The pitfalls of writing time travel (part one)

Time travel is a wondrous gift that keeps giving to science fiction.  It has become as important a staple as the intelligent machine or the spacecraft.  This is how it should be.  As Terry Pratchett said, if only one person had ever been allowed to write time travel and everyone else would be accused of copying, then the idea would have stopped with HG Wells’ “The Time Machine” and we would never have had Dr Who, to name just one.

But, like so many things that began life as a classic New Idea, it can fall into cliché, and of course even a great idea can be done badly.

Not to mention that even great new ideas might not be as new as one thinks, at first.  When I was writing Pendragon’s Shadow, I looked up who was the first to do Arthurian time travel.  It was Mark Twain, in 1889.  Wikipedia says the first time travel story was by Alexander Veltman in 1836 but even that is not as it appears.  When you go back as far as you care to mention and find myths and legends that involve Prophecy, what is that but an instance of information travelling backwards in time?  And information, of course, is the important part of most things.

At the start of every cliché there is a classic.  Sometimes you might get away with it if you re-do them very well, but they’re best avoided.  And having time travel in your story will offer you temptations, and traps.  So here are what I reckon are the things to avoid:


1) The Deus Ex Machina must Die.  Or at least shrink.

[Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure spoilers]

If it’s a joke, that’s fine.  Bill and Ted are trapped in a dungeon awaiting a horrible fate.  However, they decide that when they escape from this, they will go back in time and plant a key for themselves so they can get out.  They guess where they put it and, lo and behold, there is the key!  They let themselves out and, presumably, later zip back in time to put it there.  The logic problems are part of the humour.

On the other hand, a number of more serious fictions have heroes escaping by the assistance of their future selves.  The first few times you encounter this, you may be entertained at the concept.  By the tenth time you may be feeling less charitable and wondering why you should be concerned about heroes when supernatural aid may pull them out of any predicament.  It may even seem like—gasp—lazy writing.

Likewise, some stories use time travel to magically make everything alright at the end, all those horrible things didn’t happen after all.  For an alternate “what if” story then it might be a case of “easy come, easy go.”  But otherwise one might wonder what was the point of the story if the slate can just get wiped clean like that.  In narrative terms, it can rate near to “it was only a dream!”

Classic era Dr Who maintained iron discipline on this.  Whenever the TARDIS landed somewhere, you were part of events and could not mess about with the timestream until the story was over.  There is no zipping back an hour to yell “duck!” at the right moment, or to tip yourself off about the Daleks’ Master Plan and save all the messing about in episode two.

The new series have not stuck to this, and suffered as a result.

I’m not objecting to averting the Norman invasion or whatever.  I’m only objecting to interfering with your own time-line whenever things go wrong.  Unless it’s “Edge of Tomorrow” or “Groundhog Day” where repeated attempts are the point and stakes remain.


1b) Keep some stakes serious

A loved hero or a hated villain has died.  You cheer, or cry, or think wistfully about how you enjoyed that character.  But fear not!  Thanks to the miracle of time travel, that death can be averted.  Or they can have time travelled to the future before they died and are still around doing their thing for as long as you want.  If they die before they’re supposed to then you can just say they were a “time echo” or something.

Made a terrible mistake?  Never mind, you can zip back and correct it (or maybe not, see the upcoming 2).

Also… a drama has been engaging you with its crises, disasters, character and conflicts, then it is suddenly resolved by a time machine.  You may feel a bit cheated.


Part Two of our warnings about time travel shall be coming soon in… where else… The Future!


About jamestucker1972

Aspiring writer!
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