Time travel and time manipulation is a very common conflict in science fiction, fantasy, and even more action-based genres of fiction. However, despite it being so common, it is possibly one of the hardest supernatural qualities to write effectively into a story.
Time travel can be very confusing, and you can lose your readers if you are not careful about how you approach it. Not only that, but since time travel has been done so many times, authors may feel the need to be original in their works which can cause even more confusion.
However, writing time travel can be fun and easy if you know what you’re dealing with! When writing a story with any sort of time manipulation, make sure you first answer the question: what are the rules of time travel in my story? Once you’ve asked this, there are common writing tips that can help you write these rules effectively into your story.
Rules of Time Travel
Before we worry about what your characters understand, let’s focus on you, the writer. Before writing a story with time travel, we want to make sure that you understand exactly the type of time travel you are writing (there are many different kinds!).
But what exactly is a rule of time travel? Well, since you’re the one writing the story, the rules are what you make them. However, there are common types of time travel that writers tend to fall into, whether they are trying or not.
The Different Types of Time Travel:
When discussing time travel, there are four categories to choose from:
Traveling back in time
Traveling forward in time
The gift of foresight
Of course, within each of these categories, there are many subcategories and creative possibilities. But looking only at the broad strokes, every time travel story has one of these.
In choosing which type of time travel to include, it’s important to consider what you want from your story. A story of time loops, like Groundhog Day, usually focuses on the character development of the person in the loop. Meanwhile foresight and traveling forward usually deal with morality. And traveling to the past is a great way to discuss free will. It’s all about what you want.
There are so many options with time travel. The important thing is to find the type of time travel that fits your story best, create rules for it, and stick to those rules. This leads us to the first tip in writing time travel:
These rules are just for you. You don’t necessarily need to tell your readers about them. There’s no need for some sort of exposition explanation (although if you want to, feel free). But deciding what time travel can and can’t do in your story will stop plot holes from forming. Keeping your time travel consistent is important.
For example, let’s look at Supernatural. Supernatural is great at giving us examples of what not to do.
In season 4 of Supernatural, Dean Winchester is sent back in time to when his parents were his age. Dean attempts to kill a demon that will kill his mother in the future. At the end, he fails and ultimately causes the events that will happen (classic unchangeable past time travel rules). Castiel tells him that it is impossible to change the present by traveling to the past.
We then jump to season five. Anna, a runaway angel, goes back in time to kill Sam and Dean’s parents before they can have Sam. Castiel and the brothers become worried about this. But why? If we can’t alter the past, then what’s the problem? Even if Anna doesn’t realize her goals are futile, why would Castiel be concerned?
This leads us to our next point. After you decide your own time travel rules, you have to consider how much each character knows about these rules. If you have decided that a seer has unchangeable visions, and they know this, then that character should never try to change their fate.
The time travel rule of Twelve Monkeys is that you cannot change the past. However, the movie only has a plot because the main character doesn’t know this. He believes he can change the past until the very end when he realizes his goal is fruitless.
However, the Prisoner of Azkaban has the same rules of time travel and Dumbledore and Hermione both know they can’t change the past. There is still conflict in the book because that is not their goal.
If a character has a backstory where they studied time travel for years, and has traveled hundreds of times before, they shouldn’t be shocked by the rules of time travel. Withholding the information from your characters can create interesting conflict, but make sure each character understands a plausible amount.
Show, Don’t Tell:
Having your characters have a long conversation about time travel can be fun to write, but it’s important to remember that the best way to ensure your audience understands time travel is to show characters traveling through time.
As long as you stick to your rules, your time travel will eventually make sense to your audience. And, when it comes to time travel, you’d be surprised just how long your readers will be okay with being in the dark.
In Avengers: Endgame, Hulk/Bruce Banner goes on a long explanation about how time travel works in this universe. They bring up Hot Tub Time Machine and Back to the Future. But in the end, did anyone in the audience completely understand what that time travel was about from the Hulk’s rant? From what I can gather, no.
About the Author: Susan Matteucci is an author, editor, and reader currently finishing up her BFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. She has two publish short stories and hopefully has many more on the way. She has a passion for Sci-Fi, particularly time travel, and fantasy. It is her belief that straying from the realistic is the best way to comment on society.