Posted May 15, 2023 at 10:16 am

So, how do we turn a story structure into an actual story? How do you know where to start? How do you know what happens next? We outline.

A lot of folks get tripped up at this stage. They don't want to outline. They feel like it places unnecessary shackles on their story. They want the freedom to see where it goes. I'm sympathetic, but I believe this reaction comes from a complete misunderstanding of what an outline does.

Part of writing, maybe the best part, is being surprised by what you find in your story by writing it. Outlines are not there to keep you from experiencing these discoveries! In fact, they do the opposite. Outlines empower you to make more and better discoveries as you write. How? They help you to explore different paths through your story and to find your way back if (when) these errant paths don't work out. 

Think of your outline as the map of a journey you plan to take and think of your writing as the actual journey. Your outline exists to help you find the best way through unfamiliar terrain. But nothing about that map can stop you from checking out alternatives as you make your way. There are details that the map cannot predict or account for. There are things you will discover or glimpse along your journey that you will want to explore. Do it. If you happen to get lost, or it turns out that super fascinating alternative you thought you saw turns out kinda dull when you actually get there, it's no big deal. Your map will show you how to get back on track.

The structure gives you the shape of your story. It's the big ideas or moments. Your outline is the finer details that tells you how those big ideas and moments flow into one another and create smaller moments connecting everything. Play around with all these ideas. See where else they take you. How else they might flow together. How these different paths help or hinder the impact of the story you're telling. You'll find dead ends. You'll scrap a few outlines that seemed like they were the right one. You'll find the perfect angle through a scene that'll cut a chapter and a half that you really liked.

That's fine.

For ATOMIC ROBO Scott and I brainstorm about the kinds of stories we want to tackle next and we talk about why we’re interested in them or what draws us to them. A plot, a trope, an image, a mood, a historical period or person, a classic sci-fi plot, whatever!

Once we’ve settled on one we’ll hack out some beats that feel like they ​could be​ attached to the central idea that got us excited in the first place. And then we figure out how those might be arranged into our usual structure — introducing a conspiracy, discovering it, chasing it, etc. — and how Robo might navigate through these events.

At this point I’ll put together the ​Broad Strokes Outline​ which is just a sentence or two describing the main idea and/or development for each issue. The main thing we're checking for here is if the idea still makes sense and sounds fun. This is the foundation and we're checking it for cracks before we build the house.

If it checks out to Scott, then I’ll do a Detailed Outline for each issue by writing out a sentence or two roughly describing what should be happen for each page.

Here’s how that looks for the first issue of ATOMIC ROBO AND THE DAWN OF A NEW ERA​...

World buildy exposition via Robo with ALAN in their bunker.

Institute coming along. New Kids incoming.

Bernie heading out on his Volcano Expedition. Robo sending off. Quick library trip.

So, two things pop out.

First, I dunno how that looks to you but I consider this to be the ​Detailed​ ​Outline​. That’s enough information to guide me along but not so much information that I’m restricting my ability to play around with how these events transpire while writing the actual script. Your own page-by-page outlines might have more information than my example. Or less! The only thing that matters is that it has the information ​you​ need so you know where you are in the story.

Second, the pages are grouped like that so I can track “page turns” for our print editions. The way books are physically constructed, a reader looking at PAGE ONE will only ever see PAGE ONE. But when a reader turns to any even numbered page they'll be able to see the page after it at the same time even if they aren't trying to read ahead. This is why you're supposed to reserve especially interesting (or dramatic or exciting) visuals for the ​even numbered​ pages. Some writers will move heaven and Earth to stick by this. Personally, it's something I try to do, but will abandon if it screws up my pacing. Page turns aren’t a big concern for reading comics online but they’re worth keeping in mind because they can enhance the experience of reading the print edition.


Once I’ve done the Detailed Outline for the first issue, the next step is possibly the smartest ​or​ the dumbest thing in my whole process: I do Detailed Outlines for ​every​ issue in the volume before I write a single script.

Possibly Smart:​ Outlining the whole series page-by-page gives me a pretty solid idea of how the story’s going to play out from start to finish. Major problems will reveal themselves before I’ve written the first line of dialog! This is especially handy if I come up with something in the latter half that would require changes to any/all previous issues to make sense. Whatever needs to be cut or re-written at this stage is just some notes to myself. That’s easy! Or at least easier than re-writing complete scripts. Yikes.

Possibly Dumb:​ Something I’ve noticed lately is that my outline for each issue is less accurate than the one before it. Scripts for the first and second issues are pretty close to what’s described by their outlines, but things start getting looser by the third issue and only get worse the further I go. This isn’t a problem as such. The outline is our ​map, the writing is our journey. Having the map is what gave me the confidence to seek out different paths as I made my way through the material. But it creates extra work as I’m forced to re-outline future issues to account for whatever major changes I came up with while writing the middle of the series. And sometimes, okay pretty much every time, this means rewriting scenes from one or more previous issues to make sure the new continuity works. Sometimes this means re-writing whole issues! And since the whole point of having all these outlines done ahead of time is to Not Do A Bunch Of Rewriting that seems like we're screwing something up.

But I’m Gonna Keep Doing It Anyway:​ Because it's a fool’s errand to judge the utility of an outline based on how closely it hews to the finished product. Even when I abandon an outline entirely, it proves to have been integral to the script that was written. I'd have never discovered those alternative paths without my maps, and those stories would've been weaker.

Posted May 8, 2023 at 09:43 am

Last time we talked about the failure of imagination at the core of narrative centered on conflict. I threatened you with looking at another kind of narrative structure. One employed by classic Chinese poetry. It goes like this...

(1) Qiju, 起句​, or "bringing into being": Introduce a scene.

(2) Chengju, 承句​, or "understanding": Add details about the scene.

(3) Zhuanju, 転句​, or "changing": Alter our perspective on the scene to reveal new or unexpected details.

(4) Jueju, 結句​, or "drawing together": Assimilate our preconceived notions of the scene as originally depicted with our newfound knowledge to learn a greater truth.

Each of these would represent one line of your poem, but there's no reason each one can't support a whole act of your story. And, as it turns out, I’d been writing ​ATOMIC ROBO stories roughly in this vein for years without knowing it.

(1) Issues 1 and 2:​ “Bringing into Being” / Introduce the Conspiracy, Discover the Conspiracy.

(2) Issue 3:​ “Understanding” / Chase the Conspiracy.

(3) Issue 4:​ “Changing” / Destroyed by the Conspiracy.

(4) Issue 5:​ “Drawing Together” / Triumph over the Conspiracy .

What I like about this approach is​ that it centers discovery as the indivisible unit of narrative instead of ​conflict.​ These stories can still ​have conflict of course. Hell, over a thousand years of wuxia stories follow this structure and they’re filled to the brim with conflicts. ​ATOMIC ROBO​ is an action comic and boy oh boy there are conflicts!

“But I thought you hated conflict?!?!”

No, I’m suspicious of a system of thought that centers conflict. I have no problem with conflict in stories when conflict ​in and of itself is not the engine of the narrative. Conflicts in this Four Act structure are instead ​among​ the events that happen as a consequence of what is discovered. Whereas the Three Act structure we're all taught as the foundation of Western literature is centered on domination, this Four Act structure is centered on revelation.

Oh, fun fact. This is also how mystery novels work!

(1) Discover a Murder.

(2) Chase the Murderer.

(3) Perplexed by the Murderer.

(4) Triumph over the Murderer.


Now that you're familiar with a couple of structural schemes, we'll talk about how to use structure to filter your Big, Broad Ideas into An Actual Story.
Posted May 1, 2023 at 08:54 am

Last time we talked about the five stages of most Atomic Robo stories and how those usually align with the five issues of an Atomic Robo story.

"Most" and "usually" doing a lot of work there.

Keep in mind that each stage of a story doesn't perfectly map to each issue. It can be especially fuzzy at the start of a series because it can take a variable amount of time to properly establish the when/where/who/how/what of a particular Robo arc given the history hopping ​and the nature of the central threat this time around.

For example ​ATOMIC ROBO AND THE GHOST OF STATION X​ takes place in the same year it was published so we didn’t have to explain the setting to readers — they were already living in it! And while you know something big and weird and bad is happening on a global scale, you aren’t meant to know exactly who or what ​The Bad Thing​ is until the final issue even though, according to our five step breakdown, that material is usually covered in the first or second issue!

So, maybe this is good time to talk about the Second Rule: Rules are made to be broken, but you gotta know ​why​ you’re breaking them.

The whole point of ​GHOST OF STATION X is the punch in the metaphorical guts Robo experiences when he finally discovers the source of all the crazy stuff that’s been thrown at him for the last 80 pages. Following our own rules, we ​should’ve​ told readers who was behind it back in the first issue. But keeping that information hidden from the reader until Robo uncovers it himself allows the audience to experience his emotional rollercoaster and his shock when it’s revealed near the end. Breaking our rules made a more interesting story, so we broke ‘em!

You’re probably familiar with Three Act Structure since it’s the foundation of most literature in the West. Briefly, it goes like this...

(1) Introduction.​ You’re establishing your main characters, their status quos, their goal(s), and the first sparks of (some of) these characters coming into conflict with one another.

(2) Rising Action. ​This is going to be the bulk of your story where most of the conflict occurs as your main characters make their decisions, take their actions, suffer their setbacks, and learn their lessons while attempting to attain their goal(s).

(3) Resolution.​ We hit the final conflict you’ve been building toward from word one. Victory is achieved, the dust settles, and a new status quo emerges.

We’re told stories are about their conflicts — Man vs Man, Man vs Self, Man vs Nature, etc. You’ve seen the list and probably a couple memes.

I’m not a fan of this framing!

If conflict ​itself​ is the prime mover of stories, then stories become fundamentally about​ domination. This is worrisome insofar as our minds operate in stories. Seems to me that if we understand ​conflict​ to be the basic building block of all narrative, and if we understand reality through the ​lens​ of narrative, then making conflict and domination the center of our stories vastly narrows our imagination. A population taught to understand the world in terms of All vs All is less able to cooperate to improve their world. 

Meanwhile, the familiar image of a lone genius/hero standing in opposition to the rest of the ugly/stupid world is why every billionaire is convinced they’re ​the​ hero of all reality even though this delusion is a major contributor to the capitalist psychosis that made them billionaires by rapidly destroying the Earth’s capacity to support human life.

It’s not great!

And the cracks are showing. Our culture is built upon stories about Man dominating foes/reality through sheer force of heroic will, yet here we are in the twenty-first century where rhetoric seems to have no effect on the ravages of a virus killing hundreds of people every day while the biosphere continues to ​quite inconveniently​ obey the laws of physics.

Maybe it's time to think about stories that are ​not​ centered on conflict? What would those look like? Next time we'll consider Four Act Structure from classic Chinese poetry. It works like a charm for adventure stories.

No, seriously.

Posted April 24, 2023 at 10:33 am

This is how we do things because it works for us. Parts of it might work for you! Other parts might sound so stupid you’re beginning to wonder how I’ve gotten this far in life without drowning in the shower.

So, First Rule: use what is beneficial and discard the rest.

If something here doesn’t work for you, ​you are not wrong​ and you should delight in ignoring it. It is my sincere hope that thinking about ​why​ it doesn’t work for you will better illuminate what does​ work for you and why.

Okay, first the good news.

You already know how stories work. And you know when they go wrong. Oh, you might not be able to articulate ​what​ was so good or so wrong about a given story, but you ​know​ it deep in your bones. Like, when you’re reading a story and something just takes you right out of it. “Oh, that’s not realistic!” you might say, without irony, about a book where the war between Dragons and Vampires takes up a lot of pages and realism is the least of its concerns. ​But​ you have certain expectations of how a story should work and how its characters should behave even in a wildly unrealistic tale.

It's not a matter of a story's "realism" it's a matter of its internal consistency. Every detail about Atomic Robo himself is 100% unrealistic. He's an intelligent nuclear powered robot built before nuclear reactors or electric computers. But no one notices because an intelligent nuclear powered robot is consistent with setting and tone of the story he's in. 

When a story doesn’t work it stands out like a wrong note in a symphony — even if you can’t play an instrument, can’t write music, don’t even know what the right note should’ve been, you'll still know when it’s wrong.

Same thing for how stories work. That’s because you know stories. You ​think​ in stories! They are quite literally how the human mind operates. Narrative is the lens through which we experience reality itself. Your memory is just stories. Your personality, your choices and actions throughout the day, these are the results of the stories you tell yourself about the world and your place in it.

You let an old lady with one item in her basket go in front of you in the grocery store because part of the story of yourself is that you’re a good and kind and patient person. Which is also why you’ve never killed someone for cutting you off in traffic even though they so richly deserve it.​

And when you tell friends or family about the old lady or the absolute jackass cutting you off, you’re telling them stories. And there’s probably one version you’d tell your parents and another you’d tell your best friend.

And they probably laugh, and smile, and gasp at all the right parts. Like I said, you know how stories work!

So, then why the hell am I wasting your time with a bunch of blog posts about writing stories like it's 2004?

When you’re writing a story you’re ​generally starting with nothing — yes, I’m sorry, that Dragon/Vampire war never happened — and doing that involves thinking about ​how​ we think about stories which can really trip you up.

But, good news again — good stories have a structure​ that do some of the thinking for you.

Actually there’s like a million structures and probably ten million variations on each of them but don’t worry about it. We’ll focus on a couple simple ones that are easy to play with. Odds are one of them will work for you, but even if they don't, that's good news too, because playing with them and finding out what you don't like about them will help you to find a structure you can use.

There are five simple steps to (almost) every ATOMIC ROBO​ story and, by a wild coincidence, they (almost) align with the five issues of (almost) every ​ATOMIC ROBO​ story.

They are...

(1) Introduce the conspiracy.​ Since we hop all over Robo’s long life, it behooves us to spend some time acclimating readers to the specific Where And When of ​the current volume. Meanwhile this is also where we drop the first hint(s) about ​The Bad Thing that Robo will have to stop.

(2) Discover the conspiracy.​ The whole point of a conspiracy is that it’s secret, so we need Robo to discover ​The Bad Thing​ so he may begin to work against it. He may have started to notice pieces of the puzzle in the previous issue, but this is where it starts to come together.

(3) Chase the conspiracy.​ Robo confronts and confounds the conspiracy. He usually employs a clever or unexpected application of knowledge or expertise gained during his investigations from (2) or​ the course of his previous adventures. Ideally, it should appear that Robo is on the verge of victory or that the conspiracy is going to be taken completely​ off guard by his actions.

(4) Defeated by the conspiracy. Confrontations escalate and the conspiracy reveals its ​own​ clever or unexpected application of knowledge or resources that dismantles all of Robo’s efforts to this point, ​whoops.​ Whereas we thought Robo was on the verge of success, now it’s the ​conspiracy that appears to be victorious. Boooo!

(5) Triumph over the conspiracy.​ lol just kidding, the guy whose name is literally the title of the book will win. The conditions of Robo’s victory should come as a surprise ​in the moment​ but appear inevitable ​in retrospect​ because that means we left breadcrumbs in previous issues leading us to this result. A surprise victory that comes completely out of nowhere or makes no sense, uh, ​sucks. So, don’t do that. Ideally this victory comes at a cost. Robo should lose something — a comrade, a principle, a memento, a relationship, a potential future, etc.

We’re using “conspiracy” here as a shorthand for “The Bad Thing.” But since the world of ATOMIC ROBO​ is steeped in secret agencies and hidden agendas, The Bad Thing often ​is​ a conspiracy whether it’s a lone maniac like Helsingard or Doctor Dinosaur or a whole government bureau like Majestic 12 or DEPARTMENT ZERO.

This is getting a bit long so we'll take a break here. You've got some rules to play around with now, so next time we'll talk about breaking the rules.

Posted April 17, 2023 at 12:43 pm

As a fan of ​ATOMIC ROBO​ you’ve probably heard or read an interview where I, Brian Clevinger, co-creator and writer of ​ATOMIC ROBO​, talk for a bit about how I do ​Way Too Much Research.

Here’s the thing about that.

I like to learn stuff. Especially history stuff. It turns out that writing stories about a robot adventurer who can pop up at any point between 1923 and today — and sometimes ​before 1923 — is a great excuse to read a bunch of history stuff about whatever era the current story deals with, to call it “research,” and then get paid.

Now, it’s not all sunshine and paychecks. Sometimes you’re expected to write an actual script! ​Ugh!​ Or your manager comes up with a brilliant scheme to monetize all the research that ​doesn’t​ end up in those scripts he forces you to write so you don’t go homeless, and now you’ve got to write a whole series of blog posts like this one that you don’t remember consenting to but they're good for metrics and anyway there’s a deadline on the work-chat calendar, so there’s no escaping it.

Hypothetically speaking.

Oh, it’s a good idea, and I love talking shop, there’s just one problem. There hasn't been much research lately​ because we've been working in little bottle episode-ish volumes that takes place in the modern (though now ​totally alien​) period just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Actually, if COVID happened in Robo's world, they were able to quash it in a few months through responsible collective efforts instead of being forced back to work by corporate parasitic overlords who don't care how many thousand people have to die every week so long as Number Go Up.

Where was I?

Oh, right, writing. Over the next few weeks I will attempt to explain the hows and whys of plotting, outlining, and writing a volume of ATOMIC ROBO. Wish me luck.

Posted April 10, 2023 at 10:30 am

My grandfather retired at Fort Rucker in 1985 as the last active duty WWII aviator. But he never really left. He was always giving speeches, attending events, consulting and training new pilots. A while back you may have heard about the Army making an effort to rename some military bases after soldiers who were not traitors. About time really. As of this morning they officially renamed Rucker to Fort Novosel. There's a pretty thorough account of my grandfather's military career online to explain the choice, but it's in three parts because it spans a few decades.

There's a lot of my grandfather wrapped up in Robo. It's why he's short. It's why he throws himself at danger to save lives. It's why he's funny. I only realized this about a year after we finished the first volume. Robo was a culmination of a lifetime of ideas about adventure and heroics. Scott and I were finalizing the basic idea of the series the same year my grandfather passed away. It didn't make sense that he could die. Of course I reinvented him as soon as he was gone.

In a particularly odd twist of fate, Scott spent some time in Rucker's aviation program back in the '90s and almost certainly would have encountered my grandfather years before we met. There's no way he'd remember a random old Army guy from 30 years ago, of course. But still. Small world.

It's been well over a decade and I'm still occasionally surprised that he's gone. He was simply indomitable.

Posted November 16, 2022 at 12:36 pm

Hello, Roboholics! Hmm, no. Robomaniacs? Eh. Robophiliacs? Yikes, pull up, pull up!

Just wanted to let you folks know that we're running a sale until the end of the year! Just visit our online store and input coupon code...

HOLIDAYS2022 get 15% off every single item. Including some new stock. Lucky you!

Our first item is actually three items. It's like magic. Behold!

The Atomic Robo Standee (and/or Doctor Dino Standee +/- the Weird Techno Background Standee) would look wonderful on your desk or bookshelf. I mean, I haven't seen your desk or any bookshelves personally, that'd be weird, but our surveillance team assures me these items would take them up a notch. You can get just Robo, or both Robo and Dino, or both of them plus the backdrop. Do it!

Next up is our ABSOLUTELY HUGE DOCTOR DINO STICKER SHEET. I'm not kidding, it's a big boy. The sheet is 8.5in x 11in so each individual sticker is like 2.5in tall (give or take) and that's crazy. I think we did it by accident. Oops? But, hey, big stickers for you! Put one on your laptop. Or else. Look at this thing.

Posted June 1, 2022 at 12:20 pm

Hello, Roboteers!

Man, I gotta think of a better name for the readership.

Anyway, thought you folks might like to know that I wrote a novel?!?!? You can grab ebooks through our online store, or, or Amazon, or join our Patreon where we'll be serializing a new chapter every month! Check out the cover below and maybe even read the first chapter if you click on it. Amazing!

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