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Magazines > Information Today > June 2024

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Information Today
Vol. 41 No. 5 — June 2024
FEATURE
A Librarianís Tips for Playful Storytelling Using ChatGPT
by Phil Shapiro

All fiction short stories referenced in this article can be accessed by visiting tinyurl.com/playfulchatgpt.
Someday soon, if they haven’t already, community members will walk into your library asking you questions about ChatGPT and other generative AI (GenAI) tools. You could answer their questions as someone who has never used these tools—or as someone who has. To understand the capabilities and limitations of GenAI, you do need to jump in­to the water and swim. The quality of the answers you give patrons depends on how familiar you are with the tools. People are relying on you to be knowledgeable.

For the past year, at my public library job, I’ve been exploring how ChatGPT can help in the process of storytelling. My explorations have surprised and delighted me—and I’ve also come to understand the limitations of this tool. This article will share what I’ve learned, acting as a springboard for your own explorations. Down the road, I might switch from ChatGPT to other GenAI tools; for now, ChatGPT suits my needs well. Incidentally, I am currently using the free version of ChatGPT.

EDDIE THE EGRET

My explorations started with the simplest of playful prompts. Channeling the whimsy of Dr. Seuss, I asked ChatGPT to write a children’s story about an egret with no regrets. My expectations were low, but I was astonished at the charming story that ChatGPT returned. It begins, “Once upon a time, in a magical marshland, there lived a delightful egret named Eddie. Eddie was known far and wide for his enchanting white feathers and his mischievous spirit. But what set Eddie apart from other egrets was his unique outlook on life—he had absolutely no regrets.”

After reviewing the text, I asked myself, “What should I do with this story?” The answer immediately came to me: “Donate it to the public domain.” This way, this story can entertain the most number of people for the most number of years in geographic regions around the world.

SYMPATHY FOR THE RICH

Emboldened, I started wondering if ChatGPT could help me write satire. Since satire is a sophisticated storytelling form containing nuance and humor, you would not think it could emerge from a machine. Think again. ChatGPT did a superb job of writing a piece titled, “Affordable Housing for Billionaires.” I wrote the first paragraph of this story and asked ChatGPT to write the rest. Once again, I was astonished at how ChatGPT was able to pick up my storytelling intentions. Some of the humor it delivered was genuinely funny. For example, billionaires’ “lifeblood, the passive income, ebbs and flows with the volatility of the global economy, subject to the caprices of stock markets, real estate ventures, and intricate investment portfolios. It is a high-stakes game, where fortunes can evaporate like the morning mist, leaving them in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Even their colossal, secretive offshore holdings could be at risk if an asteroid struck the Earth.”

I ended up making some minor tweaks to this story, but they were minimal. Once again, I donated it to the public domain. Maybe some book author could use it as an example of storytelling using Chat­GPT. That would be fine by me.

FOR THE LOVE OF FRUIT SALAD

Further emboldened, I thought, “If ChatGPT can write an entertaining story about an egret with no regrets, then surely it can write a story about a cantaloupe who can’t elope.” This prompt produced the desired results, but brought me smack up against an AI flaw: hetero­normative bias. I sighed and then fixed that bias with a search and replace in my word processor. Here’s the beginning:

Once upon a time, in a small bustling garden, there lived a cantaloupe named Carl. He was no ordinary cantaloupe. Carl had a heart filled with love, and it beat only for one fruit—the dashing watermelon named William. From the moment their eyes met across the verdant patch, Carl knew he had found his soulmate.

However, fate seemed to have conspired against their love. Carl was entwined in a network of ties and tendrils that bound him tightly to his siblings and family. Every time he attempted to venture away, the vines and connections pulled him back, reminding him of his responsibilities and commitments.

LEARNING RESOURCES

My storytelling was on a roll. I was experiencing flow—channeling Mark Twain, Dr. Seuss, Beverly Cleary, and Dave Barry and piling up these new stories: “The Nasty Nasturium Who Wanted to Be Nice,” “The Lemming Who Advocated for Critical Thinking Skills,” and “The Story of the Impetuous Impala.” While this storytelling romp was fun, I started wondering whether ChatGPT could help me write short stories with serious themes—stories with real depth that could stand the test of time. I wanted to write stories that an English teacher could use in their classroom to spawn discussions. Donated to the public domain, these stories could be used by teachers near and far, leveling the playing field with a no-cost learning resource. Teachers in other countries could freely translate these stories to further broaden their reach.

One of my first serious stories from ChatGPT, “Finding Purpose,” is based loosely on a real-life situation involving my public library and me. It includes themes of kindness, which is what the world desperately needs now. Not long after working on this story came “Sketches for Everyone,” about the power of art to spread joy. ChatGPT revealed to me that I have a penchant for producing stories with themes of kindness, so I was not surprised when the story “Unrushed,” about the importance of being there for others in the way they need, popped into my imagination.

CHATGPT AS PARTNER

At this point, I became curious about the ways ChatGPT could assist me with non-storytelling tasks. One day at work, I needed to generate a list of 150 French girls’ names. ChatGPT made quick work of that prompt. Now, I was beginning to better understand the tasks ChatGPT could help me with.

ChatGPT’s limitations were also becoming more apparent. I noticed that the tool had a tendency to wrap up my stories with a cute moral in the closing paragraph. Sometimes, I needed to remove or rewrite these endings. I also noticed that ChatGPT would often use the phrase “sparkling eyes” to describe character reactions in different stories I wrote. If you were to read a bunch of my stories, this would soon feel cliched.

I started off my ChatGPT explorations using a short, one-sentence text prompt. These days, I’m more inclined to give ChatGPT an entire paragraph as a story prompt—or sometimes two or three paragraphs. With each new story I write, I hone my skills in using ChatGPT as a co-writer. At this point, you may well be curious to see the prompts I used to produce the stories mentioned in this article. Your wish is my command: I’ve assembled many of these prompts into a Microsoft Word file you can download from the bottom of the site containing the links to my stories.

STORIES IN SECONDS

Now, the storytelling center within my brain is fully activated, and whenever I have free time, I’m thinking about new stories to write. Believe it or not, I write stories at my public library job while I am helping patrons. If a story idea pops into mind, I can type out a quick prompt into ChatGPT in between helping someone who has a question. I can post this new story to the web in less than 20 seconds. How? I use a free blogging service called Blogger (owned by Google), which allows me to post to my blog by sending an email to a specified email address. The body of the email becomes the blog post, and the subject of the email becomes the blog title. All for free. You can find these steps in more detail easily enough with a web search. I’ve just taken my flow experience and ratcheted it up a notch. Sometimes, I go from story idea to published story on the web in less than 5 minutes. Creatively intoxicating!

HOW TO GET STARTED

Here is an evergreen idea you can use to dip your toes into ChatGPT storytelling. Think of an existing story that resonates with you. Ask ChatGPT to retell it in a new way. You can do this in a serious or silly fashion. I decided silly would be fun when I asked ChatGPT to retell Charlotte’s Web. Yes, ChatGPT is familiar with the storyline of Charlotte’s Web (and other famous literature). You can leverage that storyline to produce something new, weird, and wonderful. You might end up entertaining yourself in the process. When ChatGPT rewrote The Old Man and the Sea according to my directions, the resulting short story is so funny, I burst out laughing every time I reread it. It’s called “The Young Tech Worker and the Old Sock.”

BRING STORYTELLINGTO YOUR COMMUNITY

After producing new stories that you’re proud of, you might want to print them and place them in Little Free Libraries in your area. I take my best stories and write “Little Free Story” at the top right of the title page. I make sure to explain that this story is donated to the public domain, so that anyone who enjoys it can redistribute it in hard copy or digital form.

Phil Shapiro is a library associate at Takoma Park Maryland Library. He was recently chosen as a Library Journal Mover & Shaker, an annual recognition of people moving the library profession forward. He can be reached at pshapiro@his.com. Visit Shapiro’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/pshapiro, where you can find out what he learned at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.