Was it the Greeks who believed there were only eight stories to tell?

In college, I recall learning (and later, forgetting) something about the Ancient Greeks that they believed there were essentially a very limited number of stories one could tell - some number like 8 or 10 or something. For example, boy-gets-girl-loses-girl-gets-girl. Or boy-gets-girl-both-die (like Romeo & Juliet). Anyone else recall that anecdote?

So if that was true, why did they bother continuing to tell the same stories over and over? Also, if it IS true, why do we continue to buy books? Why not buy the 8 stories (Antigone would be one, I suppose), and just reread them when we get bored?

In other words, if we assume the Greeks were right, how would they explain the appeal of the same stories told by a different author?

Because the details are different, and the fun is in the details.

When in doubt, check the Archives first:

What are the seven basic literary plots?

For instance, Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story and Titanic all have the same plot…

People have been trying to reduce the number of possible plot elements to a small number for ages.

My favorite minimalist version is: “There are only two plots: someone takes a journey, and a stranger comes to town.” A more expansive attempt is George Polti’s “36 Dramatic Situations”


But even if you can say there are only 2 or 8 or 36 plot elements, that doesn’t mean that all stories are the same. That’s because stories consist of more than plots.

Stories also contain:

Characters. Suppose the plot is boy meets gir/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back. What are the boy and girl like? Is the boy brash and extroverted? A moody introvert? A repressed ball of neuroses? Etc.

A setting. Does this story take place in medieval England? A small village in China? A huge corporation in Manhattan? A ghetto in Chicago?

A mood. Is the tone light and comic? Dark and brooding? Dry and ironic?

A theme. So the boy gets the girl in the end. What does that mean? “Love conquers all?” “We can’t escape our fates?” “The universe is random and sh*t happens?”

Add to this the fact that plots generally have more than one plot element, and stories generally have more than one plot, and you come to realize that that every story has a huge number of variable components to it. The possibilities for the final work are endless.

Saying “There are only X possible plots, so all stories are basically the same” is like saying “all bread contains some sort of flour, so all bread is basically the same.” It’s true, but only in a limited and technical sense, and it’s usually only said by people who aren’t bakers themselves. :slight_smile:

Or that all board games are either a Race or a War. Checkers, Chess and Go are all “War” games and are not remotely the same.

I had heard that Shakespere said: “There are only seven plots.” I have never seen anything cite-able about this however. None the less, Will wrote a passel more than seven plays. Could he have been referring to the ‘Seven Sins’/‘Seven Virtues’ as plot devices?