Another article on a concept that I’ve been tossing around for a while is how to write time travel, and what generally makes for the most effective time-travel stories. This is going to be focused more heavily on writing about the time travel side of things, but it is an interesting concept that hopefully most people will enjoy.
There’s a lot of media out there about time travel, and there are two directions that time travel stories usually go — the first is more lighthearted time travel stories like Back to the Future, where the whole concept is pretty goofy. The second is the heavier time-travel stories such as Primer or Dark. In the lighter stories, the way time travel works isn’t all that important, everything works out in the end, and there’s a lot of comedy or goofiness; writing time travel in that way is much simpler. But for the heavier time travel stories, you have to think a lot more about how the time travel works, so that’s the one I’m going to be focused on.
Time travel and time itself, when written well, are characters themselves in the story. Even if it is just used to send a character backward or forward in time, time is something that the characters have to interact with. Often, when you watch something like Primer or Dark, time is something that the characters are interacting with and pushing against. In both of those examples, it is actively the antagonist in the show, and while Dark has another antagonist, time itself is the larger concern in many ways for the characters. Time is actively trying to stop the characters from getting what they want, because if they get what they want, then it changes the timeline from what it should have been in the first place.
I want to delve into that more, the idea of time being a character and what sort of character time is, but that’ll come later. Right now I want to deal more with the mechanics of time travel.
There are a number of questions you need to ask yourself when thinking about time travel. For example, is it limited in the direction and distance it can go? Dark has a time loop with very specific time frames you can go to. In Primer, the characters can only go back in time. Steins;Gate has rules about how much information can go back in time. In Back to the Future, it’s a free-for-all. The level of structure the means of time travel in the story has in terms of limits and direction influences how much a character can use time travel to change things.
How much can a person actually change? I won’t go too much into examples, but different shows handle this differently. Is time basically a linear path so that the fact that you’ve jumped back in time has always happened and you therefore can’t really change anything, or is it a situation wher, each time you hop backward in time, you are causing a new timeline to branch off of the one that you started on? This will come into play later as I talk about time as a character again.
Does your time travel send things backward or forward? In a show like Dark and the movie Primer, they are sending their whole bodies back in time. In Steins;Gate, characters are just sending information backward in time that then influences what happens in the future (though that model does change partway through Steins;Gate. Back to the Future handles it differently with the DeLorean, which travels with its characters back in time.
Do you need to worry about running into yourself? What happens if you cause a paradox? This often strays into the goofier side of things — for example, in Futurama, Fry becomes his own grandfather. But there are often more serious consequences for this, as well. For example, in Harry Potter, if the characters run into themselves while using the Time Turner, it can drive their past selves insane (if I’m remembering correctly). Some stories even explore the idea of whether a paradox caused by two versions of the same person being in the same place at the same time would cause everything to end and the universe to implode.
Final question: How easy is time to reset? Can you go further back in time than you did before to reset the timeline to what it had been before you even went back in time in the first place? In Steins;Gate, they deal with this by showing that, when someone goes back in time and takes a different action than before, there is then a divergence from the timeline that they were on, and they explore how far away from the original timeline you have to get in order to jump into a new one. Dark deals with this concept by showing that the things that have happened have already been determined to happen one way or another, no matter how the timeline is manipulated (or at least from what we can tell thus far). But can you go farther back than you were before to reset onto a new timeline and undo everything that you’ve done up to that point?
This brings us back to time as a character itself. If time is portrayed as an antagonist that is actively working against you, how do you deal with that? Time can be used basically as an omniscient power. So often you see in stories that when someone goes back in time to change something and then comes back to the future, the thing they tried to change is even worse. They figure out what might have caused that problem and they repeat it again, and it still isn’t better, and so on and so forth. To me, that’s the most interesting way to handle time, because it opens up an interesting dilemma — namely, how can you beat time? If it takes whatever you’ve done a few years in the past and changes it to something worse in the future, how can you really beat time?
I think that’s where seeing time as a character is interesting. Either time is truly omniscient and controls the outcome so that you will never get the outcome you want and you have to figure out how to get it back to the original, good-enough state, or there’s some way to actually beat it and change the timeline. But how do you beat something that has that much power/control? I think you normally have to cheat it to win. There is generally some outside factor, some twist of logic that needs to be employed to actually beat time itself; otherwise, it keeps piling on and on. So how do you cheat time? This is where seeing time as a character helps. If time is an active antagonist, what are its weaknesses that you can exploit, what are the blind spots it might have, and what won’t time be able to handle because it doesn’t make sense in the flow of time?
I don’t have answers for you as to what those should be — maybe time truly can’t be beat. I’ve written a story where there was a way to beat time, but not one that was good for the character; it changed the rules of the problem the main character wanted to solve, and that’s how they cheated time out of what it had done before and how it had messed up their life. It wasn’t a happy story, but heavier time travel stories rarely are.
What are some of your favorite time travel stories? How do the characters get around time screwing them over?
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