The other day I asked ChatGPT to help me strengthen the blurb for my newest erotic romance. It failed miserably – but that’s a different tale. What’s really interesting to me is what happened before I gave it my blurb.
Me: Can you write me an effective, punchy two sentence summary for the blurb of my romance novel?
[I then hit return, planning to enter the blurb text in the next paragraph. The LLM jumped the gun, creating perhaps the most generic blurb in existence.]
“Passion ignites when an unlikely pair of strangers cross paths, but as secrets unravel and pasts collide, their love story becomes a heart-pounding journey of desire and destiny.”
Pay attention: this is what you get when you give the model no context, other than the genre. Basically, we have a naked list of tropes:
- Opposites attract
- Strangers to lovers
- Secrets of the past
- Destined lovers
How many romances do you think would fit this mini-blurb? (Could I ask ChatGPT for a list?) Thousands, I’d imagine. Perhaps tens of thousands. (Just searching Amazon for “romance novels”, I get over 70,000 results.)
Lately, books have started listing the relevant tropes in the title or subtitle. A fellow romance author recently offered me a spot for one of my books in her newsletter. “Send me the cover, a short blurb, buy links and the tropes,” she said.
Hmm. I’ve never thought about the tropes in my stories.
Well, actually I have, occasionally. When I think about tropes, it’s usually because I’m trying to subvert them.
The same thing seems to be happening in the world of erotica. Subtitles have gotten ridiculously explicit, and now blurbs are following suit. A recent ad I saw in the Excite Spice newsletter provided the following list rather than a real blurb:
This story contains:
Milk & Ice Play
Taboo Age Gap
Too Big to Fit
Messy Finishes Deep Inside
Forced & Stretched
Of course, in the case of smut, tropes might be called kinks, but the objective is the same: to let readers select stories that are similar to ones they’ve read and enjoyed previously.
So why is this a bad thing? Don’t we want our readers to be satisfied and happy? Given how busy everyone seems to be in this digital age, why not make it easy for people to find what they’re looking for? One search, a couple of clicks, and Bingo! You’ve got a story just like the one you read last week, that you liked.
And next week, you can find another instance with the same themes and plot elements. Satisfaction guaranteed?
Not my satisfaction, certainly. I don’t want my reading to be predictable. I seek originality, not sameness. I don’t want to read the same book over and over again. Sure, I have my own favorite genres and kinks, but I’m happiest when a writer surprises me.
I may be a curmudgeon, but I believe that tropes make people lazy, not to mention risk-averse. A slavish adherence to tropes (and an over-reliance on them for marketing) also impacts the overall quality of the books that are out there. It’s pretty easy to assemble a story from a list of tropes – not necessarily a good story, but one that will tick the boxes of a reader’s expectations. The story might not be very deep. It might not feel genuine. It might not even totally make sense. But hey, it’s what the reader asked for, right?
Many authors are (rightfully) concerned that the rise of LLMs like ChatGPT will make it even harder for humans to write books that sell. AI can already generate stories that a fairly non-critical reader would deem acceptable.
Tropes make that much, much easier. The more stereotyped the framework of a story, the more likely it is that AI’s predictive capabilities will match the expectations. After all, the models have been trained to find and regurgitate patterns.
Just for the heck of it, I asked ChatGPT to write me a four paragraph romance using the tropes instalove, strangers to lovers and past secrets. This is what it came up with:
In the heart of a bustling city, two souls collided on a fateful afternoon. Amelia had always been a firm believer in love at first sight, and when her eyes locked with Oliver’s from across a crowded coffee shop, she knew that she had just experienced it. He, too, was struck by a magnetic force, as if their connection was destined from the start. As strangers to one another, their hearts embarked on a journey neither of them could have predicted.
Amelia was an open book, her emotions displayed for the world to see. She wore her heart on her sleeve, but Oliver was the complete opposite. Mysterious and reserved, he had a past filled with secrets that he guarded with utmost care. Yet, as they spent more time together, their connection deepened, and Amelia’s curiosity grew. She couldn’t help but wonder about the enigmatic man she had fallen for, wanting to unlock the mysteries that shrouded him.
As days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, Amelia and Oliver’s love blossomed. Their shared experiences and whispered secrets drew them closer, but the weight of Oliver’s hidden past loomed over them. He knew he couldn’t keep his secrets forever, and the time had come to reveal the truth. With trembling hands and a heart heavy with regret, he finally opened up to Amelia about his past, laying bare the secrets that had haunted him for so long. It was a pivotal moment in their relationship, and the way Amelia responded would determine the course of their love story.
Amelia, though taken aback by Oliver’s revelations, held him close, offering forgiveness and understanding. Their love had grown stronger through their journey from strangers to lovers, and now, by confronting the secrets of the past, they had cemented their bond. As the sun set on that unforgettable day, Amelia and Oliver realized that their love had triumphed over the obstacles in its path, and they were ready to face the future together, hand in hand, as a testament to the power of instalove and the strength of love that conquers even the darkest of secrets.
I think tropes may make writers lazy as well. If readers do not in fact care about novelty or creativity, why should authors bother? Just write yet another secret baby story, yet another hotwife adventure, yet another tale about getting it on with my step-brother, and get it out there to satisfy the public’s appetite for sameness.
I know I probably sound bitter. I can’t change the public, or the market. Over the last few weeks, though, I’ve been browsing through my author’s copies of the annual Best New Erotica series, edited by Maxim Jakubowski. These were published during the first decade or so of the twenty-first century, the golden age of erotica—or so it seems now.
Some of the tales in these volumes are simply marvelous—luminous, arousing, clever, disturbing, uplifting. The thing that strikes me most, though, the diversity—diversity of style, mood and content. Plus the fact that the best stories could never be summarized in the few words of a trope.