Writing Grim Tales29 Apr 2021
Grim Tales is a book written and illustrated entirely by AI (and might be the first book with that distinction). Why decide to create something like this in the first place?
It’s a good question, and the simple is answer is ‘because I could’, but that’s not a satisfying one. It started when I was playing around with some generative art (more on that in another post), and generated an interesting image - ‘The Grim Reaper on vacation’.
It seemed pretty funny to me, seeing this symbol of death with a suitcase at a beach. Could you imagine Death in a deck chair, still wrapped in his black robes, working on his tan? I couldn’t stop thinking about possible scenarios. Then I wondered about whether I could use GPT-3 to write a story. Now we’re here.
Ultimately, the real goal, after decided to do this project, was to see whether AI has become advanced enough that someone could use it to create a plausible and cohesive narrative using only a little human interaction. If it can be done, what are the consequences, for writers and consumers? That’s something I’ll be exploring in these posts.
Writing the narrative
In the preface of the book, I point out a couple of things. The first being that everything in the book was created by an AI (with the exception to the preface and the other front matter of the book). And the second being a brief explanation of the writing process.
I used a writing tool that utilises OpenAI’s GPT-3 API. Unfortunately I don’t have access to the GPT-3 API myself, so it was the only option I had. Doing it this way meant that I didn’t really know what the inputs to GPT-3 really were, so it was a bit of a black box. Ideally, I would have had more control over the API, but it couldn’t be helped. The results are interesting regardless.
Some previous AI-written works were created by generating text from a single prompt, and to continue generating until the desired amount of text was completed. The result tends to be that there isn’t a real narrative, rather a series of things happen with little to no relation, and it feels quite random - even if the text itself is readable.
One of the main goals was to generate a narrative that was cohesive, which meant that blindly generating wasn’t really an option. On the other hand, I didn’t want to babysit the generation process and cherry pick good output and arrange it into a story.
So I struck a balance and made a couple of rules: First, if the generated text progresses the narrative in some way, we keep it and move on. Otherwise it gets removed and generated again. Repeat until a reasonable conclusion is reached. Rule 2 was that the story must stay in either first or third person. First person in this case - the story is from Grim’s perspective. These rules meant that I could both stay relatively hands-off, whilst also achieving the goal of getting a narrative out of the AI.
This was the point where I could determine whether or not it was really possible to write a real story using AI. I did a few generations using the different prompts and fiddled with the different variables that could be tweaked. And it looked good! I was pretty confident that it was possible at this point, but I was willing to allow the final piece to be a bit of a fail if I couldn’t get anything good.
It was time to create a prompt that outlined the narrative that I wanted to see - inspired by The Grim Reaper’s Vacation - with some details about our main character.
The Grim Reaper (or ‘Grim’ for short) is a personification of death. His job is to reap the souls of the recently deceased. However, today is his first day off in a thousand years. Grim goes off on an adventure and finds that he doesn’t want to work anymore. But he meets someone and realizes that his job is incredibly valuable to humans.
It’s a slightly different narrative to a vacation story, but I hoped it would help generate something more interesting, something with an actual narrative arc. i.e. a beginning, a middle with some kind of conflict, and an end with a suitable resolve.
Away we went, generating the story. In all, the entire generation process didn’t take long. Only a few hours of generating, reviewing, removing, generating again, and so on. The final short story is ~3,000 words. I saved most of the text that was removed to conform to the rules I set out.
It turns out that the whole process was really simple.
I also played around with the text generations at particular points in the text - just to see what alternate ‘branches’ could be made. There are some really interesting, fun, and odd ‘branches’ that I’ll be sharing in an outtakes post.
Other text content
With the main text done, we needed a title, and a blurb for the back of the book. These were done separately from the main story, and I allowed myself to cherry pick a little here. we used the prompt ‘create a title for a story featuring the Grim Reaper’. There were a few dozen that we generated.
Here are a few unused titles:
- Grim Tales of the Reaper
- The Grim Reaper and the girls with golden hair
- The death of grim
- Grim Harvest
- Reap & Destroy
- The Grim Reaper
- the reaper is king - you are death
- Grim’s curse
- Grim’s fate
- Grim’s Journey
- Grim’s Grimoires
- Grim’s guide to the apocalypse
- Grim’s guide to death
- Grim’s guide to the underworld
Some of them are pretty interesting in their own right and could certainly prompt some cool stories.
The blurb on the back was generated at the end of the story with the prompt ‘write a blurb for this story’. The AI wasn’t nearly as good at this than any of the other parts - maybe it didn’t really understand what a blurb was? I ended up cherry picking a couple of decent paragraphs and stopping there.
Now most books will have some critic reviews or comments. So I did what anyone would do, and asked the AI to generate some reviews. Interestingly, the reviews generated used actual critics (some long dead) and publications as the source. It was actually really cool to see, but I couldn’t ethically print any fake reviews on the book. I even asked for some less-favourable reviews, and some are just funny.
Here are a few reviews written by the AI (disclaimer: all of the named sources didn’t actually say any of these things):
A sensitive, evocative, bloody, brilliant novel. ― Edmund de Waal, The New York Times
A novel which most people would simply dismiss as a work of fiction ― Jack Zipes, The New York Times
A marvellous, breathtaking work of fiction. It is very sad. A fantastic book. ― Richard Olusoga, The Guardian
A hypnotic masterpiece. ― Evening Standard
A sharp, sharp, sharp novel. ― Nancy Banks-Smith, The New York Times
An amazing book that will tear your heart out and put it back together again. ― The Times
A mesmerising novel which requires you to read slowly and carefully, savour every word and reflect on every page. ― The Herald
I can already tell that this will not have a happy ending. ― The Guardian
I feel that this dialogue could use work. ― The Reaper
The ending is unsatisfactory. ― The Reaper
Interesting concept. The writing is not the best, however. ― The Instrument
An adequate piece of work under the circumstances. ―The Reaper
The Reaper himself has some scathing remarks.
How about the actual quality of the writing? And if AI wrote all of the content in the book, who gets the credit? I think those are topics for another time.
In the end, I enjoyed the process of creating the text in the book. If you haven’t read it yet - I encourage you to do so!