Narrative theory and storytelling with AI

Using Artificial Intelligence as a Co-writer, Not a Parlor Trick

Developing a new way to develop meaningful stories

GPT-3 is incredible. The "Gee-whiz" factor is undeniable. And while initial results are nothing short of pure magic, the majority of work being done in this space treats the tech as a replacement, rather than a collaborator.

Having recently finished the foundation of Subtxt's narrative engine (an application almost five years in development), I now turn my attention toward the integration of these generative text services.

At first, I veered towards the magical "1-Button Push" methodology to fill in the blanks and write the story for you.

I found something much more useful.

The Intelligent Co-writer

For my test, I took the Storyform for Old Henry, a Western that came out in 2021. The structure just so happens to be a really popular one, as it was also used in The Lion King, Black Panther, and Mad Max: Fury Road, so I figured the familiarity would make it easier to test against.

The Storyform for Old Henry

Wanting to pick up where I left off my 3-hr. demo from last December, I did choose to make it a Western (again, easy storytelling), but this time I focused my attention on the Main Character Throughline, and someone I ended up calling "William". While working on the Objective Story Plot Throughline would seem to be the best place to start, it's been my experience that pretty much every writer out there struggles with the Main Character Throughline.

So why not start with something that will actually help?

The approach I developed, which will be integrated seamlessly into Subtxt over the next couple of weeks, is a series of building one Storybeat on top of the other. The AI is smart enough to continue the story, but it isn't smart enough yet to know which direction to take things.

The technique is similar to the one I used last year during my initial tests with GPT-3. At the time, I could tell there was still some work to be done on Subtxt's narrative engine. The bulk of last year (2021) was spent finishing and testing the engine, which then resulted in some new advances in both application and theory.

This is where Subtxt and its recent introduction of Thematic Cycles comes in to help guide the tech towards an intuitive understanding of narrative structure.

The Four Major Transits of a Complete Story

When stepping back and looking at the entirety of a complete story, one sees four Transits operating from beginning to end. Often confused for "Acts," these transitory states of the Storymind guide the audience forward from one consideration of conflict to the next, until the defining message of the Premise is proven.

The Premise of this Storyform

In this Storyform, the Premise is:

Abandon running away from something, and you can gain control over your life.

Again, this is a common Premise to many Western-culture stories (and by Western, I mean America/US). Abandon running away from something (Avoiding), and you can gain control over your life (Obtaining). The first Element of Avoiding is the Character part of the Premise, the second is the Plot part of the Premise. A story's Premise is the crossover point between Character and Plot. (There is no such thing as a "character-driven" plot or a "plot-driven" plot, complete stories are both).

With this Premise in mind, Subtxt generates an order of Thematic events (the Transits) that support and carry that message to the Audience.

The Transits of the Main Character Throughline

  • 1: Progress (Activity/Resistance/Growth)
  • 2: Past (Universe/Potential/Expansion)
  • 3: Future (Mentality/Current/Transformation)
  • 4: Present (Standpoint/Power/Transcendence)

Now, most of this will likely appear to be gibberish to those unfamiliar with Subtxt (or the Dramatica theory of story), and that's OK...because now, thanks to the help of GPT-3, we can translate the above into something actually resembling a story.

Setting the Stage

To begin, we first diagnose or determine our Main Character's central problem. With Subtxt again, we know that our Main Character's personal issue will be something to do with Universe, or a fixed situation.

Illustrations of Universe

Scanning the hundreds of thousands of Illustrations and examples available to Subtxt users, I settle on "being too old to rob stagecoaches." I had flirted with "being smart" and "being illiterate", but figured that I'd keep it easy again with the typical "I'm getting too old for this kind of thing" storyline.

Which even queued me up for the title of the story, Never Too Old to Die.

The First Transit

The process of writing a story with Subtxt is one of going back and forth and generating ideas, and then cherry-picking the ones that feel right for the kind of story I want to tell.

Just like real life with real people.

The First Transit

Generating the first wave of illustrations, set me off in a cool direction:

William was happy with the way things were. He was content with his life of robbing stagecoaches. He was getting older now, and he knew that it was getting harder and harder to keep up with the young outlaws, but he didn't want to give up his life of crime. He tried to tell himself that he was still good at it, but he could feel the young guns starting to overtake him.

Not bad. I punched the button a couple of more times.

One day, William attempted to rob a stagecoach, but was quickly apprehended by the sheriff. He was taken to court and sentenced to life in prison. William was angry and frustrated.

William had been a successful robber for many years. He was very old, but he was still quick and agile, and he knew how to take advantage of people. However, as the years went by, William began to notice that things were changing. The stagecoaches were getting bigger and stronger, and there were more and more guards. William knew that he could no longer rob them the way he had been doing it.

William has been robbing stagecoaches for as long as he can remember. He's too old for that now, but he can't help but feel a sense of excitement when he thinks about it. He always goes for the same stagecoach, and he knows the route so well that he can do it in his sleep.

After a couple more tries, I felt like I had a good idea of how this story was going to start.

Now mind you, I had no idea what I was going to write, except that I know I wanted to write a Western, and that I wanted it to be about giving up this motivation to run away from things, or to prevent things from happening.

I combined the above together to get the first Transit of William's growth:

William was happy with the way things were going. He was content with his life of robbing stagecoaches. He was getting older now, and he knew that it was getting harder and harder to keep up with the young outlaws, but he didn't want to give up his life of crime. He tried to tell himself that he was still good at it--He's been in the business long enough to know all the tricks of the trade, and he's never been caught--but he could feel the young guns starting to overtake him.

And William started to notice that things were changing. The stagecoaches were getting bigger and faster, and the drivers were getting smarter. William was conflicted. He doesn't want to admit that he's getting old and he's no longer able to rob stagecoaches.

One day, William attempted to rob a stagecoach, but was quickly apprehended by the sheriff. He was taken to court and sentenced to life in prison. William was angry and frustrated.

Awesome! And a really good start to the story. I never thought about William ending up in prison, but it seemed as good a place as any. And I figured the sheriff would likely try to employ William...I was wrong.

The Second Transit

Turning my attention to the next Transit (what most people call 2a, or the "Fun and Games" moment), I punched the button again:

The Second Transit

William is conflicted because he is no longer able to rob stagecoaches. He is also angry and frustrated because he was caught and sentenced to life in prison. In prison, William meets a man named John. John is a former criminal who has turned his life around. John tells William about a program called "Inside-Out" that can help him change his life. William is interested, but is hesitant because he doesn't want to admit that he needs help.

William spends his days in prison angry and frustrated. He doesn't know what to do with himself. One day, he starts to think about his life. He realizes that he's made a lot of mistakes, and he's not happy with the way things have turned out. He decides to use his time in prison to better himself. He starts to read books and learn new skills. He eventually earns his GED and starts to take college classes.

Hmmm...I didn't like where this was going. A little too much like Shawshank Redemption (there were even other examples that were exactly like Shawshank!).

So I went back into the Transit beat in Subtxt, and I switched the random Illustration of Past from "uncovering one's past" to "proving past successes were not a fluke."

The results were much more interesting:

William is frustrated because he feels like he is being held back from what he is good at. He is in a situation where he has to prove himself, and that is something that he is not used to. This could lead to William becoming more determined and focused, which could lead to new opportunities.

William spent many years in prison, but he eventually realized that he needed to change his ways. He started to learn new skills, and eventually became a successful businessman. He was able to provide for his family and live a comfortable life. William was grateful for the second chance that he was given.

William was angry and frustrated when he was sentenced to life in prison. He thought that his successful robberies were a fluke and that he would never be able to do it again. However, he soon realized that he could use his skills to his advantage in prison. He started to mastermind robberies from within the prison walls and became one of the most successful inmates in the history of the prison.

This one I loved! I generated a couple more just to make sure, and then put them all together into this:

William was angry and frustrated when he was sentenced to life in prison. He thought that his successful robberies were a fluke and that he would never be able to do it again. However, he soon realized that he could use his skills to his advantage in prison. He started to mastermind robberies from within the prison walls and became one of the most successful inmates in the history of the prison.

He started teaching the other inmates how to rob stagecoaches, and soon they all escaped prison. William was proud of himself. He had proven that his skills were not a fluke. He was able to help others and make them successful.

And while I didn't end up going with the first examples that were about getting your GED and going through an "Inside-Out Program", I did decide to use that to name the Transit in the final treatment (which you'll see at the end).

The Third Transit

I was curious to see what would happen to William now that he was on the outside:

The Third Transit

He realizes that he has been living a life of crime because that is all he knows how to do. He is too old to start over and learn new skills. But he is also too young to give up on his life.

William decides to change his ways and teach the other inmates how to read and write. He wants to give them the same opportunities that he had. He knows that it's never too late to learn and that there is always something new to be learned.

At first, I found this really interesting. Teaching the inmates to read and write would be a very redemptive kind of arc for good 'ol William.

But then GPT-3 started to choke and started to force my hand into telling that story. Every result back was something about teaching ex-prisoners to read and write...

William was determined to prove that his past successes were not a fluke. He started to learn about the new stagecoaches and the drivers. He also started to learn about the law and how to defend himself in court.

That's not the kind of story I want to tell!

As nice and heartwarming as this was, I knew that I wanted to at least do something that I hadn't seen a million times before, or at the very least--something that wasn't so saccharine.

So again, I set the Illustration in Subtxt to "setting up someone's future":

He starts to think about his age and how it is limiting his ability to do what he wants in life. William starts to think about his own mortality. He is getting older and he knows that his days of robbing stagecoaches are numbered. This causes him to reflect on his life and the choices he has made. He doesn't want to end up like his old friend, who died in a gunfight.

Ok, now this is much closer to what I was looking for. Something a little more reflective, and something setting up the stage for big showdown in the last Transit.

In the end, I went with this:

William is conflicted. He is proud of himself for being able to help others, but he is also aware that his skills are not what they used to be. He is no longer able to rob stagecoaches like he used to and slowing down the gang. This realization creates conflict within him. On one hand, he wants to be able to help others and feel useful. On the other hand, he doesn't want to be a liability. He doesn't want to be a burden on others.

He leaves the gang.

He starts to think about his age and how it is limiting his ability to do what he wants in life. William starts to think about his own mortality. He is getting older and he knows that his days of robbing stagecoaches are numbered. This causes him to reflect on his life and the choices he has made. He doesn't want to end up like his old friend, who died in a gunfight.

He realizes that he has been living a life of crime because that is all he knows how to do. He is too old to start over and learn new skills. But he is also too young to give up on his life.

I do love how the current configuration picks up on enough of the previous Transit to make this one seem as if it is part of a larger idea.

Because it is. The purpose of the Premise, and the narrative structure of the Transits contained within the Storyform, is to present a complete and meaningful story--not just a story you've seen before.

The Fourth and Final Transit

The fourth one took a bit at first because I was fighting the AI's desire to have me show William teaching the inmates to read and write. 🤣

Part of this had everything to do with the initial Illustration of "putting someone's house in order" and "being there for someone." I mean, the natural derivative of that is William being there for others, so I can see why that would happen (and why, instinctively, many Authors defer to this), but I wanted something a little darker.

The Fourth Transit

Once I switched the Illustration to "being about to die" it all came together:

William knows that he has been living a life of crime because that is all he knows how to do, but he is also too old to start over and learn new skills. William returns to a life of crime, knowing it's a death sentence.

William is fulfilled by being about to die because it means that he will no longer have to live a life of crime. He is tired of living a life that is full of danger and uncertainty. He is also tired of being rejected by society. By accepting his death, William is able to transcend the effect of being too old to rob stagecoaches. He is able to see that his life has not been in vain and that he has made a difference, even if it is only for a brief moment.

William goes out guns blazing!

The Meaning of the Premise

How does this circle back to that initial Premise?

Remember what I started with:

Abandon running away from something, and you can gain control of your life.

Isn't that what William ended up doing?!

In the beginning, he was trying to prevent (or avoid) the inevitable from happening. Avoiding the fact that he was getting too old because he didn't want to admit it--and that's precisely what gets him into trouble.

William's Character Arc

It's only once he accepts his situation, and gleefully pursues the fact that he's too old that he finally manages to find some way to gain control over his life.

That's how you tell a complete story.

Only the First Draft

This is, of course, only the first run through of Subtxt and GPT-3, with an eye towards taking advantage of Subtxt's powerful narrative engine and combining it with the infinite textual landscape of generative text.

This is my first understanding, or treatment, of William's personal Throughline.

Completed in under an hour:

Never Too Old to Die

Story Treatment

Act One

1. Getting too Old for This

William was happy with the way things were going. He was content with his life of robbing stagecoaches. He was getting older now, and he knew that it was getting harder and harder to keep up with the young outlaws, but he didn't want to give up his life of crime. He tried to tell himself that he was still good at it--He's been in the business long enough to know all the tricks of the trade, and he's never been caught--but he could feel the young guns starting to overtake him.

And William started to notice that things were changing. The stagecoaches were getting bigger and faster, and the drivers were getting smarter. William was conflicted. He doesn't want to admit that he's getting old and he's no longer able to rob stagecoaches.

One day, William attempted to rob a stagecoach, but was quickly apprehended by the sheriff. He was taken to court and sentenced to life in prison. William was angry and frustrated.

Act Two

2. The Inside-Out Program

William was angry and frustrated when he was sentenced to life in prison. He thought that his successful robberies were a fluke and that he would never be able to do it again. However, he soon realized that he could use his skills to his advantage in prison. He started to mastermind robberies from within the prison walls and became one of the most successful inmates in the history of the prison.

He started teaching the other inmates how to rob stagecoaches, and soon they all escaped prison. William was proud of himself. He had proven that his skills were not a fluke. He was able to help others and make them successful.

3. Not Wanting to be a Burden

William is conflicted. He is proud of himself for being able to help others, but he is also aware that his skills are not what they used to be. Outside of the prison walls, he is no longer able to rob stagecoaches like he used to and slowing down the gang. This realization creates conflict within him. On one hand, he wants to be able to help others and feel useful. On the other hand, he doesn't want to be a liability. He doesn't want to be a burden on others.

He starts to think about his age and how it is limiting his ability to do what he wants in life. William starts to think about his own mortality. He is getting older and he knows that his days of robbing stagecoaches are numbered. This causes him to reflect on his life and the choices he has made. He doesn't want to end up like his old friend, who died in a gunfight because his reflexes were too slow.

William decides to change his ways and teach the other inmates how to read and write. He wants to give them the same opportunities that he had. He knows that it's never too late to learn and that there is always something new to be learned.

The teaching only goes so far.

Act Three

4. Going Out with Guns Blazing

William realizes that he has been living a life of crime because that is all he knows how to do. He is too old to start over and learn new skills. But he is also too young to give up on his life.

William returns to a life of crime, knowing it’s a death sentence.

William is fulfilled by being about to die because it means that he will no longer have to live a life of crime. He is tired of living a life that is full of danger and uncertainty. He is also tired of being rejected by society. By accepting his death, William is able to transcend the effect of being too old to rob stagecoaches. He is able to see that his life has not been in vain and that he has made a difference, even if it is only for a brief moment.

William robs a stagecoach, and goes out with guns ablazing.

And this is what it looks like when you download a Fountain file from Subtxt and open it up in Highland:

The Treatment (Fountain Format) in Highland

All you really need to do is dot some i's and cross some t's and you've got yourself a meaningful basis from which to start writing the personal journey of your character.

A complete story would still require the same process to be carried out in the Objective Story Plot, the Obstacle Character Throughline, and Relationship Story Throughlines, but those will be reserved for a later time (as they require some additional tweaks and compensations for their unique perspectives on conflict).

This is only the beginning of what I'm sure will be a beautiful friendship.😊

Feel free to join us.

Originally published 03-14-2022