UNUSUAL TIMELINE: Seven Year Increments?

In my last post I talked about using multiple narrative voices in my current novel project, Third Floor, which I hope to finish in 2016. Today I want to tell you about something I mentioned briefly in that post: my decision to divide the story into four parts with seven-years passing between each. The twins will be seven, then fourteen, twenty-one, and twenty-eight. This may sound like I’m not true to my word, that I’m not following my nose. It is a bit of preplanning, but I didn’t think of this until I was well into what became Part I, and it’s only a minimal structure. I suppose I could say that my characters told me to try this, but they might change their minds! Responding freely in the first draft to what the characters tell me I should do is part of the joy I take in not adhering religiously to a plan.

The scope I plan for Third Floor – three or more decades in the life of a family – has me wondering about the possible effects of seven-year time intervals on the reader. Will there be gaps that make him feel that too much has been left out? Might there be too much reliance on backstory, so much that it takes the reader out of the story’s real time? Will doing this and having four point-of-view characters reflect upon their experience of each other be confusing for you to read? What have you read (or written) that uses large, even gaps in its time structure? What did it do for your experience as a reader?

I have an admission to make. Three or four decades in the life of a family is a lot to cover. Perhaps this is an unnecessary shortcut, but the prospect jumping ahead in even intervals feels safe. I have read family stories that cover more time than that without advancing the timeline in large jumps of even duration. One is Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain. He follows Elsa Mason in marvelous detail and easy pace from the time she boards a train in her Iowa home to join an uncle in Wyoming. I marvel at how much Stegner gets done without it feeling like too much. Perhaps when I see how much backstory I use to make up for the time passed over – it could be quite a bit – my second draft will convert some to real time, and I will abandon the structure I’ve chosen. That is the freedom that comes with following my nose.

As Linda Richman might have said about this on Saturday Night Lives’ “Coffee Talk,” let’s talk about it amongst ourselves. How would it feel to you to read a novel that deals with time like the one I have underway? If you’ve read one like this before, I’d like to hear about it, and others may, too. This is an example of how pleasant it could be for a writer to hear from readers.


6 thoughts on “UNUSUAL TIMELINE: Seven Year Increments?

  1. Well now I don’t have to read it. This trailer reveals everything!

    I think unless an explanation (or obvious link) is provided, to do the parts at such equally divided spans seems strange. To much like that BBC series, “7 up,” “14 up,” “21 up…”

    The link or reason should be made fairly obvious to readers.

    That’s my opinion, for whatever it’s worth.

    Mashaw On Mar 10, 2015 10:51 AM, “Follow Your Nose Fiction” wrote:

    > Jim Steinberg, Writer posted: “In my last post I talked about > using multiple narration in my current novel project, The Third Floor, > which I hope to finish this year. Today I want to tell you about the > decision I’ve made for a timeline for the story’s arc. I’m hoping you > might commen”


    • Hey Jim,
      Sorry it’s taken so long for me to get here. I’ve been building my OWN platform! I think it has turned out a good one-for a treehouse! This structure seems okay for me. Like Mashaw, I don’t think you have to keep it at seven year increments though. It can be pretty random, but as a suggestion, I would pick it up on their np birthdays and it would be easy to compare and contrast their lives. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t be able to connect with all the freedom of information things you can file now, but perhaps you’ve worked that through. The Seven Up Series was pretty popular in England and for the Anglophiles here in the US, but it might be a hinderance. Hence the random number of years…or, perhaps they can say, before they are broken apart, that they will meet on such and such a day I n some chosen place. But one doesn’t show. Or maybe this has been done too much. Anyway, just random ideas. Steve


  2. Hi, Jim,
    I think structuring the book like you’re planning to do can be a valuable idea and open up both the opportunities for back story, as you say, but also adds a level of psychological sophistication to the story — those ages you chose tend to be pivotal in psychological development. In the old Roman Catholic psychology, age seven was the beginning of “age of reason,” when children could be learning more abstract things. Piaget pointed to a similar developmental milestone beginning at about age 7, which he called “concrete operational thinking.” This means that the child can use concepts (applying generalization to things), although they remain concrete (tied to real things). “It’s raining” to a child using concrete operations means, “Real water drops are falling from the sky.” Then, at around age 12, he postulated “formal operational thinking,” meaning the use of truly abstract concepts in reasoning becomes possible for kids. “It’s raining” for such a child can mean real rain (concrete), or it can mean “everything is gray and cloudy in my emotional world.” Piaget stopped there, but thinkers such as Ken Wilber and others (Wilber is the great synthesizer of this, in his book “Integral Psychology.” But that might be more than you want or need; there’s a summary of his theory at http://www.kenwilber.com/Writings/PDF/SummaryofMyPsychologicalModel_GENERAL_2000_NN.pdf, although it’s a bit dense too. Suffice it to say, other researchers whom he summarizes and integrates (notably Clare Graves) carry Piaget’s model forward into adult development. Where Piaget had five stages, most of the others have nine or ten. Curiously, Kohlberg (and later, Carol Gilligan for girls) developed a theory of moral development that closely follows the same age/stage model as Piaget’s.
    My point: By focusing rather than on a specific and perhaps arbitrary age (7, 14, 21, etc.), you might consider focusing on the developmental transition for your two characters as they pass into the “next” developmental level. Not only will this preserve essentially the same structure you’re aiming for, but it will open the door to richer and more motivated changes in their characters, personalities, relationships and styles, ways of perceiving and thinking about their lives, etc. Just a thought, albeit a long one!

    Bill Percy


  3. Bill,

    Thank you for the thoughtful response. I apologize for my delay. I’ve been out of town and distracted by many goings on that don’t often happen…so, finally, a few remarks that may interest you and – I hope – curious readers.

    I may stray from my choice of every seven years if it happens intuitively as I follow my nose and listen to my characters. That may be another way to say that I will listen to my inner voice or, as some say, my muse. That’s where the joy of wonder, imagination, and discovery come from for me. That’s where I find the delight of writing.

    My particular way of moving through even a novel-length story is to minimize any advance planning, any conceptual structure. While they might help another writer, they hinder me. I may take this to an extreme, but I’m no true believer. I delight in hearing what readers think, and of course, other writers as well. But the only “organization” I use is to create a timeline as I go – but after the fact that I have gone there – in order to see how knowing where I’ve been might inform where my nose may take me next. As you can imagine after hearing this, when I’m not writing, I spend a lot of time wondering and thinking about what my characters might do next. But in “Third Floor,” this new novel project, I have set up no structure besides what I’ve already described: seven year cycles (which my characters may tell me to abandon) and four point of view characters. Nothing else appeals to me.

    It’s great fun to not use the organizational and conceptual tools I learned in years of education and work as a teacher, attorney, and administrator. I do better when I live in the part of my mind that had fun being a blacksmith, though I hardly made a penny!

    Seven year cycles? Perhaps I chose it out naiveté. It is said that there is a natural release of energy every seven years which encourages you to move forward and make changes. This may be true, or it may be without foundation. It doesn’t matter. I chose it because I was inspired to. I may vary the cycle or abandon it entirely as I follow my nose and listen to my characters.

    In “Bird By Bird” Anne Lamont advises writers to “let the first draft be shitty.” That’s a bit of an overstatement for me, but it is helpful in finding the story. It’s another way of following my nose. In later drafts I may impose the kind of structure that you find helpful. Or I may not.

    Take a look at “Boundaries,” my first novel. I wrote it the way I’m describing. I was literally the “first reader.” Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. It was based upon a couple of experiences that, thrown together, alchemized into something quite different. I mixed and matched in the laboratory of my imagination.

    Happy writing, and thanks for the challenging remarks.



  4. HI, Jim,

    I hope my thoughts did not come across as dismissing your approach in favor of a more conceptual structure. I think you are very faithful to your “follow your nose” strategy and, as I’ve said before, enormously respectful of your characters and your “muse.” Don’t change that. I think too, the seven year structure, whether you intended it to or not, fits closely with the “conceptual structure” that we psychologists treasure, the developmental framework. (I’m a psychologist, professionally, though I guess with publishing and marketing “Climbing the Coliseum,” I’m somewhat a professional writer now too!) I’ll certainly take a look at your “Boundaries” and explore how your method fleshes out a story that may start in a large unknown space for you.



  5. Bill,

    No offense taken. I enjoyed the challenge and enjoy responding to other perspective in the same way I enjoy responding to the viewpoints presented to me. My choice of seven years was deliberate though not based on a conceptual structure that psychologists use. It grew from my rather vague notion that seven year cycles are a part of a variety of traditions that deal with how people change. Your thoughts have, by the way, helped me to realize that I don’t need to stick to it. Again, it goes back to where my characters want me to go.

    I will be looking for “Climbing the Coliseum.”

    Be well,

    Liked by 1 person

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