Recently the DISC community has been on the most wonderful of adventures! Three months ago we began experimenting with Artificial Intelligence and what it might mean for storytelling. Over the course of three DISC Online Cafes, we created two digital zines, simple story books, documenting the results of these experiments. We also took a leap into the world of AI storytelling, with surprising results.
1. Together We Can
It all stared with a a collective effort a practice in manifesting a story from a set of simple and creative prompts designed by Terra. Michael, Francine, Idger Zwiers, and Sally Kawamura then took turns telling a spontaneous story, one that a moment before had not existed.
Meanwhile, I was furiously at work on the other side of the Zoom cafe, transcribing the story and dumping the prompts into the easy to use and free art generator at deepai.org. I quickly noticed that the Comic Portrait and Fantasy World styles seemed to match relatively well, and they fit nicely to the story that was emerging.
Finding styles that work together for a story book can be tricky working with AI. Every image is unique, and the same prompt never generates the same, or sometimes even similar results. Check out these examples from the prompt: a ship sailing at sea being chased by a giant whale in the style of an epic painting.
A lot of time can go into tuning the exact phrasing of the prompt and collecting a gallery of images to work with later. For this story I created more than 100 images to find the best 21 to finally help tell our story. That might seem like a lot, but the AI is really fast, we were able to have a nearly complete draft of the book ready within a few of hours!
Download Together We Can here:
2. The Story of the Snakes
Our second book is based on a very different kind of story, and therefore called for a very different kind of approach. This time Michael brought with him a tiny slice of a grand Indonesian tale. A spontaneous story, like Together We Can, is by nature sparse. I was able to write it all down and create most of the images at the same time.
With Michael's story, I just couldn’t keep up. The story had too many specific details and I was getting lost in them. Then something funny happened. Our story was flagged by the Artificial Intelligence's safety protocols, and I got kicked out of the system (sort of)!
I was fully engrossed in the story work, and we were just coming to the moment where the mother is trying to hide her literally brilliant boy. I typed a child laying under a blanket on a bed with a bright light shining from under the covers without even thinking. Just like in the story.
I hit enter. Some text showed up but no picture. I was listening to the story and didn't want to read so I hit enter again. And again, and again, and again. The same thing happened.
Finally I stopped to read the text.
It was too late. No matter what prompt I tried, I would only get that message and no image. It seemed I had been temporarily locked out of the system. Later testing revealed that the combination of child & bed/covers is blocked every time.
This closed the door on our AI test for the day, but it opened an unexpected conversation to wrap up the café, where together we tried to make sense of the future of Artificial Intelligence in society.
A few days later I came back and wrapped up the next series in our experiment. A different style of book for a different style of story.
Download the Story of the Snakes here:
3. Flipping the Script
So far we'd had the AI in the room, but we'd never invited it on stage. We thought after the wonderful images we'd seen, it was time for the real test. For the May cafe, we would see if it could create a story for us.
This experiment coincided with the most beautiful spring day The Netherlands had seen in years. Not great if you are hosting a Saturday evening online storytelling cafe...or so we thought.
We did have an intimate crowd of five, but this closeness led us down an unexpected path. The evening started slow enough, we weren't sure of even how to start. I'd done some experimenting the week before, and found the AI to be very wordy. It had trouble getting to the essence of storytelling, even after a few tips from my side.
Wondering where to start, we were talking about a story my muse had asked for: a dog and a seagull fighting over a yellow fisherman's hat. Francine laughed. It's a funny idea for a story she said, let's try it.
I plugged in the prompt and eight prompts came out. We played with the AI for a bit on the meat of the story, asking it for some extra characters and places. Then, it was time to begin.
"All right. So this is very exciting and scary at the same time..." Francine said. "...there was once a dog. And his name was Max. And max was a playful dog."
Quite an entertaining story began to emerge, with a wise turtle, a cheeky crab, and a warm, sweet ending that was all of Francine's making. As we discussed later in the cafe, the AI tends to leave the end of the story hanging open, which for our purposes is excellent.
Watching Francine was great fun, and we spent a few minutes basking in the joy of such a random story. We were having so much fun, we decided to create another one. This time we constructed the prompt together, landing on: Can you write us eight story bones for a story about an old wise woman and a cat on the edge of a lake in a folktale style with a moral lesson. it is winter in a far far away land, where they sing a lot.
This time I took the helm. I found the AI's bones to be freeing. They were an easy template to work from, with a nice balance of space between the bones to fit in my own ideas. Again the ending was left to the storyteller, the AI only offered the vaguest of suggestions for an conclusion.
We wrapped up the evening with one last story from the AI, this time told by Marijke. She created for a very different kind of prompt, asking the AI to include some very specific details: can you write seven bones for a oral story that takes places in the cold part of Russia? About Dimitri has been studying in libraries all his life and a young boy living in the same village. A book comes to life in the story. Include the colours white, grey, and greenish.
For the third time in the night, a member of our community took the rough bones the AI provided and turned them into a magical story. This time we dove, quite literally, into a magical book with Dimitri. There he was lost in a fantasy world until a young boy named Nikolai helped him rediscover the spark of the real world.
Along the way we also had an AI image creator open, this time we used OpenAI's DALLE-2. After a few rounds of playing with the prompts, I was able to find an image for each story.
Max & Gus, Elara & Mira, Dimitri & The Book
4. Happy Accidents
We wrapped up the night in the glow of fresh stories, the experiment had turned out even better than I could have ever imagined. As I reflected on the evening I thought of Bob Ross. I thought of the permed-hair public-access painter, imagining he would have loved playing with the AI like we were. Because it feels like everything it creates is one of those happy accidents he loved so much.
I once asked an AI image generator to draw a Dutch sailing ship from the late 1800's...and I got this image:
Not Exactly What I Expected
I love the quirkiness of the ships, how each of them is sort of wrong it it's own way. A strange fleeting in waiting, begging to become part of a story. Here is where I think the AI really can shine for the adventurous storyteller. Sometimes the images you generate are so bizarre, they seem like incredible seeds for storytellers to work from. Michael will be bring you one such story, from the AI scraps to our next DISC cafe.
As for ChatGPT as a storyteller? We have no reason to worry about AI replacing us anytime soon. The creation of the details, where ChatGPT shines, are only a tiny part of the craft. Over a few hours of testing now, I have not seen very many novel responses from it in terms of story structure or technique. When it comes to storytelling ideas, we humans are still clearly the best, for now.
There is only upside to AI and storytelling, I am continuing my own experimentation, and will be sharing some of the results at the June Cafe at the beach. I won't reveal any of the story progress yet, I can say that what would have taken me a week to do on my own, only took a few hours with ChatGPT.
As for our first community experiment with ChatGPT as a storytelling partner, well all saw it as a resounding success. An hour of happy artificial intelligence accidents resulted in three wonderful stories that left enough space in the bones for a decidedly human touch. A good sign for the future.