The arsenal for science fiction is incredibly expansive. From spaceships and futuristic weapons to scientific breakthroughs and genetic engineering, sci-fi writers have plenty to play with when it comes to tapping away at a story that will blow readers minds.
One of my favorite sci-fi tropes is time travel. It’s a fun way to look at the what-ifs of life (and tapping into the universal ideas of second chances and changing for the better), and I love how it challenges you to think, not only about the consequences of how altering even the smallest thing can have far-reaching effects, but in the complexity of what’s needed to make traveling through time make sense. I’ve used time travel in both novel and screenplay formats, and have been in the development stages of a young adult series that will utilize time travel as its core narrative device.
Why has it taken so long? Because time travel isn’t one of those devices you can just use and at any time you like. Misuse of time travel can lead to disastrous results, including plot holes, paradoxes, confusion, headaches and disbelief.
A lot of consideration must be taken in all aspects of time travel before even one word of your story can be written. If just one thing is out of place, inconsistent or inaccurate, a story can go from being a wicked adventure to a series of contrivances, forced narrative and the reworking of plots in order to make them fit into a wormhole of chaos.
To help you get started, here are a few basic pieces that should help you build a convincing, coherent time travel story.
Develop A Set Of Rules
Much like magic, one of the most important aspects of time travel is its rules. If you don’t even know what the rules are, how do you expect others to understand, or better yet, believe them? The rules you set don’t have to be anything that has come before, or are even scientifically accurate, so long as they are consistent.
How a character travels through time, the effects time travel will have on your protagonist and his or her world, how any changes alter the reality of your protagonist and the people around him, and whether or not anything can change need to be developed before you start writing. For example, if your protagonist changes his or her present by altering the past, does the protagonist feel these changes? Is he or she the only one that remembers what the “old” reality was, or does the change alter the protagonists memories as well?
If you haven’t answered these questions before you start writing, things can get real messy real fast; plot holes will be the least of your worries. By setting up your rules early and having a good sense for them gives you a starting point in crafting a story so that your reader doesn’t get confused by what’s happening.
Conduct Plenty Of Research
As much as we’d like it to be, time travel isn’t all fun and games. Just as you would if you were about to write a historical novel set in a unfamiliar era, writing a story with time travel involves a lot of research. If you’re sending your protagonist back to, say, the 1960s, you’re going to want to know all you can about that era, and more specifically, the year in which you’re going to be spending most of your time.
The same goes for the future. Though most of what you’ll be creating will be from the depths of the imagination, you still must do quite a bit of world building. Whether it’s technology advances, political influences, alien takeovers or artificial intelligence, whatever the future holds should be planned in advance so that you can have complete knowledge of your world and confidently relay that world to your reader. Doing research on the newest technological advances, political trends and philosophical beliefs can help in develop scientifically accurate and coherent futures.
Understand Your Characters
Time travel is essentially a fish-out-of-water concept, so, unlike writing a historical novel set in a particular time period, when traveling through time, there will be at least one character who doesn’t belong there and must adjust to his or her surroundings. How well that character acclimates depends on a lot of factors, including the character’s personality traits and whether or not they were expecting to go or were accidentally sent.
There’s no quicker way to disengage the reader than by having the characters you set up behave and react in the wrong way. If a character is very set in their ways, don’t have them feel right at home in a new time period. If your protagonist developed time travel and is excited to land in a certain time period, they should be excited to try every new experience. If a nervous-Nelly is accidentally sent to the future, have them hyperventilate and cry a little before venturing out to ignite the plot. Little things like that will go along way in making the book feel authentic.
Bottom line, know who your characters are and don’t be afraid to take some time to develop their sense of place within the new world.
Answer the Paradox
Last but not least is dealing with the idea of time paradoxes. A paradox, as it happens in time travel, is when you run into a situation where if something didn’t happen a certain way, then there’s no reason to have sought to change that situation. The easiest example is if you went back in time and murdered your parents before you were born, you would never have been born, thus, you would never travel back in time to murder your parents.
The thing is, paradoxes are a necessary evil when playing around with time (that is unless the past can’t change because everything that has happened in the past, including your presence (or multiple presences) after having traveled through time, has already happened). But if you’ve done your research, have taken the time to set up the rules of time travel, and are comfortable with your characters, you have all the knowledge and the wherewithal to explain why a paradox may or may not affect your protagonist in a certain way, giving your readers a reason why the paradox hasn’t completely destroyed the space-time continuum of your world.
What do you guys think? Have you ever dealt with time travel in your writing? Do you have any other suggestions to help make writing time travel adventures easier?
If you’ve written a time travel novel, please feel free to list it in the comments section.