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.

Early praise for Our Child of Two Worlds

Beautiful and tender. I really love the characters… there is so much empathy and warmth and humanity. …the same esteemed league as Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series… (Patricia Rodriguez, Actor, reader for the two audiobooks.)

A cross between ET and Independence Day… [Cox] ramps up readers’ emotions in this heart-warming and thought-provoking story. A world on the brink of destruction and the one small alien boy who is determined to save it. It’s very tense and I wasn’t crying – honest!  (Sue Tingey, author)

The writing is as wonderful as always, concerned with the small, telling details that show the wider picture so effectively. It’s evocative and beautiful and works to make you care even more deeply about both the characters and the earth that’s so under threat… This book has the same emotional heart and heft of the first one, but on a much larger (as in galaxies larger) stage, a tricky balancing act pulled off with aplomb. (Sophie, Goodreads)

It may be shelved under Sci-Fi but for me, Our Child of Two Worlds is a stirring novel about family and home. Rich with humanity, it explores our species’ tendency to damage ourselves, our relationships and Planet Earth. And at its core, it gives us Cory, the young, vulnerable ‘purple’ with tentacles who powered the original novel by making us love him. A powerful, sad but satisfying sequel.” (Sue Hampton, author, peace and climate activist)

I couldn’t put this book down … well written with an interesting and well written storyline and well-developed characters that I enjoyed (Goodreads)

Cox has done a superb job of building on all the strengths of the first book while taking the story in new and interesting directions. (Juliet McKenna, author)

The thing I liked most about Our Child of the Stars was the characters, they felt nuanced and real and even characters who only appear briefly are believable people who could be the main character of their own story. The same holds true for Our Child of Two Worlds, which takes the much loved characters of the first book and alongside brilliant newly introduced ones, thrusts them into new scenarios, some anxiety-inducing, some heart-warming, some both. The new characters fit into the story so well that if you reread, as I have, you can’t wait for them to turn up again to experience the exciting dynamics they bring.  (Lucy, Goodreads)

Our Child Of Two Worlds is modern, emotionally sophisticated science fiction. Stephen Cox’s tale of the charming but lost alien child Cory shows us that humanity, for all its flaws, is worth saving, and that the power of the human heart stretches from this world to the next ― DAN JONES, author of Man O’War and host of Chronscast.

Love and Joy and Hope

I have been writing novels seriously for ten years and working on Cory and his family for eight.

My warm thanks to all those who supported and challenged and questioned and fed back on my journey. The tale is stronger for your help.

Our Child of the Stars was only half the story I wanted to tell. Our Child of Two Worlds concludes my original idea for his story.  This forms a good time to reflect on love and joy and hope.

The books are a love letter to stories I have enjoyed – all sorts of books but specifically science fiction and other speculative works.  They show the joy of reading – how a book can take you to another world and make you care for people who don’t exist. 

They draw on film as well as books. They cry out to be a film or a TV series.

The books are about the joys of life and relationships.

The books are a love letter to people close to me – my parents, my children, and my partner.  Love is not blind to people’s faults – love is at its greatest when you know the faults and find a way through that.  It is also a love letter to that other great relationship, friendship. One critic found that the Greeks had eight different types of love, and the books talk about all eight of them.

When Pandora unleashed all the ills of the world – how men want to make women responsible for everything bad – the one thing left was Hope. 

The books say that life and love are precious. We live on an extraordinary world and yet it is under threat – from us. science fiction writers spin dreams of what is possible. Yet simply moving into space is centuries off being a relevant solution.   Whether aliens exist or not, it will be down to us to save ourselves.  If we have hope, that urgent change is possible. 

Things can show truth without being true. Fairy-tales are not there to tell us that dragons exist.  Fairy-tales are there to tell us that dragons can be beaten.

Events Updated 28 March

Thursday 31 March -SIGNING, Haringey

All Good Bookshop, Turnpike Lane


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

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

Planets are common. Is life?

Now 5000 exoplanets around other stars have been found, what does that tell us about the probability of life?

Our Child of the Stars assumes that another intelligent, social, technological species lives close enough that they can reach us with their faster than light drive. This is a common assumption in science fiction (which doesn’t mean the people who write it all think it could be true.)

Once we know two intelligent species exist, quite close together as galactic distance goes, the odds rise that there are plenty of others.  That raises Fermi’s famous paradox – if life is common, and technological civilisations arise, and the universe is very old, where are the older species of aliens?  Shouldn’t they already be here?  

In essence there are probably six questions

  1. Does life arise anywhere the conditions are right?
  2. How common are those right conditions and how long do they last?
  3. How often does complex life arise where the conditions remain right long enough?
  4. Will complexity given time always bring intelligent, social creatures?
  5. How often do intelligent, social creatures develop a technological civilisation?
  6. Do technological civilisations last long enough to spread between the stars – and do they want to?

Where are we on the hunt for alien life?

We have noticed no alien transmissions, but we have not searched enough of the sky, on enough frequencies, for long enough, to give up yet. Some things we need to know, we are still largely in the dark. A few we have learned a lot in the last few decades.

Thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope and some other searches, we can now be very confident the galaxy is packed with planets, and many will be in the right temperature zone, and in the right spread of sizes.

Life evolved only a few hundred million years after the Earth got cool enough to allow it. But unless a planet is within a stable range of temperatures, over a very long time, favourable conditions will end. It takes many millions of years to get from say bacteria to me.

That means, a stable orbit, and a stable star to orbit, is crucial for temperatures to remain in the right ballpark for long enough.

Astronomer Professor David Kipping says our solar system is unusual. To start with only a tenth of stars are like the sun – relatively stable output for a long time. Then, our system is tidy – one sun, and all the planets are in almost circular orbits.

Systems with multiple suns – the majority – usually won’t have planets in stable orbits. The twin suns of Tattoine? Probably not.

Jupiter’s role

Kipping argues massive planets like Jupiter are key. Current theories see Jupiter’s gravity playing a key role in developing the solar system.  Big Jupiter-like planets are common and easy to detect by radio astronomy. However, most Jupiters seem to have an eccentric orbit, swinging closer to and further away from the star.  Over time an eccentric Jupiter would pull other planets in all sorts of ways – a complex and changing set of orbits for smaller planets, including the possibility of being kicked out of the system altogether. In these solar systems, life might evolve but get shut down when its orbit changes, becoming too hot or cold.  Systems with a Jupiter close to the star tend not to have other planets near the star. Systems without any Jupiter at all could be unstable without a big gravity shepherd.

Kipping proposes we treat ‘having a Jupiter in a fairly circular orbit’ as a good way of picking solar systems that might be ‘like ours’. He thinks only one in a hundred suns like ours could have a stable earth and many of these there might be no big enough planet in the temperate zone.

There are many things which could prevent suitable planets remaining suitable. There are disasters affecting many systems at once (supernova/gamma bursts/wandering stars busting open the system, etc). A planet needs to be big enough to hold onto its atmosphere.

Nevertheless a small fraction of an enormous number is still a very big number.

A planet might have abundant life, even be intelligent, and never go spacefaring. For example, inhabitants of a world entirely covered in ocean would struggle to develop chemistry or use metals.

Life could easily be so rare, we might be alone in the Galaxy. But there is still a lot we don’t know and may not know until we run into another habitable planet.

If faster than light travel is impossible, spreading from star to star will take a lot of effort. Many cultures might not want to do so or need to. (But can we assume no culture would try?)

The real takeout is that the Earth, which we seem hell bent on destroying as a habitat, is probably rare.  Nowhere in the solar system is as favourable for us as say, the coast of Antarctica, or the Sahara desert. We need to treat our biosphere as if it is the only one we have, and possibly, the only one we will touch for a thousand years, or a million.  If Earth was hit by an asteroid, it would still be a better place to live than anywhere else we know.

In 12,000 years since we developed settled farming, we’ve got to a point of self-destruction.  There may be a simple and nasty explanation for the radio silence.  Maybe developing a technical civilisation is toxic.

Our Child of Two Worlds talks about that too.

(You may say what about life that is a wildly different chemistry and lives in the corona of stars or orbitting black holes. We don’t know how that would work or if we would recognise it if we found it.)

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.

Book Tag – Science Fiction Invaders

This book tag was penned by blogger K J Mulder of who is currently running a Science Fiction Invaders book challenge.

Q1 – Blast Off!

Which Book Got You Interested In Or Hooked on Science Fiction?

I was hooked into fantasy by some true classics like Earthsea, the Hobbit, etc.

Science fiction was different. I think the ur-book was Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which has a great sense of wonder and narrative drive, and before you read the series, note that this are massively dated with all the -isms and otherwise awful to my adult tastes. Burroughs also writes without the slightest interest in consistency, or sound worldbuilding. I tore through these. The children’s library had Heinlein and Norton ‘juveniles’ and Hugh Walters who is very obscure now, and some good anthologies and that was it.  On screen, Dr Who and Star Trek were pretty influential.  I liked that the Doctor didn’t always try to blow people up. A good memory of finding the entire collected short stories of H G Wells in the school library and lunchtime by lunchtime I read the lot in order.

Q2 – Engage Targeting Systems!

What type of science fiction that you enjoy the most? Any specific tropes or sub-genre that makes something a must read?

Strong characters and relationships, and something which is about people and their problems without being preachy. Ideas well used. Also, if it’s in the future or on another planet, it needs to use that. Stories which could be Berkshire, now, don’t impress.

Q3 – Prime Your Weapons Systems

What’s Your Favourite Science Fiction book series?

I guess Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish sequence, because I really rate some of the books and stories in it. I often find series weary as they go on. As a series Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun is incredibly strong and memorable, and imaginative, and cruel. I should finish the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafator and the Becky Chambers books.

Q4 – Disengage Safeties

What would you like to see more of in the genre?

Compassion, empathy, joy, humour. Daring to be hopeful.           

Q5 – Weapons Free

What is your favourite adaptation of a science fiction work?

I sneak in the film the Shape of Water (because it’s an adaption of The Creature from the Black Lagoon). Poetic, romantic, about love and loyalty and difference and outsiders finding a place. The grimness of prejudice, xenophobia, and war.  Set in the past but clearly not about the past. All of these ring real bells.

Q6 – Torpedoes Away

Share an unpopular opinion which other sci-fi fans might judge you for

I’m with Wells that imaginative stories don’t have to be (i) rigorous attempts to extrapolate the future or (ii) strictly bound by our current understanding of science. Stories which meet those stern laws aren’t morally better than those which don’t. Genre boundaries are inevitably fuzzy. Non-SF fans can write good books with science fiction ideas, although they can also write terrible books which they claim are wildly original and far too well written to be SF…

It would be great if there was a version of the Snap where certain film and TV franchises faded from front of mind for a while.

Judge away.

Q7 – Victory

What’s the one science fiction book you always recommend to someone? Why?

Both of mine. But that’s only to start a conversation about what they’ve read I might like.  Not because I am needy at all. And both the Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. And depending on their interests.

Names I might throw out Becky Chambers, Arkardy Martin, Aliette de Bodard, Iain Banks, Nnedi Okorafator, Zen Cho, Silvia Morena-Garcia… Each of them in their own way is showing a future very different from futures of the past.

Books, Girl with All the Gifts, Redshirts, and in non-fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale.

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

…Two Worlds making progress

September is probably my favourite month, for weather, foliage, and oddly a sense of a new start. 

The crucial news – I believe the draft of OUR CHILD OF TWO WORLDS has really come together.  It will only be one more sweep through – strength, consistency, etc – and it goes to Jo the Mighty (my editor).  Hopefully we will be moving to proper edits, a series of successively quicker to and fros…

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