Writing advice blog: family sagas

Susie Helme

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

I’ve recently reviewed two novels, both of which are family sagas, i.e. the tale of Protagonist’s parents, and their parents and their parents.

The first used the structure you’d expect: Part I dealt with Protagonist’s father and his parents and grandparents; Part II dealt with Protagonist’s mother and her parents and grandparents; Part III dealt with present day Protagonist and spouse. It was predicated on Protagonist finding a document in her mother’s things after her death, prompting her to go in search of family secrets.

There are two problems with this structure.

1. When you’re deeply immersed in the tale of Protagonist’s parents, you find yourself thinking, ‘hey, who the xxx was Protagonist, now? I forgot all about her.’

2. You end up with a structure consisting of: ‘in 1939 they did this; in 1940 they did that’, which may not be the most interesting thing we want to read.

The structure problem might be dealt by having more going on in the present day lives of Protagonist and spouse, to be interwoven into the family history revelations. The meaning problem is a bigger one.

The second novel I reviewed had a more complex structure, moving not chronologically, but thematically. So, she discusses her grandfather’s suicide, then proceeds to discuss the suicides of other people in the story.

This is much harder to do, but she accomplishes it by finding links connecting one theme to the next. When she needs to jump to a new theme and doesn’t have a link, she jumps by including a quote, from St Paul, Shakespeare, her father’s ex-colleague.

The thematic structure is more satisfying to read, as you get to grips with a broader subject matter instead of jumping from person to person or date to date. It also results in a richer understanding of the characters than if we had simply read ‘in 1938 they did that, in 1939 they did that’.

There is a risk of ‘mission creep’, though. We begin the book thinking it’s going to be a family saga, we end up understanding that it’s mostly about some theme that was of great importance to her father.

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