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A Complete Short Story Walkthrough: Using ChatGPT to Create a Mystery Story From Start to Finish (Part 1)

detective sitting at his desk, illustration

This is part 1 of 3. Read part 2 here. Read Part 3 here.

GPT-4 came out recently and I’ve been geeking out on it a whole lot, just seeing what it might be capable of. So far I’ve discovered that it can write entire stories from a picture, create sudoku and crossword puzzles, and create a business plan around an app idea and then help me create the app.

More importantly for me as a fiction writer, it’s gotten a whole lot better at creating fiction (with a lot of guidance, as was always the case).

I decided to test out its abilities on a short story that I had almost no specifics for, just to see what it could do and I thought I would share that entire process here, from start to finish. Hopefully it will help some of you get ideas for how to use ChatGPT in your own creations.

Because this turned out to be an incredibly long exchange, I plan to break up these posts into a small series that outlines the entire process I used to create the story with ChatGPT, along with notes about why I did the things I did. I’ll link to the other posts in the series as they become available.

So without further ado, here is the exchange that led to the creation of “Fires of Deceit”


Begin with Brainstorming

Throughout this section I’ll add notes about why I chose the prompts I did in italics and pullquotes. Everything in regular font is the original conversation between ChatGPT and myself. 

[nova@novaleigh.net]

I want to write a mystery short story, about 1500 words long, that follows a traditional mystery format, and is about a private detective who investigates the murder of a small town hero. Can you help me think through what I need to develop this story?

I intentionally kept the beginning prompt vague because I didn’t have a strong sense of the story I wanted to tell, and I wanted to see what GPT-4 was capable of. This was truly a collaboration between us. When I begin a new project I very often spend some time simply brainstorming through possibilities, like I’ve done in the exchanges that follow.

[GPT]

Of course, I’d be happy to help you think through the elements you need to develop a compelling mystery short story. Here’s a list of important aspects to consider, along with some ideas to get you started:

1.  Setting: Choose a small town with a unique atmosphere that can serve as the backdrop for your story. It could be a quaint coastal village, a historic mining town, or a tight-knit rural community. Ensure that the setting plays a role in the story, adding to the overall ambiance and providing interesting locations for key events

2.  Characters:

a. Private Detective: Create a well-developed protagonist with a distinctive personality and backstory. Consider giving them a personal connection to the town or the victim to raise the stakes.

b. Victim: The small town hero should be a character whose murder has a significant impact on the community. This person might be a beloved teacher, a successful entrepreneur, or a volunteer firefighter. Flesh out their backstory and consider motives that could lead someone to murder them.

c. Suspects: Develop a diverse cast of interesting suspects, each with their own secrets and potential motives. These characters could include a jealous sibling, a bitter ex-lover, a resentful coworker, or a desperate debtor.

d. Supporting characters: Populate your story with secondary characters who help move the plot forward, such as the local sheriff, a nosy reporter, or the victim’s family members.

3.  Plot:

a. Inciting Incident: Begin with the discovery of the small town hero’s murder. The private detective might be hired by the victim’s family, the town council, or simply be drawn into the case due to their personal connection.

b. Investigation: Develop a series of investigative scenes where the detective interviews suspects, uncovers clues, and learns more about the victim and the town. Include red herrings and plot twists to keep readers guessing.

c. Climax: Create a tense and suspenseful climax where the detective confronts the killer, perhaps during a town event or in a secluded location. Include a final twist or revelation that exposes the murderer’s motive.

d. Resolution: Wrap up the story with a satisfying resolution, detailing the aftermath of the case and the impact on the detective, the town, and the victim’s family.

4.  Theme: Consider incorporating a theme that adds depth to your story. This could involve exploring the dark side of small-town life, the nature of heroism, or the consequences of jealousy and greed.

5.  Tone and Style: Establish a consistent tone and style throughout your story. This might involve using a first-person narrative from the detective’s perspective, employing atmospheric descriptions, or employing a dry, witty writing style to reflect the detective’s personality.

    Once you’ve brainstormed these elements, create an outline to organize your ideas and ensure a well-structured plot. With a strong foundation in place, you can then begin writing your 1500-word mystery short story.

[nova@novaleigh.net]

Because it’s such a short story I want to keep it to only a few characters, probably 5-10. I also want to start the story with someone coming to the private detective for help. Maybe the victim’s father who also knows the detective because the victim and the detective used to be friends, or used to play baseball together. The private detective grew up in the town and knows all about the murder already because everyone is talking about it. The man who was murdered was a classmate of the detective’s and he’s motivated not only by the fee that the father of the victim offers him but by figuring out who did it because he feels guilty about losing touch with the victim over the years even though they live in the same town. I like the idea that the victim is a volunteer firefighter. I think one of the suspects might be the wife. And I want the detective main character to be named Lincoln.

This is just me brainstorming as I go, talking it through with ChatGPT. Very often my prompts are like this.

Image: Midjourney

[GPT]

That sounds like a great starting point for your mystery short story. Here’s a brief outline based on your ideas, featuring a limited cast of characters and a strong personal connection between the detective and the victim:

1.  Setting: A small town with a close-knit community where everyone knows each other.

2.  Characters: a. Lincoln: The private detective and former classmate of the victim. He used to play baseball with the victim and feels guilty about losing touch over the years. b. Victim: A volunteer firefighter and former friend of Lincoln. He was well-respected in the community and his murder has left the town in shock. c. Victim’s Father: An older man who approaches Lincoln for help in solving his son’s murder. He’s aware of Lincoln’s past friendship with his son and offers a fee for his services. d. Wife: The victim’s wife, who is one of the main suspects in the case. She may have a hidden motive, such as a secret affair, financial troubles, or a contentious relationship with her husband. e. Suspect 2: Another suspect with a motive, such as a fellow firefighter who was jealous of the victim’s status or an ex-lover with a grudge. f. Suspect 3: A third suspect who is connected to the victim in some way, such as a childhood friend with a dark secret or a local business owner who had a dispute with the victim.

3.  Plot: a. Inciting Incident: The victim’s father visits Lincoln at his office, requesting help in solving his son’s murder. He shares information about the case and appeals to Lincoln’s past friendship with the victim. b. Investigation: Lincoln interviews the victim’s wife, discovering inconsistencies in her story. He also speaks with the other suspects, uncovering their motives and possible connections to the crime. c. Climax: Lincoln gathers the suspects in a public setting (like a town hall meeting) and reveals the truth about the murderer, exposing their motive and the evidence that ties them to the crime. d. Resolution: With the murderer brought to justice, Lincoln reflects on his renewed connection to the town and the resolution of his guilt regarding his estranged friendship with the victim.

4.  Theme: The story could explore themes of guilt, friendship, and the impact of our choices on the people around us.

5.  Tone and Style: A first-person narrative from Lincoln’s perspective, using descriptive language and a sense of nostalgia for the small-town setting.

By following this outline and adding your own unique elements, you’ll be well on your way to crafting a compelling mystery short story.

Image: Midjourney

[nova@novaleigh.net]

I like this a lot for the most part but I think because it’s such a short story, I might want to focus on a very small plot and only a couple of characters. Your outline gave me some ideas though. What if the entire story revolves around the wife and a fellow firefighter who have been having an affair and want to run away so they’ve conspired to kill the victim, let’s call him Aaron. I think the detective will figure out what happened fairly quickly but he needs to prove it. And I think that will entail catching one of them or both of them in a lie. I kind of think this might happen at the climax and that the gathering in a public place is really just that he calls them over to the father’s house and talks through what happened and surprises them with some evidence he’s uncovered.

[GPT]

I see where you’re coming from, and focusing on a small plot with a few characters can create a more intimate and compelling short story. Here’s a revised outline based on your ideas:

1.  Setting: A small town where everyone knows each other, and gossip spreads quickly.

2.  Characters: Lincoln: The private detective and former classmate of the victim, Aaron. He feels guilty about losing touch with Aaron over the years. b. Aaron: The victim and a volunteer firefighter. His murder has left the town in shock. c. Aaron’s Father: He approaches Lincoln for help in solving his son’s murder, offering a fee for his services. d. Wife: Aaron’s wife, who has been having an affair with a fellow firefighter. e. Fellow Firefighter: Aaron’s colleague and the wife’s secret lover. He’s been conspiring with the wife to kill Aaron and run away together.

3.  Plot: a. Inciting Incident: Aaron’s father visits Lincoln at his office, requesting help in solving his son’s murder. He shares information about the case and appeals to Lincoln’s past friendship with Aaron. b. Investigation: Lincoln speaks with the wife and fellow firefighter separately, observing their reactions and noting inconsistencies in their stories. He also uncovers evidence that suggests their affair and possible motive for murder. c. Climax: Lincoln invites the wife and fellow firefighter to Aaron’s father’s house. He confronts them with the evidence he’s gathered, catching them in their lies and forcing them to confess their guilt. d. Resolution: The wife and fellow firefighter are arrested, and justice is served. Lincoln reflects on the resolution of his guilt regarding his estranged friendship with Aaron and the impact of his investigation on the town.

4.  Theme: The story could explore themes of guilt, betrayal, and the consequences of dishonesty.

5.  Tone and Style: A first-person narrative from Lincoln’s perspective, using descriptive language to create an intimate and suspenseful atmosphere.

    By focusing on this streamlined plot and the relationships between the characters, your short mystery story should be engaging and impactful.


As you can see, with just a few prompts I was able to start getting a good idea of the story, the tone, the theme, the characters, and how I might put the plot together. You can do as much or as little changing of the outputs as you want during this process. I intentionally didn’t do much as far as guiding or correcting this story.

Next time I’ll share the process of character development and mystery elements ChatGPT and I created. This series will end with the actual text creation and the final story, as told by ChatGPT.

Read part 2, Character and Mystery Development

Read part 3, Text Generation


ChatGPT for Fiction Writing by Nova Leigh cover

Want to learn more about writing fiction with ChatGPT? Check out my book, ChatGPT for Fiction Writing!

Filled with detailed tips, explanations, prompts and examples, this is a great guide for anyone wanting to start writing better fiction faster.

Includes an entire chapter on researching for fiction.


“Only actionable book I have ever read in kindle.” – Amazon Reviewer

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