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.


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!


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