Artificial intelligence (AI) is a valuable storytelling tool, but first, we need to understand the basics of how generative AI services work.
The generative AI process:
- Humans interact with a chat interface and provide prompts such as, “Write a story about a lost dog.”
- Large language models (LLMs), which operate like trained brains, process the prompt and add it to a training data set for similar future prompts about lost dog stories.
- The LLMs reference a set of rules and structured data sets to determine what information should be included in the story about the lost dog.
- The LLMs then feed the results (the lost dog story) back to human users via the chat interface.
Armed with this knowledge, we can now explore AI and storytelling in more detail.
A Standard for Storytelling
Good storytelling, while being highly subjective, can be defined using the same criteria we use to assess the quality of AI-generated content.
Is the story:
- grounded in fact or evidence?
Can AI Tell Stories with Minimal Human Input?
Provide a prompt as simple as “tell me a story” into a platform like Open AI’s ChatGPT, and you’ll see for yourself. AI voice generator platforms vocalize your content using AI voices and can create models using your very own voice. On the surface, it’s a resounding yes that AI can write, tell, and read stories.
But AI does have limitations that we should consider:
- An inability to explore and exercise curiosity
- An inability to understand context
- A lack of emotional intelligence
- Questionable ethical judgement
- Limited adaptability
The following real-world AI-generated story examples illustrate some of those limitations.
- The first short film scripted entirely by AI in 2016, Sunspring, is baffling and odd when processed by a rational, emotional human. One could have argued at the time that AI would never replace humans for script writing.
- The Safe Zone was written and directed by AI. It’s more refined than Sunspring but still a bit clunky.
- Shorts like The Frost take human-written scripts and leverage image-making AI to bring them to life in new and abstract ways.
While surely interesting, the content quality in these examples isn’t up to snuff.
- Is the content sensible? Not so much.
- Specific? Nope.
- Interesting? Perhaps.
- Safe? Yes.
- Grounded in fact or evidence? Probably not.
Good stories would check all these quality control boxes, but AI by itself just cannot meet today’s standards. The human brain must still actively participate in the creation of AI-derived stories through:
- Initial prompting
- Further refinement of those prompts
- Digesting and interpreting content generated by the AI platform
- Overall creative input and vision
AI as a Collaborative Tool for Storytelling
The storytelling community wrestles with two big questions when it comes to AI:
- Can humans and AI come together to create and tell better stories?
- Is there a perfect balance between how much of a story is derived from the human brain versus what’s augmented by AI?
The answer may be a matter of perspective. Aaron Kemmer, who co-produced The Safe Zone, said,
I could easily see AI leading to personalized movies…where you can see any variation of any film you’ve ever wanted. Watch Tom Cruise play as Iron Man battling Darth Vader…or an infinite number (of) ideas.
Research by Eric Nichols, Leo Gao, Yurii Vasylkiv, and Randy Gomez suggests that “collaborative story generation” may be the most favorable way to leverage AI in storytelling. They note the advantages of collaboration through expanded creativity and acknowledge the disadvantages of a poorly “tuned” generator model and the variance associated with human emotion. The intricacy of human emotion is something that is not easily deciphered through code.
AI collaboration may be a new tool for a creative storyteller’s work, like an artist with a new type of brush. For others, co-creation may be limited to experimenting with initial prompts to spark ideas. Either way, collaborative story generation can leverage AI and human strengths to develop content quickly, accurately, and consistently while balancing human creativity, curiosity, and emotional intelligence.
Turning a Blind Eye to All AI Storytelling
Storytelling is deeply rooted in the human experience, and the pursuit of storytelling is as old as human speech. As a storyteller, there are intangible feelings and perspectives that influence my position on AI.
- experience heartbreak.
- feel intense joy or fear.
- draw on lived experiences and express them in an authentically human way.
- fully express the complex feelings behind the delivery of spoken words.
Ask ChatGPT to write you a love letter and see if it’s sensible, specific, interesting, safe, and grounded. Then, ask yourself is it’s emotionally compelling and personally meaningful. Although AI can anticipate emotional responses based on data, effectiveness is measured in the human response.
Effective human response is something AI cannot do, and there’s evidence to support this position. In a study about peoples’ ability to distinguish human-written from AI-generated poetry, Nils Köbis and Luca Mossink found that“…people prefer human-written to algorithm-generated poems, which is unaffected by the information about algorithmic presence…”
Humans prefer human content. We may be limited in our consistency, accuracy, and ability to crunch huge data sets or work 24/7, but human strengths (like creativity, curiosity, and emotional intelligence) are in direct contrast to AI’s limitations.
Determine How Useful AI’s Storytelling Value Is for You
Whether your AI use case is professional or personal, exploring AI’s storytelling strengths and limitations through your own lens is worthwhile.
Complete this simple exercise to gauge your perspective:
- Set a timer for 30 minutes.
- Open a blank Word/Google/Pages document.
- Using only the inspiration from your own mind, write a short story.
- After 30 minutes, stop writing and read what you wrote.
- Summarize your writing into a plot.
- Type the plot as a prompt in your favorite generative AI (text) platform (“write a story about…”).
- Compare the AI’s output to what you wrote.
- If you feel that the AI-generated story is better than what you wrote, you may be a good candidate for using AI exclusively for narrative writing.
- If you’re intrigued by what the AI produced and find yourself wondering how it could be different with a few tweaks, you’re probably a good candidate for co-creation.
- If you’re not satisfied with the AI-generated story, you may gravitate to a storytelling process that’s less influenced by AI (if at all).
When I completed the exercise myself, the results were impactful.
I used the Rytr AI platform and a single prompt for the AI-generated story. Here’s how the first line of each story started (you can read both stories at the end of this article):
- Human-written: “The harsh slap of Jake’s mechanical pencil on the linoleum floor intruded on the focused silence of English class.”
- AI-generated: “In a small-town high school, Jake, an average student with a passion for writing, finds himself faced with yet another creative writing assignment.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
How you use generative AI in the creative space is up to you, but it is important to understand why you’re using it.
- Is there something you’re trying to achieve?
- What’s the incentive or payoff for using AI to generate stories?
- Is it a recreational or playful activity that’s simply entertaining for you?
Think critically about why you’re using AI and consider the benefits and potential drawbacks for your use case. For example:
- The benefits of AI’s efficiency and speed may trump the need for the emotional depth and impact delivered by the human touch.
- Content may demand deeply personal human reflection based on lived experiences.
Storytelling, whether used in a professional solution or as performance art, requires the human strengths of curiosity and creativity to generate an idea. Barring a Terminator-like dystopian future, generative AI tools will continue to be just that: tools.
Comparing a Human Story to an AI-Written Story
For the curious, my original story and the story generated by Rytr AI are included below.
Original Human-Written Story
The harsh slap of Jake’s mechanical pencil on the linoleum floor intruded on the focused silence of English class. Jolted from their studious trance, pairs of eyes suddenly darted in Jake’s direction. The unexpected noise being a temporary annoyance, they quickly resettled back on their own papers and fervently moving pencils.
Jake had a bit of a reputation for breaking tension in class. Sometimes it was literally breaking wind in the middle of a lecture, causing relentless snickering and prompting a dagger stare from the teacher. On other occasions he’d time fake coughs in with every other pause in the teacher’s natural speech breaks. Jake had a lot of inventive ways to draw attention to himself, but like the boy who cried wolf, his antics rarely caused much of a stir anymore.
On this occasion, however, dropping his pencil on the floor wasn’t a plea for attention. Jake had a revelation. The pencil rolling off his desk was a byproduct of discovery—a casualty of a eureka moment.
From the moment the teacher assigned the creative writing exercise at the beginning of class, Jake struggled to break the page with a compelling first sentence. He didn’t see himself as creative, felt he had no original ideas, and generally hated writing. He was tempted to break out one of his go-to antics and make urgent restroom runs every five minutes (claiming he had uncontrollable and explosive diarrhea), but he had resisted the urge.
After 15 minutes spinning his wheels, the realization struck him like a freight train. He shifted his weight in his chair to reach for his backpack, sending the mechanical pencil on its journey over the edge of the desk.
“My Chromebook!” he thought.
Most of the time, Jake and his fellow students used their Chromebooks in lieu of textbooks during most of their classes. In English class, however, it was always a rule that the laptops had to stay in students’ backpacks during writing exercises.
By the time all the temporarily distracted eyeballs returned to their own papers, Jake had his Chromebook out and flipped the screen open. The teacher, conditioned not to reward Jake’s antics with much care, hadn’t noticed the purposeful snub of the classroom rules.
Remembering a comment his dad made at dinner earlier in the week about how AI was impacting his job, Jake Googled “free AI essay writer.” His Dad worked in Marketing for a small company, and Jake remembered him saying, “That AI is going to take my job. No one’s going to need me to create anything anymore.” Like lots of teens, Jake knew that parents complaining about tech was an invitation to explore it more deeply. If parents didn’t like it, there was probably something a 14-year-old kid could get out of it.
Sure enough, Jake discovered a treasure trove of generative AI platforms promising to write his essay for him within seconds. Many claimed to do it for free just by signing up for a trial version of the software. Within seconds, Jake was on his way to not only finishing his creative writing assignment but being the first to slap the desk and loudly proclaim, “Done!”
The teacher’s disapproval of Jake’s loud outburst and the sudden recognition that his Chromebook was on his desk had impending consequences to be sure, but no dark cloud of discipline could dampen Jake’s shining pride, free spirit, and sense of accomplishment in that moment.
“Why doesn’t everyone do this!?!” he wondered.
AI-Generated Story (No Refined Prompt)
Initial prompt used to generate this story: “A student named Jake realizes that he no longer needs to use paper and pencil to write essays in his high school English class. Rather, he can use generative AI as a storytelling tool for a creative writing assignment.”
In a small-town high school, Jake, an average student with a passion for writing, finds himself faced with yet another creative writing assignment. As he sits at his desk, staring at the blank sheet of paper in front of him, he can’t help but feel discouraged. Writing essays has always seemed like a tedious task to him.
One day, while browsing the internet for writing tips and inspiration, Jake stumbles upon a new AI tool that claims to be capable of generating unique and creative stories. Intrigued by the idea, he decides to give it a try for his next assignment.
With a mix of curiosity and skepticism, Jake types in his essay prompt and watches as the AI begins to generate paragraphs filled with imaginative ideas. The words flow effortlessly onto the screen, painting vivid pictures in Jake’s mind. He is amazed at how the AI can understand the essence of storytelling and effortlessly craft compelling narratives.
Feeling inspired by the AI’s suggestions, Jake starts incorporating its ideas into his own writing. He adds his personal touch to the story, refining it to fit his unique voice. As he continues typing away on his keyboard, he realizes that this newfound tool has opened a world of possibilities for him.
The day of submission arrives, and Jake hands in his essay confidently. His English teacher is puzzled as she reads through it – it’s unlike anything she has ever seen from him before. The story is captivating, filled with unexpected twists and turns that keep her engaged until the very end.
Impressed by Jake’s work, she praises his creativity and unique perspective. However, when she asks him about his process or any struggles he faced while writing it, Jake hesitates momentarily but then decides to come clean about using an AI tool.
Expecting disappointment or reprimand from his teacher, Jake is surprised when she commends him for thinking outside the box and using technology as a storytelling aid. She encourages him to continue honing his writing skills and explore different writing techniques.
From that day onward, Jake no longer sees writing assignments as a chore. He sees them as opportunities to experiment, collaborate with AI, and unleash his creativity. He learns to strike a balance between utilizing the AI tool for inspiration and maintaining his unique voice in his writing.
As Jake continues to grow as a writer, he discovers that the AI tool is just one piece of the puzzle. It may provide ideas and suggestions, but it’s his own imagination and storytelling abilities that truly bring the essays to life. And so, armed with this newfound confidence, Jake embarks on a journey of self-expression through words, exploring the limitless possibilities of storytelling in the digital age.