Q&A

How Do I Tell a Family Saga?

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Hello. I’m working on an outline for a series where one of the themes I want to explore is the process of historical change. I’m still experimenting with how best to structure the story. One option is to structure it more or less conventionally, including flashbacks to relevant events that happened in the past, using any number of devices–stories told by bards, ghosts or other spirits who experienced the events telling about them, or people recalling events of past lives. (Obviously, this is a fantasy.)

But another structure I’m thinking about using is the family saga. I’ve read a few of them–Frank Herbert’s Dune series within the SF&F genre, Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits outside the genre, for instance–but I can’t seem to find any good advice on how to structure a family saga. One method seems to be just to break it up into smaller stories across different generations, like Dune. But The House of Spirits is one continuous narrative across multiple generations, which is what I’m thinking about.

What do you need to do to make a plot like that work? How does it need to differ from a conventional plot structure? What does it need to retain from a conventional plot structure–and how do you adapt those things to a slowly changing cast of main characters as one generation succeeds the next? Thanks for your help.

-Matt

Hi Matt,

It’s certainly fun to think about how a world changes over a larger period of time, but unfortunately, it’s real tricky to show in one work without damaging story engagement.

The issue with using lots of tales and flashbacks is that it’ll be hard to keep them relevant to the current-day plot, so readers will probably feel like they’re just holding up the story. And since they’re in the past, readers will know the outcome of events can’t really impact the story they’ve already witnessed. That’s why forward motion is usually a lot more engaging.

Solving that problem means spending a lot of time scratching your head over why the stuff in the flashback is so critical to what’s happening now. It’s also technically possible to set up cause-and-effect relationships that let you treat different time periods as separate points of view in the same plot line. You would probably need some kind of time travel or back and forth communication, so that the character in the past and the character in the present can influence each other.

The difficulty with the family saga is the change in protagonist that inevitably happens. People get attached to the protagonist – that’s what protagonists are for. When the protagonist leaves, readers can lose incentive to continue the story. If the plot thread the protagonist was struggling with isn’t resolved, they may feel unsatisfied that they didn’t get to see the protagonist finish it. For this reason, the sagas I’ve seen are usually a series of stories rather than one story.

For instance, the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. Originally published separately, these are series of stories with independent plots that follow the same universe over a large time span. Each one stands alone, but they can be read together for a more magnificent look at the world. This way you aren’t sacrificing engagement during any of the individual stories, just leaving completing all of them optional. If you want more incentive to read the whole series, you can give each separate work its own arc and have another bigger plot arc that binds them together. This is what we call fractal plotting; the Harry Potter series is a good example.

Aside from flashbacks and family sagas, you could also just have an immortal main character.

I would recommend these blog posts:

Happy writing!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    If you can read German – or can find a good translation – “Die Buddenbrooks” might give you a few pointers. It’s not spec fic, but it’s a well-written family saga. The time it takes up is relatively short, though.

    I’m not sure you can put several generations of a family into one book and cover a long time, though. Instead, it could be a series of books, each highlighting one step in the technological development. They wouldn’t have to be epic in length each, of course.

    • Sam Victors

      East of Eden is another good example, right?

      • Cay Reet

        I haven’t read East of Eden, so I can’t say.

  2. Dave L

    One thing is to introduce at least one protagonist from the next generation during the previous generation

    Instead of just plunging in w/ Joset III and her court, have her as a teenager arguing w/ her mother, Joset II, while mother is dealing w/ their situations

    You gradually change protagonists over time, instead of a big time jump w/ a whole new set of protagonists

  3. Mike

    If my experience is anything to go by, Foundation pissed me off to no end. About half of the first book is spent with the same protagonist, and he’s really interesting. Right after the climax of his political maneuvering, the next chapter comes in and is like “hey, so now 200 years have passed and that guy is dead!” Okay, sure, his plot thread was finished, but I don’t want to read about this random new guy!

    That being said, I would love to read a series where the next book is set after a time jump, and the new protagonists are the children from the old ones or something. Doing it within the same work can be jarring, especially if you do it three times like Foundation did.

  4. Gray-Hand

    Pillars of the Earth is about the building of a cathedral in the 12th century. It isn’t strictly fantasy, but it takes place in a fictitious location in medieval England.

    It takes place over a period of about 30 years and has a large cast of characters including several from different generations of the same family. It was made into an 8 part miniseries in 2010.

    It does a good job of handling about half a dozen forward time jumps to skip ahead to an interesting event. Martin really should have done the same thing with Game of Thrones rather than let the most recent books meander.

    I think that last point is key to writing a multi decade epic – don’t let yourself get bogged down tracing the movements of every single character, every single day. Don’t feel compelled to always show all the pieces moving into place so that the good bits of the story can happen. Just cut to the parts of the story you want to tell.

    • Cay Reet

      “Pillars of Earth” is less of a family saga and more of a builder saga, but it handles transition from one moment in time to the next very well. Since it’s focused on the cathedral and building one of them takes very long, it’s easy to entwine family histories with it – the families of the builders mostly. With the medieval setting, it’s highly likely that the sons, grandsons, etc. of a builder will also work on the same project.

      I agree that especially with such a large scope and such a large amount of time, it’s important to focus on the important moments instead of covering the whole time. Find out which parts of the story are important to the plot and which parts are important to set up specific events you need and keep to them.

      For one of my novels, where I had my MC growing up, I chose one specific event from each year of her life between 10 and 25 to show how she developed during that time (the main plot comes to fruition when she’s 25). That made it two scenes per chapter for most of the story with a few specific ones (16, 18-24) having a chapter or even more to themselves. I feel it worked out well for me and breached the gap between finding her ‘parent’ at 10 and the complete change in her life at 25.

  5. Innes

    I would recommend The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin as I found that Jemisin told a story that covered a long period of time without making it a linear story or without any one time period being more boring or more relevant than the others. It’s not a family saga, but I think it works none the less. I won’t share how Jemisin does this though, because spoilers.

  6. Leon

    You could use time dilation.
    If you mainly want to showcase a world as it grows you could re-skin your story as a space opera. This is something i have done to make a story about classical style heros work, if the magic/tech is simply there to support the character and story arcs it is surprisingly easy.
    If on the other hand you want to explore how a medieval civilization with magic would advance to the computer age, i say use immortals*.
    Alao, i want to read that book.

    *if the protagonist is indestructible attach em to a bunch of squishy mortals like they do with Dr. Who, Mad Max or Batman.

  7. Cody Rapp

    While not technically a family saga Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books are about a country and the major events that happen to it focusing on most the Heralds, think psycic military organization with magical intelligent horses that work alongside the humans. For the most part, each book is its own story, with a few stories taking multiple books to finish. Once a character’s story is done they are still around.

    For instance, the “arrows” trilogy all focus on Herald Talia. One of the main side plots through the trilogy is helping princess Elspeth go from spoiled brat to heir to the throne. By the time you get to Elspeth’s trilogy of books you are invested in her character and Talia is still around for the other stories that take place during her lifetime still doing her job. She’s just a side character in the books that don’t focus on her.

    There are an enormous amount of books in the series as a whole. Each trilogy focuses on a single main character and they are still present for the other books that happen in their lifetime as side characters. Something similar could work for a family saga. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility for the kids to be around in mom and dad’s story. Or if you need to skip more time than that the protagonist in one book can be the new protagonist’s grandpa in the next and be their mentor or something like that.

  8. Lori

    While not in the fantasy genre, check out Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum and Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. Both are set in the present day for one protagonist and in WWII for another protagonist. For Those Who Save Us, the link between the two generations is the mother who survived the war and her daughter who is trying to figure out her mom’s past. For Sarah’s Key, the link is the building where Sarah lived during WWII and the American woman who comes to live there. Both books bounce back and forth between the stories, but you can see similarities between the chapters that keep the cohesiveness throughout the book.

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