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The 7 Basic Stories Families Tell and Why We Need to Tell Them

03/28/2015 11:59 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2015

Since Bruce Feiler so graciously and artfully introduced our work at Emory on the health-giving power of family stories, Robyn Fivush and I have received notes from all over the world describing the myriad ways that families have passed on tales of past generations to newly arriving cohorts. Many people have sent along copies of their actual stories for us to see. We read these stories with what rapidly became much more than passing interest, however, because not too far into the set of stories a clear pattern began to appear. The pattern we noticed was known to us before from other research on the psychology of fiction. But here it was again, in a new and unexpected place -- in family stories. Upon hindsight, however, it really should not have come as a surprise.

Where had we seen the pattern before? In 2004, a literary scholar named Christopher Booker published a very lengthy and carefully researched work entitled The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. In this book, Booker proposed and provided compelling evidence for there being only seven basic plots in all fictional or narrative works. It required Booker more than 700 pages chock full of examples from movies, books, plays and other forms of fiction to build a convincing case that almost every story that we know or create will have within it one or more aspects reflecting his basic seven plots. As I describe them below, I am sure most readers will be able to generate numerous examples for each. (Doing so is actually a lot of fun!) I will mention just one or two examples for each:

Overcoming the Monster: Here we find stories of individuals or groups heroically rising to defeat an actual monster, or a disease, or aliens, etc. Classic films such as Godzilla and, well, Aliens, belong here.

The Quest: Here characters set out in search of something that is difficult to find or possess. The Lord of the Rings has a very heavy Quest component

Voyage and Return: The classic Illiad and Odyssey fall here with main characters going off to a far away, dangerous place with the expectation or requirement that they return with something that will make their home village or country better off. A more recent example is The Hobbit.

Rags to Riches: Here we find the classic Horatio Alger notion that with hard work, poor and disadvantaged people can make good. Think of Lincoln or Slum Dog Millionaire.

Tragedy: Truly tragic stories do abound sadly, not only in fiction but in real life. Tragic fiction is best exemplified by Shakespearean plays, but many modern films fit this plot category.

Comedy: Will Ferrell. Robin Williams. Mel Brooks. Judd Apitow

Rebirth: This plot involves the rising up, literally or figuratively of someone who has "bottomed out" or been driven to the limits of desperation and endurance. Here we see not only people being "born again" but also turning their lives around when all hope seems gone. Film and fiction examples would be Forest Gump and A Christmas Carol.

Family stories are, after all, stories -- tales told for entertainment and enlightenment. In these ways, they are much like fictional stories -- and more often than not -- they are, in reality, also fictional! Do they therefore manifest the same seven basic plots? To begin answering this question, we examined the many stories that people had sent us and which we have collected over the past decade. To our delight, the family stories contained components of the same seven basic plots that Booker had identified in movies, books and other fictional works. There were overcoming the monster stories (the Holocaust, discrimination, criminals, etc.); quest stories (leaving one's home land in search of a better life); voyage and return stories (a family member is horribly injured in an accident and then fights back to a normal life); rags to riches stories (about ancestors who came to a new land with nothing and built successful lives); riches to rags stories (a family that once was very successful meets with economic downturns and falls on hard times); tragedies (there are tragedies in every family needless to say); comedies (funny things that happened to current or earlier generation family members); and rebirth stories (about relatives who were down and out or addicted to drugs/alcohol and who, after "bottoming out" came back renewed).

Finding that family stories we had already collected follow the same seven basic plots that other "fictions" do, we informally interviewed a number of families from whom we had not previously collected stories and asked them if they could identify, among the family stories that they knew, at least one that fit each of Booker's seven categories. It turns out that this was a very simple task for almost every family. Further, as in actual fiction, there were many stories that combined these plots in powerful ways. One frequent example was the very familiar story common to so many Americans, of an ancestor leaving to find a better life (the quest), then returning home to bring the family to the new country (voyage and return), only to face discrimination and hardship (overcoming the monster often laced with tragedy) , but eventually rising through opportunity (rags to riches) and ultimately having a better life than they left (rebirth).

Family stories are important for reasons beyond entertainment and enlightenment. Our previous research at The Emory Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual in American Life has shown that the more children and adults know about their family history the stronger and more resilient they are. These findings are very much in line with the excellent work described by Dan McAdams in his wonderful book, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, in which the specific power of redemption stories is explored and highlighted. However, beyond redemption or rebirth stories, it may very well be that knowing stories that fit into all of the basic plots may add even further adaptive advantage to children and families.

We are currently undertaking a more systematic examination of this possibility in our research laboratory. However, based on my more than four decades of experience as a clinical psychologist, it is my sense that the striking parallel between the plots of fictional works and the plots of family stories is significant. Knowing as we do that hearing and incorporating family stories builds resilience in children, I feel strongly that it would be worthwhile for families to reach back into their individual and collective memories and retrieve stories of all seven kinds to pass on to their children. Here is why I think this would be worthwhile: Like true fictions, every family has heroes, funny people, tenacious people, people who have prevailed, people who have faced and coped with tragedy, people who have risen up and people who have set out on quests that have changed their own lives and the lives of the families who transmit stories of their "adventures". These kinds of "adventures" don't just happen in the movies or in books or on TV, they happen in real life. When children see or read about them happening to other people, they are entertained. When they learn that they happened to people who are part of their own family, they are strengthened.