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How GPT-3 Helps Me Write Short Stories
On how GPT-3 helps me writes short fiction
Media coverage of advances in AI is often breathless, playing on our worst anxieties and fears. “AI is here to take your jobs!” “Are artists irrelevant?” (Under capitalism, mostly!) “Are chatbots sentient?” (Big Tech must be hiding something!) On the other side are techno-optimistic takes about the miraculous new world that’s just around the corner.
What if we can play between these two extremes, and explore the goofy and creative side of AI’s emerging capabilities for writing fiction and generating art? As an AI engineer/researcher and creative writer, I’m fascinated by the ways that incorporating AI into the creative process can change how we tell stories. And in writing for Stories by AI, I have gotten to explore that fascination and discover how AI tools can be leveraged by artists such as myself today. Let me tell you about it!
It starts with an idea, and in this aspect, writing with AI is much easier than writing a story solo. When I have control over the writing process, I usually combine two ideas in an interesting way, then develop characters that resonate with the idea and change as they navigate the plot. I’ll often have glimmers of ideas bouncing around in my brain for years before I figure out what to do with them! With AI however, I don’t have total control over the writing process, so planning things out defeats the purpose of exploring the AI’s suggestions.
The seed of a story can come from anywhere. Fairytale retellings are evergreen and can always benefit from a strange, machine-generated twist (eg Rapunzel and the Two Towers). Tropes that you love in books and movies can be good inspiration, too. I’ve always been fascinated by intergenerational space travel and the social dynamics therein, which spawned The Mealsludge Revolts. I also keep a folder of interesting articles from Science magazine around, which I often mine for my original fiction.
Starting with an idea alone rarely leads to a compelling story, though. It helps to have a few bullet points. Sometimes, I use conversational AI prototypes to brainstorm plot ideas, though they can often lead to anti-plots. That’s not a total waste of time though - treacting against a bad idea can breed good ones!) This feels very similar to workshopping plot ideas with a human friend. The surreal surprises are part of the appeal, so I don’t get too detailed with it–a couple of bullet points of a plot skeleton are my right balance between meandering freedom and rigidity. And if something weird happens, I go with it and see what happens.
My current tool of choice is SudoWrite, which is based on OpenAI’s GPT-3 with some special sauce added to support the goal of creative writing in particular. Another option is to start with a story outline as a seed, but I’ve found the way the AI tries to pull the plot toward the outline to be a bit awkward so prefer to steer manually. I write the first paragraph or so to introduce the tone and concept, then use the “Write” feature to generate two possible continuations. Usually, one of them is much closer to what I’m looking for than the other, but often they both contain interesting elements, so I will combine bits of them to include in the story.
Without steering, the AI suggestions tend to become circuitous and repetitive, so I often prod it with one of my bullet points to advance the narrative. The best moments, though, are those when the AI takes a wild turn I hadn’t expected. My plan was never for Nicole to fall in love with her sourdough starter.
My goal is to get about 1000 words in a story and edit it down to about 800 so it can be read in a little over five minutes. The AI writing isn’t as concise and clear as ideal, so this is fairly easy to do by removing extraneous phrases and repetitive sections. Of course, my own human-generated text also benefits from polishing in the process.
At that point, I share the story draft with the other folks working on Stories by AI. One of the most interesting things about the project from my POV is that different people find different things interesting. Some are more interested by the AI aspect, and want the stories to be “less human” and not “too normal.” When we shared our initial batch of stories with our writer friends, they were much more interested in the human side – how the co-writing process worked, and what it said about human creativity and ingenuity. As an insider in the tech world, I am fairly skeptical about AI but appreciate these SOTA models for what they are capable of. I think that creating alongside AI is a fascinating way to explore my own creativity and storytelling along with these new capabilities.
Other writers are exploring this world, too. Technology journalist and novelist Vauhini Vara co-wrote Ghosts, an essay about grief, with GPT-3. (Her debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, was not co-written by AI, but is the best book I’ve read this year.) K. Allado McDowell did use AI as her writing partner for Amor Cringe. You can find more explorations of this mashup in this article by The Verge.
This project has given me a new lens through which to view writing. Creativity can be a lonely and rejection-filled endeavor. With this project, I rediscovered approaching writing with an explorer’s mindset, where I’m excited about what might happen without expectations. AI can be a great creative partner: filling in the gaps when you get stuck, or suggesting an offbeat path that you never would have noticed. The human is still at the center though–the human writing, the human steering, and most importantly, the human reading.