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!

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!

Events Updated 28 March

Thursday 31 March -SIGNING, Haringey

All Good Bookshop, Turnpike Lane

SIGNING 5-6pm

Just turn up

Saturday 2nd April – SIGNING, Enfield

Enfield Waterstones, Church St (Palace Gardens)

SIGNING 12-2pm

Just turn up

12th April – Super Relaxed Fantasy Club

This is a long established and friendly genre pub meeting – all welcome

Reading and Q+A from two authors. Other still TBC. Bookstall and signing

7pm onwards

(Possible fee on door)

Star of Kings Pub, York Way.  (North of Kings Cross Station)

Cymera 3-4-5 June, Edinburgh.  Some events online

Scottish Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror convention

https://www.cymerafestival.co.uk/

I’m currently on one panel, Sunday afternoon. I’ll be around all weekend.

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.

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

How long is long enough?

The Art of Mending with Gold

Above Pop, the burning bowl of the cloudless sky, in every direction parched earth and dusty trees, and rocks striped with colour long before there were men.  The old man looked at the empty road, from the empty diner, believing he was alone.

The Hidden Words is an arts project to show short pieces of writing at the Blue House Yard, Station Rd, Haringey.  The opening of my story “The Art of Mending with Gold” is one of the pieces chosen. It is one of my favourites – I love the short story form, which allows free reign on themes and ideas, and imposes its own specific disciplines.

How long should a story be? Specifically, what makes something a short story and what makes it a novel?

A good short story gets into the situation, does its work, and gets out again.  It has more in common with songs and poems (of typical length) than novels do.  And very long stories told in poetry have more in common with novels.  Some short stories work at 1000 words, and some at 5000.

“The Art of Mending with Gold” is 1700 words.  A stranger comes to an isolated diner in the US desert west, with extraordinary consequences. The story has a beginning, a development, an end. It has three characters, and the action is concluded in one day.

The first answer to how long is intuitive. If everything seems to work, why make it longer?

Pop and Fernanda, and the stranger, are real people, and one could write their lives up to the point of the story. But I feel we know enough about them to understand what happens that day and to care.

The story ends how it does because (in my view) we don’t need to see anything more to understand emotionally what has happened, and we have space to imagine the wonder of how things are now and how tey will be.  Any more explanation feels unnecessary, assuming it is even possible.

Of course, everyone’s reaction can be different.

My novel Our Child of the Stars started as a short story, which showed the family preparing for Halloween, and then their peace is disrupted.  The conclusion showed the dilemma of their life together.

The short answer as to why it became a novel was that so much remained to be told. I wanted to show the sadness in Molly and Gene’s marriage, how Cory came, and why they were so convinced that they had to keep him a secret.  The short story showed a crisis unresolved. Was that day or something else going to bring more danger?

Showing that meant starting earlier – either to when Cory came, or as I decided, even earlier to show both joy and disaster in their marriage. Then, after that Halloween, if more danger comes, how do they prepare, what do they do? Where does it end? A novel is an exercise in obsession, thinking beyond what you need to write, understanding your characters in depth.

Once I knew Cory could not fit into one novel, it was soon apparent that it needed to be two. The first one works as a single book but left big questions unanswered. Readers would tolerate one key question gets some answer by the end of the second book. That’s where Our Child of Two Worlds comes from.

Sometimes a story could be longer and you still don’t.  You may love a short story with novel potential, and choose not to grow it into a novel. I have an 11000 word story where someone discovers the truth about their horrible society.  The elite will clearly not give up power without a struggle and there would be love, honour, struggle, sacrifice and perhaps redemption. My protagonist would be a player within that struggle. No shortage of material.  Yet I had said what I wanted to say, what interested me was in the story already.

As ever comments below! Or drop me a line.

Our Child of Two Worlds Finished (creatively)

Our hero cheerily finishes a book – anxieties of the second book – September and new starts – a new work in progress***

So!  Yesterday I edited a sentence – not a great sentence of itself, a brisk conveyer of information. Not important like the first sentence or the last.  It was the last outstanding sentence to edit of Our Child of Two Worlds. The long awaited sequel to Our Child of the Stars and the conclusion of the duology.

We are now at the proof stage. There’s a lovely jolt coming soon – and I am looking forward to it – because when proofs come it is laid out as a book.

On current plans, publication is six months away.  I am proud and excited, and frustrated that it will be some months before you have a change to read it.  Of course, I’m a bit nervous too.  Any writer is nervous what the readers might think – but those who have read drafts seem suitably bewitched.

I know nothing I could write can interest you as much as a copy of the book to read!

I promised newsletter subscribers

-a free Cory short story which is the wonderful opening of the first draft of Our Child of Two Worlds.  It’s perfect but the book now starts in a different place

-a chance to talk about helping/being involved in the launch

-and the opening of the conversation about whether we should write about the pandemic. 

Publishing is generally dissuading writers unless they have front line experience.  The 1918 flu was as deadly as the war and was largely ignored by literature.  For me, I think all human life was there, but its not the idea most obsessing me at present.

*** The work in progress is Victorian and it is affecting me

Do subscribe to my newsletter, ask questions via the contact form, and if you want to help with the launch get in touch.

Update on the book…

I’ve just sent out an email newsletter with an update on the book progress, news about the launch date, and new short story set during the time of Our Child of the Stars but in the USSR.

This is the first of a number of short stories I’ll be sharing in the run up to the publication of Our Child of Two Worlds. You might like to subscribe, you can never guarantee seeing any post on social media! And I don’t write unless there is something new to say.

www.tinyletter.com/stephen_cox

Our Child of Two Worlds – into copyedits

A quick note to say that Jo my editor has come back to me on Our Child of Two Worlds, she is very happy, and we are through to copyedits. 

Thank heavens.

Publication pencilled in for November although slipping to January 2022 is not beyond the bounds of possibility.  I know, I’m impatient too.  The pandemic has thrown timetables awry.

Copyediting works at the level of scene, paragraph and sentence, not least as the draft has piled on the pounds as I worked on it.  I’m looking forward to this, not least because it holds no fears – it is getting the book into shape, not arguing about what type of book it is and what exactly to focus.

I know so much more about writing a sequel now!

Editing is important feedback, and certainly made Our Child of the Stars a clearer, better paced, and more focused book.  You don’t always agree with the editor’s edicts – so what do you do?

It reminds me of a quote which summed up the issue with feedback.  Is feedback right, and what do you do about it?

There is good advice out there, but a writer must walk a knife’s edge. They must be humble and open minded enough to accept criticism and be willing to change. Yet, they must be confident enough in their own style to ignore bad advice. The problem is telling the two types of advice apart.

(Quote from Petewood – literally some random guy on the same writing bulletin board I use) 

I think it goes broader than style but to intent. And it is not necessarily that advice / feedback is bad.

One of the crucial things I learned from writing groups is the necessity to accept feedback that you don’t like may be right – but also the possibility that some advice offered firmly may not be right for you, or this story.  Some people hand down advice like they have tablets of stone on Mount Sinai.

That’s why in addition to tenancy, ability, and luck, I would always say ‘learn how to take feedback as dispassionately as you can, and know what to do with it’. You will also get contradictory feedback.

Jo and I agree what this book is trying to be.  Therefore, pointed in the same direction, I can judge her notes as trying to get us down the road.  Maybe her concerns will be met her way, or another way I will find, or maybe but not often, it will be a no.

Bring it on.