Writing Time Travel

I adore time travel stories. As far back as H.G. Wells and Mark Twain, the concept of time travel has given us the opportunity to examine how things change and how they stay the same. It is the ultimate fish-out-of-water scenario, and it’s one of my favorite to write because the possibilities are limitless.

 Nearly any type of story can involve time travel. Take, for instance, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger, which is one of the most romantic stories I’ve ever read. Henry DeTamble, somewhat like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse Five,” becomes unstuck in time and spends his life shifting back and forth between present, past and future. Sometimes knowing what will happen, and yet never knowing when, Henry examines his life from a rare perspective. But “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is not categorized as science fiction, or even fantasy. Nor even romance. And that, to me, is a good thing. All fiction should be fluid of genre.

In writing stories of time travel, the field of genre can be quite open, but I believe there are certain rules that must be followed, for the same reasons we adhere to spelling and grammar conventions. It aids communication. Not so much to be rigid about tropes, but for the story to make logical sense. As in any world building, regardless of genre, consistency is key. 

Of course I have my preferences, and I’ll say right here that Tim Powers’ “The Anubis Gates” is my bible. Powers begins with a mystical time transport mechanism and lays it over a quasi-scientific approach, and makes us believe his premise, which is that there are time portals that can be used to the advantage of those who know about them. The story is deliciously convoluted, yet it is so perfectly consistent internally that the reader can trust the world that has been built. Suspension of disbelief is effortless. 

In Powers’ work, history does not change. That is, the story established at the beginning of the book is not changed by the actions of the time-traveling characters. That is the choice I also made in my first series, in which my main character, Dylan Matheson, is swept back in time to fulfill a destiny that had happened long before he was born. Quite the opposite of what was intended by the Scottish faerie who had brought him there. 

That is not to say that changing history is an inherently bad idea. Sometimes the story depends on history changing, which points out the interdependence of cause and effect. The concept of Butterfly Effect, though a mediocre movie, is a wonderfully broad area of exploration. But there are warning signs on the road up ahead. Changing the story makes for a complexity of cause and effect that can be disastrous. If the past is changed, then can the time travel have happened in the first place? It’s the classic paradox: if I travel back in time and kill my grandfather, how could I have been born to travel back in time to kill my grandfather? Often it’s good to steer clear of that particular paradox unless you’re trying to solve it. And best of luck with that.

 Only one of my time travel stories changes history. “Kindred Spirits” involves a woman who is transported to the American Civil War by a spell she recites from an old diary. Late in the plotting process I realized that in changing the past I had removed the mechanism by which Shelby traveled to it. To fix that problem, I very carefully reconstructed the plot so that the mechanism remained and there was no paradox. Even so, there were still some things that appeared to be paradoxes. It required careful reading to follow both timelines and know where they diverged. Some readers follow it, and some don’t. 

I also like to avoid making a character his own ancestor. Besides introducing a cause and effect paradox, I think it’s a little creepy no matter how far back in the family the character is introducing himself. 

The best handing of this I’ve ever seen was in the movie “The Terminator.” In one of the tightest screenplays I’ve ever seen, time traveler Kyle Reese arrives in present day to save the mother of his mentor, John Connor, and in the process becomes John’s father. Maybe not a surprise (“Tell me about my son.” “Well, he’s about my height…”), but very, very cool. 

The last and not least important thing in writing time travel is to decide on the mechanism and stick with it. Decide where the portals are in both time and space, why they work,  and how much control the characters have over them. If the portals travel in time, make them consistent and explain why they travel. If a character enters a portal at X time and travels back twenty years to Y time, spends three days and then travels back to X time plus three days, explain why the X portal has moved in time and the relationship between X and Y. Or, even worse, if the character travels again to the Y portal, if the Y portal moves it should be consistent with any movement of the X portal, and should be explained. And adding portals late in a series should be well supported and not done willy-nilly in either time or space. Indulging in hand-waving and making vague mutterings about “wormholes” doesn’t cut it. This is basic world-building, and changing the rules late in the game just isn’t fair to the reader. Be clear and consistent. 

These are some of my favorite things: Quantum Leap; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; The Terminator; The Anubis Gates; Time and Again; Somewhere in Time; 11/22/63; …well the list is too long for this essay. I love time travel, and will read just about anything involving it.





Writing Time Travel — 12 Comments

  1. I was working on a time-travel project at the beginning of this summer and running into a ton of problems, mainly because I was using the trouser-legs of time, method, where certain decisions or events that could have gone another way split off a new possible universe. Time travel immediately splits off a new universe, which means that there’s no actual way to change things, only to offer an alternate possibility.

    But luckily I was taking a summer class on the philosophy of time travel (David Lewis, “The Paradoxes of Time Travel”), and we read Heinlein “By his Bootstraps” and Bradbury “A Sound of Thunder” (the real butterfly effect). And by the end I had sorted it out!

    But of course time leads directly into the problem of causality and then the problem of identity. Of course, the real problem of my time-travel project is the problem of language. It’s really hard to write a novel where your protagonists are really not very good at speaking the language of the place where they are, and yet need to interact with the world.

    • Cara; Your note touches on some issues I dealt with in my first series, Son of the Sword. In the second book I invented a note my faerie, Sinann, sent to herself in the past, and then received again in the future. There was never any origin of the note. It just seemed to make this loop through time. This series was written on the principle that history cannot be changed no matter how hard you try. Whatever happens is what happened. Alternate universes is a concept that never pleased me much. That’s too chaotic for me. I’m okay with changing the one universe, which I like because it gives me a sense of being able to control said universe. But the idea that by changing the past one creates an alternate timeline that somehow still exists leads to the idea that all possible timelines also exist. That then leads to the idea that a time traveler doesn’t actually change history, but rather just chooses a different already existing timeline. I much prefer the idea of single existing timeline that may or may not be changeable. It’s a personal control issue, I think.

      The other issue you touched on about language I also had to deal with, but not in the same way, since most of the Gaelic-speaking people in Interloper at Glencoe also usually spoke English. I was able to have someone translate, but was able to make the translations selective. And as my protagonist learned the language, he was able to understand the real meanings of what was said. Useful device, I think.

    • Steve; It’s a bit like working a puzzle. I love puzzles, and have always been pretty good at solving them. (Except Sudoku. Sudoku isn’t a puzzle, it’s torture by numbers.)

  2. I am writing a time-travel/alterrnate reality novel, which is going to be challenging to end. Somehow all the wild strands have to tuck in and be tidy.

    • Brenda; No loose ends. Loose ends can ruin a time travel story. That’s one of the reasons I love The Anubis Gates so much. It spends much of its story in chaos, but then it all gets put back in the bottle at the end.

  3. One of my favorite short stories is a time travel tale – “Ripples in the Dirac Sea.” This is not a HEA at all, but there was some type of happiness in it, even if the past cannot be changed in Einstein’s many universes.

    • “Ripples in the Dirac Sea” is one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read. It’s not just great time travel, it’s great fiction. Thank you for reminding me of it.

  4. Great post! I haven’t read many time travel books, but Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, paralleling a modern pandemic with the Black Death through a time travel research trip gone wrong, is one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read. In this scenario, supposedly the time machine won’t work unless the traveler won’t change history, but I’m in the midst of Willis’ Blackout, where “historical spies” researching WWII are beginning to see history unravel around them and are becoming convinced they are changing it. Fascinating stuff.

  5. I love time travel stories, but only the ones with one consistent timeline, because that makes the most sense to me. I tend to dislike the ones with diverging histories/universes because then there are too many paradoxes and impossibilities and it’s usually handled very poorly (part of the reason I cannot stand the Back to the Future trilogy). Internal consistency/logic is so important for suspension of disbelief!

    • Linda; Yeah, Back to the Future drove me nuts with that photograph that kept changing. I kept thinking, “Why would it do that?” Taking objects into the past is one thing, but having them change once they get there just makes me go “Mmm…no.”