a devastating miscarriage, she starts to research foster care and adoption. Will Heaven send a baby to a family full of love to give?
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