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Conquer Your Novel’s Messy Middle with ChatGPT

writer on the floor surrounded by papers, stuck

Use these two methods to get unstuck in your fiction project right away!

After writing a recent post about using ChatGPT to get unstuck on a project, I started to really think more about how to use ChatGPT when I’m stuck in the messy middle. I noticed that in my books and posts, I often talk about how to get started with ChatGPT, but I haven’t talked much about what to do when you’ve got 23,000 words of a novel written and no idea what to do next. 

So today I’ll walk through how I’m currently using ChatGPT to get back to work on one of my partial projects. I hope it helps you, if you are stuck too!

Re-Imagine Your Outline with ChatGPT

The first thing I did with my current WIP, Darkest of Waters, was to go through and make a brief outline of what I have done so far, including important story information like people, places, etc. After I summarized everything I’d already written, I briefly described what I thought would happen with the rest of the book. Then I asked ChatGPT to help me create a complete outline.

ME: I would like help creating an outline for the rest of this book. I have the first act mostly done but i’m not sure what comes next. I’m going to give you a list of the pieces I have already written and then a brief description of what I think should end up happening and I would like you to create a complete outline based on that. Here is the list and description: 

1. 18 year old Sophia Hughes arrives in Karlsbad, Bohemia. Her parents were killed in a horrible attack that left her scarred mentally and physically and now she has come to live with her aunt Renata (her mother’s sister) and Uncle Gregor (a charismatic but out of control psychologist). While she waits on the platform, she sees a popular medium, Madame Harmon, interact with a woman. Then a servant shows up to get her and Sophia is disappointed that her aunt didn’t come to pick her up.

2. She arrives at Statsny Manor, where she will be living. She meets Aunt Renata and her female cousin Lida and both are cold and mean. They don’t want her there. They show her through the house, she meets her uncle in the drawing room and his fellow psychologist Emil, who will end up being the romantic interest for Sophia, and the uncle immediately starts to ask her questions about the attack and her symptoms. He wants to experiment on her. She is overwhelmed and exhausted and after they take her to her room, she passes out.

3. Sophia has a bad dream of men chasing her and wakes to hear banging on the wall. She knocks a pitcher over and her maid Marie comes in to help her and introduce herself. She takes her to breakfast downstairs and Marie hints that she is uncomfortable with things that happen in the house.

4. She meets her male cousin and talks to her aunt briefly at breakfast. Her aunt tells her they are going to the spa and want her to come too and that they will be hosting a seance with madame harmon later. After breakfast she explores the house, finding a secret passage that leads down to the basement that is damp and old and rock, she closes it up and doesn’t go in.

5. Later they go to the spa. Her aunt and Lida are rude and ignore her. She meets Madame harmon and then goes to her own private bath where she has a hallucination that she’s attacked in the water.

6. When she returns to Statsny manor she talks more to Marie about having trouble because of her attack including hallucinations. She tells Marie about the attack and Marie tells Sophia that young women are often brought to Statsny Manor to stay for psychological treatment and disappear or freak out.

7. The seance happens and Sophia’s mother’s ghost is released into the house. Sophia hallucinates again, goes outside, wakes up after fainting. Everyone knows she is crazy. They try scrying and Sophia sees Emil come up behind her in the mirror. She drops it and it shatters.

After this I want Sophia to start having encounters with ghosts, hearing things, seeing women. I want a family to come to the door demanding to have their daughter returned. Eventually she will start to uncover what’s really going on, that Uncle Gregor is experimenting on young women, and when they eventually die, he feeds them into the hot springs pool underneath the house because he’s convinced it’s giving him powers. Emil will gradually become involved romantically with Sophia and he has a past that is a mystery, she doesn’t know how much he’s involved with Uncle Gregor. At the end, she has to confront everything and have the authorities come and she and Emil will leave on the train to go back to her home in England.

GPT-4: Based on the provided information, here is a complete outline for the rest of the book:

Act 1:

(Chapters 1-7) As detailed in your description.

Act 2:

Sophia experiences her first encounter with a ghost; she is frightened but intrigued.

Sophia begins researching the history of Statsny Manor and the local legends, discovering a dark past.

The family that demands their daughter’s return arrives; Sophia is curious and feels compelled to investigate further.

Sophia and Emil grow closer, sharing their own experiences and troubles; Emil remains somewhat mysterious.

Sophia discovers more about Emil’s past, questioning his involvement with Uncle Gregor.

A series of ghostly encounters lead Sophia to find hidden journals and documents about Uncle Gregor’s experiments.

Sophia and Emil secretly explore the secret passage and the basement, finding evidence of the missing women.

Sophia confides in Marie about her discoveries; Marie becomes an ally and shares her own suspicions.

Act 3:

Sophia is caught snooping by Lida, who threatens to expose her unless she stops digging into the family’s secrets.

Emil reveals the extent of his knowledge about Uncle Gregor’s experiments and his own past, solidifying his alliance with Sophia.

Sophia and Emil gather concrete evidence of Uncle Gregor’s wrongdoings and the fate of the missing women.

Sophia confronts Aunt Renata, who reluctantly admits her knowledge of the experiments but fears Uncle Gregor’s wrath.

An intense confrontation occurs between Sophia, Emil, and Uncle Gregor; the truth about the hot springs pool is revealed.

The authorities arrive, alerted by Sophia and Emil, and arrest Uncle Gregor.

The house is cleansed of its dark energy, and the spirits of the missing women find peace.

Sophia and Emil say their goodbyes to Marie and the others, deciding to leave Statsny Manor and start a new life together.

Sophia and Emil board the train to England, hopeful for a brighter future.

This outline maintains the Gothic and mysterious tone, delves into the supernatural elements, and ties together the various plot threads. It also allows for a satisfying conclusion, wherein Sophia confronts her fears and overcomes the darkness surrounding her family.

Even getting the messy ideas I had into a sort of structure/outline got my mind working on how to proceed. But from this point, I asked ChatGPT to drill down into each section more, using the following style prompt: 

PROMPT: Can you help me develop act 2 with more detail for each chapter?

As these more detailed outlines were created I changed them where needed and then asked for a more and more detailed outline, until I got down to the level that would help me start writing the actual pieces again. I changed pieces that didn’t work, and asked it to retry a few times, but now I have a decent outline that will get me moving forward again. 

I’m guessing based on past experience that the outline will shift as I move through the book, but I think this is a really good strategy whenever I get stuck, to feed ChatGPT what I have already and ask it to create a new outline. I imagine it would work wherever in your project you get stalled.

Dig Into Character Goals with ChatGPT

One other thing I did that really helped was ask about the main character’s goals. I watched this great YouTube video, How to Fix a Saggy Middle, about how a lot of times writers get stuck because their character’s goals don’t change enough, which really helped me. So then I asked ChatGPT to analyze the goals of my main character and it was totally amazing! It gave me a lot more to work with, smaller goals to focus on that help propel me to new ways of seeing the pieces of my project. Here is the conversation:

ME: can you help me think through what Sophia’s goals are and how they might change over the course of the book?

GPT-4: Certainly! Here’s a breakdown of Sophia’s goals throughout the book and how they evolve as the story progresses:

Initial Goal: Finding a sense of safety and belonging

Sophia arrives at Statsny Manor after her parents’ tragic death, seeking refuge and hoping to find a new home with her relatives.

Adaptation: Adjusting to her new environment and family

Sophia tries to adapt to life at Statsny Manor and understand her family’s dynamics, despite their coldness and apparent hostility.

Curiosity: Unraveling the mysteries of Statsny Manor

As Sophia experiences ghostly encounters and hears about the missing women, she becomes determined to uncover the truth behind the manor’s dark history.

Building Relationships: Connecting with Emil and Marie

Sophia forms bonds with Emil and Marie, finding allies and emotional support in her quest to understand the supernatural occurrences and her family’s secrets.

Seeking the Truth: Investigating Uncle Gregor’s experiments

Sophia’s goal shifts towards exposing the truth behind Uncle Gregor’s experiments and the fate of the missing women, as she becomes more involved in the mystery.

Saving the Innocent: Protecting the victims and their families

Sophia’s focus broadens to include not only uncovering the truth but also protecting and saving the remaining victims and helping the families of the missing women find closure.

Personal Growth: Confronting her past and overcoming her fears

Sophia realizes that she must confront her own traumatic past and fears in order to face the darkness at Statsny Manor and find the strength to put an end to the suffering.

Final Goal: Exposing Uncle Gregor and seeking justice

Sophia’s ultimate goal becomes bringing Uncle Gregor to justice, ensuring that his experiments and abuse of power come to an end.

Throughout the book, Sophia’s goals evolve as she uncovers more about her new environment and the mysteries surrounding her family. Her journey is one of personal growth and empowerment, as she confronts her past, forms meaningful relationships, and seeks to right the wrongs committed by her uncle.

Now I have an outline coupled with story goals to think about and it’s helping me get back to drafting. Hopefully I’ll remember this technique the next time I’m stuck!

Do you have questions about using this technique for your own project? Ask in the comments below!

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