As with novels, everyone seems to have a ChatGPT blog post in them. Here’s mine.
I was curious to find out how good at storytelling the OpenAI ChatGPT tool is. Stories are one of the things we use to make information relatable so we can absorb it, react to it and then share it onwards. They’re at the heart of naturalistic human communication. If a tool like ChatGPT is trying to improve our relationship with information, then a convincing ability to frame information in story terms is going to be very important.
So, I asked ChatGPT to tell me a story; something simple. I chose the elements of the prompt wanting to see how it handled something familiar (pirates) with something a bit more leftfield (onions). I also didn’t give it much to go on in terms of style or length just being curious to see what came out.
What do you think?
The prompt I used was:
“Tell me a story about a pirate and a bag of onions” (transcript below)
Once upon a time, there was a notorious pirate named Captain Saltbeard. He was known throughout the seven seas for his fearsome reputation and his love of all things salty, especially onions.
One day, Captain Saltbeard and his crew set sail on a journey to find a legendary treasure said to be located on a remote island. After weeks at sea, they finally reached the island and searched high and low for the treasure, but to no avail. Just when they were about to give up, one of the crew members stumbled upon a hidden cave.
Excitedly, they entered the cave and found a treasure trove filled with gold and jewels, but there was something else that caught Captain Saltbeard’s eye. In the corner of the cave, there was a large burlap bag filled to the brim with onions.
The captain was overjoyed and declared that the onions were the real treasure. He ordered his crew to load the bag onto their ship and set sail for home.
From that day on, Captain Saltbeard’s ship became known as the “Onion Galleon” and the bag of onions became the most treasured possession in the captain’s collection. He would often be seen munching on an onion as he plotted his next adventure, and the crew joked that he was so obsessed with them, he would probably die with an onion in his hand.
Years passed and Captain Saltbeard became an old man. His crew retired and went their separate ways, but the captain refused to give up the life of a pirate. On his final voyage, he was leading his ship, the Onion Galleon, to attack a merchant ship. During the battle, he got a mortal wound, but before dying he shouted to his crew “I die a happy man with an onion in my hand” and passed away with a smile on his face.
And so, the legend of Captain Saltbeard and his beloved bag of onions lived on, passed down through the generations as a testament to the power of true love, even in the most unlikely of places.
It’s actually OK! It’s not brilliant but it is recognisably a story and I have to admit to being entertained and somewhat engaged. Without knowing the context, I’d say it’s not immediately obvious that it’s been created by a bot although there are clues. Let’s pick apart the story and first find what makes it convincing.
Structure is what stops a story turning into a mush of sequential events. (Imagine someone trying to describe that weird dream they had one time!). The simplest form of structure is the 3 part beginning-middle-end and this has clearly got that. It sets the scene, something happens to upend that scene and lastly the situation is transformed. There are more imaginative ways of using structure but this is rock-solid, by the numbers story building.
Aristotle calls this “Peripeteia” or “reversal of circumstance”. Stories usually have a hinge, a moment where the expected course of events is disrupted allowing the story to happen. Here, it’s the discovery of the burlap bag of onions. Had that not happened, it would just have been another day of routine pirating; nothing to see here.
We’re really only given one character here which is fair enough considering that’s all I asked it to do. Stories work best when they are about people and the things that happen to them. That way we can empathise with a situation or contrast it with how we would have done it.
Another way to bring us into the story is to “up the stakes”, bring a sense of jeopardy to proceedings, however small. Here we have the potential failure of a treasure hunting expedition. What might be the result of that? Starvation, mutiny? It’s implied but it’s there, even if it’s just us filling in the gaps.
Patterns are comforting. They make complexity easier to deal with and stories are full of them. Structure is one pattern, character type like our pirate is another. You can build a reasonable story out of patterns but it’s at risk of being a bit boring. When you deliberately subvert the patterns and people’s expectations, it injects energy into the story and holds our attention. It also makes things memorable. Here we have the element of the pirate captain foregoing the treasure in favour of a bag of vegetables leading to the creation of a unique identity and reputation. Not earth-shattering, but it’ll do.
We’re beaten around the head with this a little in the final paragraph. It’s a bit gauche for a story to say “and the point of this story is” but there we have it in the final lines. Meaning-making is perhaps the most important purpose of storytelling. It’s not enough to share a series of events, unfortunate or otherwise, if the storyteller doesn’t have a point to make, or artfully leaves space for the audience to create their own.
What are the shortcomings?
It won’t set the world on fire but it’s not objectively bad. It’s following the rules as you’d expect a bot to do. Why then isn’t it a good story. Here are a few thoughts. There are loads more reasons to identify so please feel free to fill in the gaps in the comments.
Unconvincing narrative points
My colleague Karen Colbron pointed out “AI fails at first hurdle. Onions are salty?”. It’s a small point but the whole plot hangs on this. It’s the motivation for Capt Saltbeard’s choices and the reason for everything that comes after. If we can’t buy in to the conceit then we don’t trust the story. A decent human storyteller would have picked that up. I’ve done this exercise a few times with different story prompts and it always seems to be these unconvincing connections that prove the stories’ downfall. In a story I asked it to create about a bunny rabbit and a piece of cheese the story begins with the rabbit becoming enamoured with the taste of cheese but then befriending it and living happily ever after. Odd.
It follows the rules and patterns of storytelling very closely and unadventurously. ChatGPT is very good at structuring its answers to most things to be clear and easy to flow but the more you do it, the more you see the same structures appearing over and over again. Creativity is not its strong suit. A decent storyteller knows about structures and patterns but she is able to use them to draw her audience in, create and release tension in surprising places and avoid “entropy” setting in.
Lack of authentic voice
Anyone could have written this story. There are no personal markers that give the impression of a unique voice. Imagine if Neil Gaiman had written this story, or NK Jemisin. Even tiny hints would have been enough to show the humanity behind it, like the thumb prints on Claymation models. Authenticity is an important part of making a story engaging. Without it, it’s just content. Which brings me to the final point…
Why do storytellers tell stories?
Stories are more than just “content” for consumption. The process of its creation is as important as the product. ChatGPT doesn’t care about the “the power of true love, even in the most unlikely of places”. It doesn’t even know what that means; it just generated it based on the data it uses. You could argue that that isn’t important; if a story entertains then that’s enough, surely. I disagree. Working with digital storytellers in workshops you realise that the process of creating a story is a transformative act for the person creating it. It’s also a social act, whether that’s in sharing it with the other people in the room, or publishing it to people you’ll never meet. They form a connection between audience and creator and I think if we reduce storytelling to an act of automated content creation, we’re left with something lifeless.
Read this Guardian article about Nick Cave’s reaction to ChatGPT’s attempts to emulate his style. He calls it a “grotesque mockery of what it is to be human.”
ChatGPT has really grasped people’s imaginations and ignited countless discussions about assessment and skills. Generative tools and AI-enabled user interfaces are going to progress in leaps and bounds from here so we’ll be having different discussions even in a very short time.
I think what this storytelling exercise shows you is the capabilities of the tool but also what its shortcomings can show us about what it means to communicate but and also what it means to be human.
Read more on this blog about storytelling.