How many freaking plots are there?

Before I reproduce a letter in the Guardian many years ago, what is all this about there only being one story, or seven, or 36?

Humans like to find patterns and make categories. Aristotle said stories should have a beginning, middle, and end, and progress through a logical chain of cause and effect.  Unlike many things Aristotle says, this stands up surprisingly well., although now we don’t always tell stories now in the order they happened.

In Shakespeare’s day, plays were comedies (ends with wedding), tragedies (ends with funeral), or histories (‘right’ King wins.)

The Hero’s Journey tries to shoehorn every story into a single model where personal change and succeeding in the objective are the same thing. At a basic level it is definitely right to consider internal and external conflict and change. In my view, the Heroine’s Journey is better in that it considers three aspects – internal change, external conflict, and a change in respect to society (family, team, etc).

Polti found 36 basic plots – truly more like dramatic situations – in fairy tales.

The following piece claims there are eight essential plots (but in effect adds a nineth ‘modern plotlessness.’) Each plotty plot can be ‘inverted’ or comes in at least two versions – so that is already sixteen plots.  They can be done seriously or as comedy or farce.  Hamlet could be darkly hilarious if no-one ever managed to murder the people they were trying to kill.  Then they can be combined. A love triangle can be added to any of the others.

Of course, reading the below, people need not be human, not all boys are looking for girls, and three is not always a crowd.

It’s true that there are deep structural similarities between stories and that understanding how a story works is important. Stories and books can meander and lose interest because the writer is not clear what they are doing.

Writing combines free creativity and strong discipline, matching ideas can produce fruitful new scenarios. But trying to reduce a book to a standard plot can sometimes serve no purpose.

To say every story is either ‘a stranger comes’ or ‘someone goes on a journey’ only works by taking sweeping definitions of the words. That reminds me of the phase ‘everyone is bisexual really’ which can only be true for a very wide definition of bisexual or really or both – a definition too broad to be useful.

Our Child of the Stars is “A stranger comes to town”. Which of the following plots is it?

I like this list because I use it as a prompt for ideas.

Article begins:

“I’M NOT sure about plots for stories, but plots for plays is something my father, the Irish playwright Denis Johnston, had a lot to say about. Originally he thought there were seven, but then he realised there are in fact eight:


1. Cinderella – or unrecognised virtue at last recognised. It’s the same story as the Tortoise and the Hare. Cinderella doesn’t have to be a girl, nor does it even have to be a love story. What is essential is that the Good is despised, but is recognised in the end, something that we all want to believe.
2. Achilles – the Fatal Flaw that is the groundwork for practically all classical tragedy, although it can be made comedy too, as in the old standard Aldwych farce. Lennox Robinson’s The Whiteheaded Boy is the Fatal Flaw in reverse.
3. Faust – the Debt that Must be Paid, the fate that catches up with all of us sooner or later. This is found in all its purity as the chase in O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. And in a completely different mood, what else is The Cherry Orchard?
4. Tristan – that standard triangular plot of two women and one man, or two men and one woman. The Constant Nymph or almost any French farce.
5. Circe – the Spider and the Fly. Othello. The Barretts of Wimpole Street if you want to change the sex. And if you don’t believe me about Othello (the real plot of which is not the triangle and only incidentally jealousy) try casting it with a good Desdemona but a poor Iago.
6. Romeo and Juliet – Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy either finds or does not find Girl – it doesn’t matter which.
7. Orpheus – The Gift taken Away. This may take two forms: either the tragedy of the loss itself, as in Juno and the Paycock, or it may be about the search that follows the loss, as in Jason and the Golden Fleece.
8. The Hero Who Cannot Be Kept Down. The best example of this is that splendid play Harvey , made into a film with James Stewart.


These plots can be presented in so many different forms – tragedy, comedy, farce, whodunnit – and they can be inverted, but they still form the basis of all good writing. The fault with many contemporary plays is simply that they do not have a plot.

Rory Johnston, London NW3.

Revamp of my web site

Excuse my appearance – and let me know immediately if any links don’t work!

The site is being updated and restructured so it it is clearer and keep coming back to see the improvements! This will include a little shop and easier navigation.

It’s also moved to a new hoster – wordpress.com – so that I spent less time on tech and more time on content.

If you find this useful, a coffee would be nice!

Four books I read in June

I’ve read two books where a teenager has to navigate a post-apocalyptic England – and two queer romances. You can miss good books if you scorn teenage protagonists.

We live in a world contemplating disaster. Writing about after allows stories of humans under pressure, and it can ask questions about how we organise ourselves, what we would lose, and perhaps here and there, what we might gain.  They don’t have to be right wing power fantasies. Read more here.

A boy and his dog by C A Fletcher shows the British Isles largely depopulated.  Gris’s family only knows one or two other families, scattered across the whole Western Isles. A stranger steals his dog, among other things, and impetuous Gris sails after him. Step by step Fletcher puts Gris in increasing danger, in a haunting vision of a world largely without humans. The author has a brilliant way of foreshadowing disaster, in a way that makes what actually goes wrong a complete surprise, with at least one unforgivable twist, and he brings it to a staggering ending.

The Book of Koli by M R Carey starts in a post-apocalyptic Yorkshire, where an isolated village is slowly shrinking – births being fewer than deaths. Surrounded by carnivorous trees and other mutants, the community is ruled by those who can make old technology work. Koli challenges this and ends up expelled.  Carey delivers originality and imagination, his humane take on the world is accessible. This is the first of a trilogy, in which Koli must see if humanity is doomed to die out.

Red White and Royal Blue is fun – Alex is the adult son of the female President of the US and dislikes tall handsome Prince Henry of the British Royal Family. (It’s set in a world where Trump lost). Obviously, they’re going to end up in love but it’s good clean entertainment getting there. Spin, the obsessions of the modern media, and the stultifying nature of monarchy add to the mix. Many people firmly believe it is bad to read books that make you happy, and they also believe it must be easy to write them.  I’m not going to read this sort of thing every day but it’s very successful, and even drips in a positive political worldview.  Passionate love scenes are tasteful.

Felix Ever After follows black trans artist Felix at art school in Brooklyn, it is about his struggles with bullying, including aggressive deadnaming, and not knowing what he wants to do with his talent. The title warns you that he gets his stuff together, though it’s sharper and less obvious than Red White and Blue. We need an assertion of the basic humanity of trans people.

Firestarter lit a fuse for Our Child of the Stars

(Edited to add: the film was pretty poor all round.)

A new Firestarter movie is the third screen adapation of Stephen King’s novel. I’m going to see it, because I have a weird affection for the book, and it was a curious influence on Our Child of the Stars.

I found out yesterday that SF critic Brian Aldiss agreed with me that Firestarter was a better book than Carrie, which is some support.

Some influences are chosen – for example I knew the arrival of the Meteor would resonate with Smallville, the Superman origin story yet of my creation. There’s also some unconscious Firestarter influence in that both it and my work use the ‘sweet child, terrible power’ trope and both have a family with a special child fleeing unaccountable government forces across the north-eastern US. The clever ending of King’s novel was also an influence on how my first book resolves.

Zack Efron will play Charlie’s Dad, Andy in the new film and if he wants to play Gene in the film of Our Child of the Stars, our people should talk.

I wrote about some of this on Medium.

Zac Efron as Andy protects Charlie in a scene from the new movie

Sweet children with terrifying powers

I have a section on the cool new book website http://www.shepherd.com. It allows authors to share their books and promote them with five books by other people on a relevant theme. There are various other developing features – check it out. I feature Our Child of the Stars because if you like the first, you will buy the second, right?

My Five Books is “Sweet children with terrifying powers”.

Writers must be careful handing out great power, as it can wreck the sense of peril. In Our Child of the Stars, Cory is innocent, enormously kind, engaging, and lovable. He brings his new family into many dangers. One power is first used to save his parents, not understanding the terrible harm it will do. His empathy makes it horrific to use and he is frightened of it.  It becomes an absolute last resort.

The list has five strong candidates, and one at least was a direct inspiration for my books.  I think there are several newer books from more diverse backgrounds, and I am building a broader list.  TV and film have some classics – Eleven in Stranger Things for example. I welcome examples that are

(i) SWEET

(ii) CHILDREN or naïve childlike teens

With

(iii) TERRIFYING

Powers. 

I have had so many suggestions where (i) BAD (ii) TEENAGERS with (iii) WELL KNOWN AND WIDELY AVAILABLE powers are suggested.

Launch day News and Reviews

Pieces by me about the book(s)

Honest Uplift – SFBook

A case for hope without being soppy. I invent the term gloomerati for those who claim all good literature must be hopeless.  I hope it is clear I have no quarrel with writers whose books are deeply gloomy or the readers who enjoy them.

https://sfbook.com/honest-uplift-a-guest-post-by-author-stephen-cox.htm

Trip Adviser

New England and New York – how I wrote an America of the mind and how much I leaned on actual experiences

A Letter to Past Me-Scifi bulletin

I write to 2018 Me about the tricky issue of sequels – particularly close sequels which is asking “what happened bext”

Five American Works that influenced the two books – SCiFiNow

Reviews

SFBook

Cox has a wonderful way of painting a complex family that feels genuine… This is a a book about hope, a hope that things can get better, that we can work it out, but to get to that point Cox puts the reader through a lot of anguish.

https://sfbook.com/our-child-of-two-worlds.htm

Annarella – Scrapping and Playing blog

“Riveting, compelling, and emotionally charged: a page turner I loved”

Read her review here

Robin, GeekDads and GeekMoms

a wonderful conclusion to a very special duology of novels. If ever there was a book written with GeekParents in mind, it’s Our Child of the Stars [and hence, Our Child of Two Worlds]

Kate, Wet dark and Wild

A wonderful sequel to Our Child of the Stars, featuring one of my favourite characters – the strange, kind, alien child Cory, who knows danger is coming.

https://t.co/oYCSlpXAwk

David, Blue Book Balloon

https://bluebookballoon.blogspot.com/2022/04/review-our-child-of-two-worlds-by.html

Like the best SF, Our Child of Two Worlds is about us, at our best and worst, and how we respond to the best and the worst in others. Cory’s people are from a very different, almost Utopian seeming culture and – as in one of Swift’s novels – we’re judged by that comparison, Cory himself noting it even as his love for his adopted parents and his friends burns bright. Are we worth saving, if we seem willing to destroy ourselves anyway?

A fiercely intelligent, engaged and often angry novel, Our Child of Two Worlds is moving, exciting and deeply readable.

For winternights

Stephen Cox writes beautifully and fills his characters with warmth and self-questioning. I love the incidental characters who debate whether Cory is a hoax. There’s the drama surrounding Molly’s family. There are tensions that play out on an intimate scale against the massive context of aliens, space travel, the potential end of the world. It works brilliantly.

… considerable excitement and tension as the realisation grows that the world truly is in danger. It’s a fantastic story, told so well. Do read Our Child of the Stars first. You need to do that and then Our Child of Two Worlds will be irresistible reading. How I adore Cory, the boy who loved by two worlds!

Chat about Cory March 1st 730pm GMT

Topic: Our Child of Two Worlds Discussion+Publicity

Tuesday 1st March 7.30pm for an hour (or we can run over those who want)
Have a friendly talk about the book, hear me read, Q+A about books writing publishing, and a chat about 3 or 4 simple, painless, and largely free ways to help me get the book out there.

You may not know what is helpful, and indeed, things people do that don’t help.

It’s things like buy the book (the **only** idea that costs anything!) and tell your friends you liked it.

Nice if you can, fine if you cannot. Come anyway, no pressure.

Message me for Zoom link and password.

Ten easy ways to help an author

Here are some things which really help – obviously only if comfortable. Do one, do ten, as you want!

Please pre-order the book, because no bookshop stocks everything. Seriously, if you go browsing for it, you could miss it.

Please tell your friends, word of mouth is still important

Please share your thoughts with other people on social media – I am on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and tag me if you like

Obviously sharing my social media too would be lovely!

Please consider reviewing it on Amazon, Goodreads, Waterstones.com, and anywhere else which seems appropriate.  Reviews don’t have to be essays, just a few sentences will do. Amazon will not take a review until publication day. Review it as soon as you can.

With reviewing, it is good form/expected to say if you were given a free copy but say that this did not affect your review. You 100% don’t have to declare that you know me. It’s not local authority procurement.

Please ask your local library to stock it. I get a few pence on each loan and it gets the book into the hands of people who might not otherwise see it

I think this book and its predecessor are great Book Club Books – bound to create discussions

Yes, suggest to your local bookseller if they will stock it. Don’t worry if they haven’t seen it or don’t remember – no one can remember everything. Be polite, try to choose a time when they are less busy, and give them this written handout. Don’t hassle them, give them the facts and let them make their own judgement.

More specialist advice

On Goodreads, mark to read. Like reviews which chime with your thoughts. ‘Shelf it’ where you think it lives.

Preorders signal interest to the trade.

Here are three things that don’t help. Please don’t:

Complain to me it is not in a particular shop. There is literally nothing I can usefully do about it.

Tag me in or show me poor reviews as I will probably have seen it. It’s not wise for an author to respond to a poor review.  I shrug them off – people’s tastes differ. The best solution for a bad review is a better one.

Be grumpy with booksellers, or other people online. Not that you lovely people would do that.

Order signed copies

There will be signings in Haringey and Enfield around launchtime.

Fabled bookbox gurus Tea Leaves and Reads loved the first one. They have made Our Child of the Stars their April Book of the Month in hardback. They plan to make Our Child of Two Worlds a later Book of the Month. Both will be signed.

All Good Bookshop, Turnpike Lane, London (Cooperative bookshop, community hub, meeting place for groups, and supporter of my writing group.) You can ask for it to be signed, or dedicated, on the web order.

12 weeks to go – Our Child of Two Worlds

Our Child of Two Worlds completes the story begun in my much-praised debut, Our Child of the Stars.  It will be published in the UK on Thursday 31 March 2022, in hardback, eBook and audiobook.  Please preorder it to avoid disappointment.

I am going to be busy promoting the book and talking about various aspects of it.

No spoilers here

Small-town USA, entering the Seventies. A childless couple Gene and Molly adopt a strange, wounded child of the stars they call Cory.  Molly is the main narrative voice – a passionate nurse fighting for her own extraordinary child. Cory is gentle, vibrant, excitable, endlessly curious and loving – and come from yet his otherworldly origins. bring both joy and danger

In Our Child of Two Worlds a figure from the past brings uncomfortable truths and Gene and Molly face the terrifying loss of everything they took for granted. A divided Earth is under threat – humanity needs Cory’s people to return to save the Earth – but if his people take him back, it will break Molly’s heart.

My writing offers hope, optimism, and a taste of humour, but still facing up to the dark and difficult side of life. I think books can create worlds a bit different from ours, and still be truthful, providing the characters feel real. It was fantastic how well the books landed with readers of all genres. I hope I make people think, but it’s always a good story, not a sermon.

It’s not about the pandemic, at least not directly.

Here’s a few thoughts to whet your appetite.

The stakes are higher than before – for the characters and the Earth. Gene, Molly, Cory and baby Fleur face hatred, danger, and separation. I liked my agent’s summary of the first book

…a big Hollywood canvas and an intense family focus, emotionally devastating, funny and charming all at once’

So to reassure you, the big picture stuff is seen through the family’s eyes.

I bring in three memorable new characters I’m very proud of to make life even more complicated.

It’s an end of the world novel in several respects. It was an era with a real threat of nuclear war and a growing understanding of how humanity could destroy the environment.

Add to that, there are malign forces in space which could destroy a squabbling Earth. At that time the superpowers were edging towards more normal relations – the President whose career was built on fighting communism is about to visit China. Is there enough sense of common humanity (or love for nature) to unite?

As ever, it asks what we owe each other in this life. As ever, how people disagree makes the world what it is.

Please spread the word