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Multi-generational story (1 Viewer)

morganjones

Senior Member
I'm writing a fantasy book with several generations of protagonists. It's up to 60000+ words now and not finished by far. Recently I read about the dangers of cramming too much backstory into the beginning of a book and realized I might have done just that. Does anyone have thoughts on/experience with reading/writing a story where you follow several generations chronologically? If the stories of generation 1 and 2 are interesting to read, will it matter that the reader first encounter the 'real' protagonists from generation 3 later in the book or is that frowned upon? (With 'real' I mean that I intend to focus on them in following books.)
 

JBF

Staff member
Global Moderator
I expect most readers will give you pass on going chronological, provided all the pieces line up and the underlying story is strong. Of course, a lot of this depends on how you want to weight the progression.

For instance, if the real protagonist is in the third generation you'll want to start with them and backfill as needed. Otherwise you'd be asking readers to slog through 20-40 years of background before they got to the meat of the story.

I went around and around on this for years until I figured out the above. My major plot concerns three men whose narrative lineage begins in the 1930s and wraps up sometime in the early '90s. The youngest is the primary character, and while Dad and Grampaw had their own adventures, I eventually learned they worked better as seasoning for the present-day (ish) plotline. Both could carry an independent storyline - but Junior can wind the whole thing into one far-reaching narrative as opposed to just being the last of three standalones.

That being said...good execution can trump most any other factor.
 

morganjones

Senior Member
I expect most readers will give you pass on going chronological, provided all the pieces line up and the underlying story is strong. Of course, a lot of this depends on how you want to weight the progression.

For instance, if the real protagonist is in the third generation you'll want to start with them and backfill as needed. Otherwise you'd be asking readers to slog through 20-40 years of background before they got to the meat of the story.
That makes sense. I have been experimenting with moving the start of gen 3's story up front and then incorporating the story of the ancestors into the main story. But it is a hefty chunk of info I need to add (30 written a4-pages) so I was worried that it would come across heavy-handed. As a reader, though, I hate too many flashbacks so I'm a little undecided on what to do.
 

morganjones

Senior Member
Do you think perhaps you have more than one novel? I've discovered that the novel I'm writing (or at least the notes) are in fact three novels, which is how I'm going to approach it.
That is a solution. The problem is that certain issues appear in each generation that people must deal with. Since showing how the protagonists deal with these same issues differently over time is part of the plot, it made sense to have it all in the first book. The plot in the first book lays the foundation for developments in the following books so I feel like I painted myself into a corner. But I could, of course, consider dedicating each novel to a different generation.
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
That is a solution. The problem is that certain issues appear in each generation that people must deal with. Since showing how the protagonists deal with these same issues differently over time is part of the plot, it made sense to have it all in the first book. The plot in the first book lays the foundation for developments in the following books so I feel like I painted myself into a corner. But I could, of course, consider dedicating each novel to a different generation.
Someone like Brandon Sanderson summarises in the following books. I don't know what George R. R. Martin does. Both are faced with exactly the same problem of having to pick up in book 3 something that was mentioned in book 1 and so forth.
 

Lawless

Senior Member
several generations of protagonists. [---] Does anyone have thoughts on/experience with reading/writing a story where you follow several generations chronologically? [---] will it matter that the reader first encounter the 'real' protagonists from generation 3 later in the book or is that frowned upon?

I don't think there's much to worry about.

I read a Norwegian novel that was in several volumes and it told about several generations. It was a long time ago, so I don't remember much, but I'm certain I didn't find anything wrong with it being stretched over a long period of time and with the central characters changing.

A very famous Estonian novel stretches over 5 volumes and 2 generations. No one has ever frowned upon the fact that the main character becomes central only in the 2nd volume. Looks pretty close to your case, I'd say. Not fantasy, though.
 

morganjones

Senior Member
Someone like Brandon Sanderson summarises in the following books. I don't know what George R. R. Martin does. Both are faced with exactly the same problem of having to pick up in book 3 something that was mentioned in book 1 and so forth.
I see what you mean, but it's not as much as previous info as a decision every leader of each generation must make. Each time that decision is made, consequences arise. I wanted to show the outcome of just doing what your ancestors did, and the ramifications of changing tradition. I guess it could be done over several books, but in my mind I have it as one novel for some reason. Perhaps I'm simply afraid it won't be clear enough.
 

morganjones

Senior Member
I don't think there's much to worry about.

I read a Norwegian novel that was in several volumes and it told about several generations. It was a long time ago, so I don't remember much, but I'm certain I didn't find anything wrong with it being stretched over a long period of time and with the central characters changing.

A very famous Estonian novel stretches over 5 volumes and 2 generations. No one has ever frowned upon the fact that the main character becomes central only in the 2nd volume. Looks pretty close to your case, I'd say. Not fantasy, though.
I was thinking about the Norse sagas, actually, when I planned it. I know that's not what you're referring to, but I think a lot of Scandinavian novels come from that storytelling tradition, so yes, absolutely. Perhaps it's not as far fetched as I thought.
 

Ajoy

Senior Member
From what you've described, it does sound like there are key connected actions and consequences in each generation of your story...to me that sounds most impactful in a single story. I do think your MC needs to be introduced right away and the history needs to be sprinkled in when there are details that connect with the current plot and/or characters. Though...have you considered having a POV character from each generation and therefore three MCs and interweaving the key events in each of their stories? The other suggestion that comes to mind right now is to make sure that any backstory scenes or flashbacks you do, are cut down to only the details that are relevant to your main plot and character development.

I just finished a multigenerational story that spans two thousand years (it's fantasy based in Greek mythology), and in my revisions I had to tear my historical scenes apart to cut my word count and fix my pacing. When I'd originally written the scenes, a lot felt important, but it was important to creating the full picture of these important side characters in their times, which went way beyond what was necessary for weaving the current plot and character arc.
 

morganjones

Senior Member
From what you've described, it does sound like there are key connected actions and consequences in each generation of your story...to me that sounds most impactful in a single story. I do think your MC needs to be introduced right away and the history needs to be sprinkled in when there are details that connect with the current plot and/or characters. Though...have you considered having a POV character from each generation and therefore three MCs and interweaving the key events in each of their stories? The other suggestion that comes to mind right now is to make sure that any backstory scenes or flashbacks you do, are cut down to only the details that are relevant to your main plot and character development.

I just finished a multigenerational story that spans two thousand years (it's fantasy based in Greek mythology), and in my revisions I had to tear my historical scenes apart to cut my word count and fix my pacing. When I'd originally written the scenes, a lot felt important, but it was important to creating the full picture of these important side characters in their times, which went way beyond what was necessary for weaving the current plot and character arc.
Oh absolutely regarding cutting down on the backstory. I've been trimming it down and then just been consoling myself with the idea I might sneak some of the info into future novels. I haven't thought about having a POV from each generation. That could actually work. That way it's less disruptive when you switch back and forth in time as a reader. Thanks. I'll definitely give that a try.
 
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