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みちゆき — time travel

みちゆき — time travel (Photo credit: nodoca)

Very few online articles on how to write time travel give advice that is comprehensive.  Part of the reason for this may be that time travel is such a versatile subject.  There are so many different types of so called “time travel” stories that a standard “how to” article can’t possibly address every time travel writer’s needs.

Because writing about time travel is so complex, I’ve decided it’s easier for me to analyze how NOT to write about time travel.  This is the first in a string of articles featuring bad time travel writing advice.  Follow these tips, and you can be assured your story will turn out mediocre at best, disobey them, and your readers will thank you.

Now for the tip of the day: Don’t define the rules.

Pure science fiction stories about time travel tend to have clearly defined rules about how the time travel occurs, whether people can change the past, and how.  Stories in other genres with a time travel component sometimes gloss over these rules.  While less emphasis on the rules of time travel is appropriate for a less technical story, forgetting the rules entirely can lead to a plot line that doesn’t make sense no matter how you look at it.  Before writing a time travel story, it’s a good decide if the past, or an already seen future, is changeable, and if so, to what extent.

Unless your character is a time travel scientist, there’s no need to become an expert on the theory of time travel, but it’s still good to read up on a few different ideas for how time travel might work.  Even if your character is just an everyday guy who doesn’t give a darn about time travel theory, some of your readers will, so putting thought into your story world is imperative.

When determining the rules of time travel in your story, remember that they will affect your plot in fundamental ways.  A story world with a changable past is a lot different than a story world with a past that is fixed, and this difference becomes particularly important if a character from the future spends a significant amount of time in the past (possibly changing the lives of people and their present day descendants), interacts with major historical figures, or takes part in major historical events.

Cover of "Back to the Future"

Cover of Back to the Future

These different universes lend themselves to different plot lines.  A character in changeable-past universe might achieve a happy ending by changing the past for the better, like Marty McFly in Back to the Future Part 1, who improves his family relationships (and other things) by affecting his parents courtship.  A character in a more stable universe, however, might discover they were the reason for events they already knew about, like Harry Potter, who realizes near the end of Prizoner of Azkaban that he has saved his own life through time travel.

Fixed timelines are, in my opinion, generally easier to write about, although potentially more depressing, since any character who tries to change the past will fail.  Most time travel stories with major consistency problems deal with changing the past, because writers often get sloppy and handle these changes inconsistently.

A bad example of this is the movie Millennium, in which major changes to the past lead to “paradoxes” which ultimately destroy a future society.  However, before being destroyed, the society manages to send some refugees farther into the future, “beyond the reach of the paradox” to a safer time.  This is inconsistent, since people influenced by a future society that has violated it’s own existence should still be part of a paradox no matter how far forward in time they are sent.

Moral of the story: If you give your characters the power to change the past, be prepared for resulting loose ends and know how you’re going to deal with them.  Your rules don’t have to make perfect sense for your story to be entertaining, but they shouldn’t be ignored or taken lightly either.