Fabulous Fabula

Some thoughts on the artificial synthesis of stories

Sunday, February 5, 2017 · 5 min read

Ivan Sutherland says, “It’s not an idea until you write it down.” With that in mind, here is a series of thoughts I have recently been thinking.

How do you feel when you walk through a library? Perhaps you feel relaxed by the silence, comforted by the presence of books at your side. Perhaps you feel awed by the pages that surround you, or inspired by the wonderful tales you know they contain.

I feel all these emotions, but I also feel a little despair. A library has thousands and thousands of books. Surely I will never make it through even a small fraction of them — no matter how hard I try, even if I read constantly for years, there will always be books remaining, books I might have loved and cherished if only I had decided to read them. It is more than despair: the state of mind is perhaps best described as preemptive regret.

Such is life. But as I walk between the bookshelves at my local library, it nevertheless seems natural — even prudent — to wonder: is there any end in sight? Will writers ever run out of stories to tell? Of distinctive plots, of clever endings, of engaging characters? Surely there are a finite number of words, a finite number of ways to meaningfully combine those words, and thus eventually one must reach a limit on the number of stories those words can tell. What happens if we tell them all, if we saturate our own Library of Babel? What then?

In 2004, Christopher Booker published a book called The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. He argued that all stories fall into one of seven categories, such as “Rags to Riches” (Cinderella and Jane Eyre) or “Overcoming the Monster” (Beowulf and Harry Potter). Though harshly received by critics, Booker’s idea serves well to introduce the thesis of this blog post: that it is not the story, but rather its telling, that matters.

What is the difference between a story and its telling? For that, let us borrow a pair of words from the Russian formalists, who began the modern tradition of narratology. The Russian formalists made a distinction between the fabula and the syuzhet of a story. The fabula is the actual story as it would be written in a history textbook: the real sequence of events, in their chronological order, the — to appeal to Kant — the noumenal, das-Ding-an-sich view of a tale. The syuzhet is the way the story is told: the organization of scenes, the development of characters, the surprise ending, the — to once more appeal to Kant — the phenomenal. The former is a story, the latter is a plot. If fabula is the theory of differential calculus, syuzhet is a well-delivered lecture on the subject. If fabula is a prism, syuzhet is a rainbow. If fabula is a galaxy, syuzhet is a telescope.

The thesis of this post is therefore that to the art of storytelling, the syuzhet matters much more than the fabula. Booker’s seven basic plots attempt to restrict the possible fabulae, but an infinitude of syuzhets leave us with generations of thought-provoking literature. The Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz both narrate Booker’s “Voyage and Return” Fabula, but the syzhets are different enough for the stories to have vastly different meanings and impacts on our minds. The stories teach us different lessons, make us laugh and cry in different places, and make us empathize with different characters. Nevertheless, they both follow a very predictable order of events. It seems, therefore, that the work of a writer is to create syuzhet, not fabula.

And so, as computer scientists, we must ask ourselves, “can we automate the creation of fabula?”

I want to first clarify that I am not talking about creating some sort of Great Automatic Grammatizer. And I certainly am not trying to reduce literature to a series of theorems. Rather, I want to use computation as a lens to explore stories in a new way. The purpose, therefore, is not to generate a novel automatically — that sounds horrifying — but rather to generate the framework of a novel automatically. A writer can then focus on expressing herself without worrying about crafting a compelling storyline through which to do so. After all, a writer with a fascinating character, setting, or parable in mind still requires a medium for those elements to occupy. A readymade fabula provides a starting point, and above all, assurance that the story is going somewhere. A fabula protects you from the prospect of a contrived deus-ex-machina ending.

Perhaps the best work on the computational generation of fabula comes from Chris Martens’ thesis, in which she reveals a wonderful connection between stories and Girard’s linear logic. (For a taste of linear logic, a good reference paper is this set of lecture notes by Philip Wadler.) Briefly, Martens’ work allows you to create rules by which propositions change over time. These rules are much like algebraic manipulations; indeed, in a way, her idea equates stories with proofs. Ceptre, a proof-of-concept implementation of this work, lets you create rich interactive narratives as well as complete stories.

(Further related work is covered by this survey paper. Of particular interest is the incredibly-well-named Narrative Intelligence Lab at the University of New Orleans, which publishes papers like A Computational Model of Plan-Based Narrative Conflict at the Fabula Level.)

But while Martens’ work creates a logical story effectively (which is very useful for interactive fiction), what we seek here is a powerful story. We want stories that make us feel rather than think. For that, we need new tools.

Having said that, I must now admit that I have little to say about what such tools might actually be. I have been thinking about it for many months now, and have yet to make any progress.

Some ideas stand out. Surely, the heart of fabula is conflict, and in particular, conflict of morals. Hamlet conflicts between revenge and self-preservation; Brutus between friendship and freedom; Juliet between love and family. Perhaps there is a way to take an arbitrary pair of values, and, by some nondeterministic process, construct a situation that forces a character to choose between them. Rather than Ceptre’s forward-chaining proof strategy, we might instead appeal to a form of resolution-refutation to generate interesting situations.

Another part of fabula must be the asymmetry of information: there is distinction between the knowledge of each character (not to mention the reader and even the narrator). The function of information asymmetry is usually obvious. Consider, for example the classic murder mystery: Poirot’s stories rely on the murderer knowing what Poirot doesn’t, of Poirot knowing what the murderer doesn’t, of Hastings — a proxy for the reader — not knowing much in general. Yet information asymmetry is present in far more than just murder mysteries. Even Romeo and Juliet relies on a sequence of misunderstandings at the end.

Fate, too, has its role in narrative, as do its counterparts, intention and motive. And what of irony? Does irony belong in fabula or syuzhet? The Gift of the Magi relies on irony for its fabula, whereas Shakespeare uses irony to enrich the syuzhet of Hamlet.

Searching for the fundamental building blocks of effective fabula — the narremes that build up the narratives — is an exercise left for you to ponder along with me. As you read novels and short stories over the next few weeks, I invite you to try to distill the fabula from the syuzhet, and then to decide what exactly makes the fabula compelling. As with all fascinating questions, the answers may not be to our liking — or they may be too complex for us to mold into tractable generalizations — or they may be disappointing in their simplicity.

But then, what’s an adventure without a little danger?

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