The Arc Project Update #7 – The Pale Faced Man (writing experiment)

In late winter this year, we held a writing workshop over Zoom with local screenwriter EliSophie Andrée, AI developer Mohanty Prasada and myself. We went in with open minds and some ideas, with the desire to see what it would be like to take a professional screenwriter and pair it with an AI.

Our last workshop had three writers present. The material, the tech and the personalities were all very new to EliSophie and myself and all but the tech was new to Mohanty. But we came out of it with a much deeper understanding of the potential within AI as a writing tool.

In this iteration, we decided to focus by using one writer with a history of genre under her belt, who might benefit from an experiment like this. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the process as much as possible. As a writer, EliSophie’s challenges came down to time, inspiration and sometimes fear. Regarding her process, EliSophie said that sometimes she goes for weeks without writing anything, then when the time is right she will write for days on end, eschewing food and sleep to get the idea out. Maybe AI could assist her in these challenges, making more use of her time and her skills?

We asked EliSophie to give us an outline for a film she was working on. It was for a short film, a story that spoke to the relationship between social media, family and self-perception. There were two main characters, a teenage girl  Ella, and her younger sister, Sisi. Here is one the prompts we used to start generating the story:

Cissi: Hey, guys! It’s your girl Cissi, and today I’m going to be talking about my big sister Ella. She’s a vegan and she’s super cool, but she’s also a little bit crazy. (laughs) But that’s okay, because we all need a little bit of crazy in our lives, right? (laughs)

So, Ella is really into ghosts, and she’s always talking about how she’s going to do a ghost hunt this week. But I don’t really believe in that stuff, so I don’t know if I’m going to be able to help her with that. (laughs) But, yeah, overall she’s a really cool person and I’m really happy that she’s my sister. (smiles) Thanks for watching!

We gave the GPT3 the prompt, with the temperature at .88 (this is something I call the ‘radical setting’ as it determines how random it should make its responses. The max setting is 1). With its response we would ask EliSophie to continue writing on what the model comes up with. This is what Eliophie and the AI came up with

Cissi wakes up the next morning to find that her sister, Ella, is missing. After frantically searching the apartment and calling her friends and no one has seen or heard from her, Cissi assumes the worst and sadly concludes that her sister must be dead. She mourns her loss by posting a series of heartfelt tributes on social media, and even starts a blog where she tells the story of her and her sister’s tragic, all-too-brief life together. But as the days go by and there is still no sign of Ella, Cissi begins to have a nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe, her sister is still alive. She decides to go back through all of her sister’s old videos and Instagram posts, and as she does she begins to notice strange things – like the fact that Ella was always talking about going on ”ghost hunts” but never actually mentioned any specific locations. And then there’s the time that Ella was caught on camera slapping Cissi – something that doesn’t quite add up, since Ella was always the type to take care of her little sister. With a mounting sense of suspicion, Cissi pores over the videos and pictures for hours, until she finally finds what she’s looking for – a clue that leads her to the realization that her sister is not actually dead, but has instead been kidnapped and is being held hostage by a madman. Cissi knows that she has to save her sister, but she’s terrified of what she might find if she goes looking for her.

Quite quickly, we saw a raw story start to emerge. There was hesitation, and some awkwardness as decided what elements seemed important, what character traits worked or not. Usually with a human co-writer you are building trust. Then you are able to get on each other’s vibe, so to speak. When we increased the temperature to 1, the GPT3 started to generate wilder sentences and even had a version where Ella is snorting illicit drugs. Which made us laugh, and for sure, started to build that trust you need with a co-writer.

Despite drawing from the vastness of the internet, the AI is unpredictable. But the more you use it the more it starts to play.With our confidence higher now, we decided to change the prompts and enter more detailed inputs. This was in the hope of starting an outline for a story that could develop into a script.

Next prompts:

PHONES. Quick clips between phones and social media. Youtube, Facebook, Instagram. 

Influencers like Jocke & Jonna, Kristian & Anna, Smail, etc. 

I ”Selfie” by the Chainsmokers is playing in the background.  

Ends with a clearer clip of ELLA. She talks about her vegan diet and this week’s upcoming ”ghost hunt”. Clip is interrupted and little sister CISSI is scolded for filming Ella at a bad angle. Cissi tries to apologize but Ella angrily leaves the living room. Cissi is left alone with her mobile phone in her hand.

The main characters are ELLA and CISSI. 

Write a horror story set in upper class Stockholm.  

Yes, you can indeed just ask the GPT3 to write a horror story set in a certain location, or with certain characters. The more detail the better. After a few tweaks, EliSophie and the GPT3 came up with this:

Ella wakes up in her lavish bedroom, surrounded by expensive furniture and beautiful art. She looks out the window and sees the snow-covered roofs of Stockholm’s most affluent neighborhoods. She takes a moment to enjoy the view, thinking about all the amazing things he’s going to do today.

Suddenly, she hears a loud crash from down the hall. She rushes out of her room to find her little sister Cissi standing in the middle of the living room, phone in hand. Cissi is filming Ella and she’s not happy about it.

Ella demands to know what Cissi is doing, but Cissi just begs for forgiveness and promises she won’t do it again. Ella is about to leave when she hears a strange noise coming from outside.

She goes to the window to see a figure standing in the snow, watching her house. The figure is tall and thin, with pale skin and long black hair. Ella is terrified and runs back to her room, locking the door behind her.

Cissi follows her, begging her sister to let her in. Ella refuses, convinced that the figure outside is a ghost. Cissi tries to reassure her sister, but Ella is too scared to listen. She spends the rest of the night huddled in her bed, listening to the strange noises coming from outside.

The next morning, she wakes up to find that the figure is gone. But she knows it’s only a matter of time before it comes back. Ella is terrified and doesn’t know what to do.

What we loved was this line: She goes to the window to see a figure standing in the snow, watching her house. The figure is tall and thin, with pale skin and long black hair. The sinister character, like something out of Scream,  was super intriguing because of its simplicity, and immediately conjured something memorable from past films. The AI was gleaning what it thought was a recognizable horror element and might have drawn from iconic villains like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or David Lynch films. But EliSophie liked it too and we asked her to write something against it. We went off camera for 10 minutes and she returned with this:

The next night, the noise happens again. Ella wakes up, panting and filled with anxiety. She tries to drink some water to cool down but nothing works. She feels dizzy, the world is spinning and suddenly… she falls to the ground. 

When Cissi finds her big sister she is not moving anymore. Cissi calls 911, screams at the top of her lungs while trying to shake her sister’s body to life again.  In the garden, peeking through the window the Pale Faced man looks inside. But now, he has Ellas features. The Pale Faced man moves like Ella and the sounds that comes out of his mouth is the sound of her silent screams. 

The extra detail, the character outline, started to make us feel like we had material that raised enough situational questions that it could be interesting. It feels like there are gaps in the story that would be super interesting to investigate.

The cool thing was that the GPT3 identified in its own way, that this was a story about mental health and anxiety. (To me almost every story we read is, at some level, about fear.) It seemed to build on that and those associations were really encouraging.

Elisophie seemed to relax into the process too, and was faster and freer in her ideas and feedback. It is certainly the case that to write with an AI there needs to be a considerable amount of patience and management, because the machine and writer need to get to know each other.

We sometimes found ourselves wincing or just dismissing some of the ideas the GPT3 came out with because we knew they were rote. It was not trying hard enough. But then once we started to think about why it would say certain things, we started to understand its rhythm and felt like it was connecting with ours.

After about 90 minutes of back and forth  we kept returning to The Pale Faced Man. He formed as a strong, mysterious, all powerful, character that existed between reality and a dream state. As a departure from the original core relationship between the two sisters, it was a good deviation. It was such a frightening image that it brought us back again and again. This is a key example of how the AI can introduce a new element to your story, lending dimensions that a solo writer may not have thought of. Where will it lead? Who knows. But by going through this  exercise it can only strengthen a story and help it find its own truth.

We continued feeding in more details (Mohanty did the leg work here. It is quite a simple process of just entering text into a box, but as the tech is experimental we left him to the details as he is so familiar with how it works. We just looked on with anticipation.) We added elements around place, time, and specific actions we wanted to happen. Certain inciting incidents that would lead to an if/then combination to propel a narrative. This emerged from discussing the outputs of The GPT3 that felt were psychologically stimulating. The below paragraphs were written in concert with EliSophie:

Ella wakes up to find that the figure is gone. But she knows it’s only a matter of time before it comes back. Ella is terrified and doesn’t know what to do. She tries to stay calm and come up with a plan. Maybe if she can’t see the figure, it won’t be able to hurt her. Ella spends the whole day hiding in her room, with the door locked and the lights on.

But the figure finds her. It comes into her room in the middle of the night, and this time, it’s stronger than Ella. It grabs her and drags her out of the room. Ella fights back, but it’s no use. The figure is too strong.

It takes her outside, to the garden. The Pale Faced Man is there, waiting for her. Ella is so scared she can’t move. But then, she remembers the things her mom used to say to her when she was scared. ”The bad things only happen in your head.”

But everything is in vain. Because this isn’t her childhood fantasy. The Pale Faced Man reaches her and grabs her quickly. She has no possibility of getting away. She tries to tell herself the mantra again and again and again meanwhile the Pale Faced Man laughs and climbs over here. His breath stinks of dead rats and sewers. His sharp teeth drips of Ellas blood as he sinks into her flesh. 

”The bad things only happen in your head”

”The bad things only happen in your head”

The Pale Faced man rips out her tongue but her mouth continues to form the words and the saying. The Pale Faced man devours Ella and left on the cold sidewalk is only a tiny drop of blood… 

I love the description of his breath that EliSophie added. It just brought the character a sensorial mark that can not be dismissed. But this last line : the tiny drop of blood, from Elisophie got me interested. The addition of such dramatic detail, focussing on small, human symbols and reactions are what set the human apart in the writing process. That drop of blood is something you can see in countless films: a close up or a zoom in, that is how a writer’s mind works: thinking with the camera  to ensure the audience is in tune with certain critical moments in a story. EliSophie has this instinct from practicing her craft and from intuition. I am sure, in time, we could get the AI to evoke similar scenes and draw not only from words but from camera or dramaturgical logic. The human writer seems to instinctively build in ‘a world to come’, cliff hangers, with a simple thing like a drop of blood. Compared to the AI , it wants to have closure quickly, even without the prompt to conclude.

As a group we knew that AI is better suited to writing scenes than whole acts in films.  When writing the journey of a character in a film especially, you need to master a technique where an event happens, it causes the character to want something, but that desire is thwarted. That collapse of desire leads to another event and so on. In part, this is what makes a narrative move along. Maybe we need to build an AI that understands this!

What we loved by this point was that the text was starting to make imagery. Now at 2 hours, we came up with a storyline like this:

  • Ella wakes up in a lavish bedroom (AI thinks everyone in Stockholm is super wealthy but what ever….)
  • Ella hears a loud crash from down the hall
  • Ella sees her sister Cissi scared
  • Ella sees a figure outside the window standing in snow
  • The figure is tall and thin, with pale skin and long black hair
  • Ella is terrified and spends the rest of the night huddled in her bed
  • She wakes up to find the figure is gone, but they know he will come back.

It was certainly a far cry from the original concept that Elisophie started out with but it was certainly intriguing. We began to wonder who this Pale Faced Man could be. What was he wearing, what his back story and what would be his journey? I loved the idea of this figure having an arc that would lead him to be good. His need to scare the life out of people and lurk by their windows might give way to compassion and he might be transformed. In this moment, perhaps something inside him is healed and he is either freed from this world or placed back firmly in reality, the past being something that made him stronger.

In the end, perhaps Elishopie may not incorporate this path into her final story, but you never know. Sometimes these kernels of ideas or imagery marinate in our imaginations for a long time before they come out in another story or concept. We only had a short time together but we have the ingredients and experience now to understand how to approach our next iteration, one that will focus on completing a full act of a film with an AI. Mohanty was impressed with the speed of the story creation but believed we had to work deeper to identify specific roadblocks for writers that AI can solve. Everyone has a different process and style of writing so we are a bit distant from our goals, but a few closer than we were when we started last year. You never know, we might even take The Pale Faced man somewhere further.