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Tips and Tricks to Writing Time Travel Into Your Story (Part 2)

When you think of time travel, usually one type comes to mind. Perhaps you see a big machine that sends you centuries into the future or a watch that sends you back to the age of the dinosaurs. However, when writing a time travel story, there are actually many different common types to choose from.

The Different Types of Time Travel:

When discussing time travel, there are four categories to choose from:

  1. Traveling back in time

  2. Traveling forward in time

  3. The gift of foresight

  4. Time loops

Each of these types has a different purpose in a story. Time loops usually focus on character development and growth. Meanwhile traveling forward usually deals with morality and traveling to the past or foresight is a great way to dive into free will.

However, each of these categories has its own separate subcategories. These subcategories are vastly different than one another, and it’s important to understand and learn them. (in fact, the only thing all of these subcategories have in common is that they have all been on Supernatural). Let’s start at the bottom:

Time Loops:

Probably the most famous use of time loops is Groundhog Day by Harold Ramis. A time loop is when a character relives a certain period of time, usually against their will (however there are exceptions to time loops being unwanted, for example, in Miss. Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, the main characters all live in a time loop by choice.) The period of time is exactly the same except for what that character does to change it.

There are two subcategories of time loops:

Deadline Time Loops

As seen in Groundhog Day and Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, a deadline time loop is when time will automatically rewind at a certain time of day. The victim of the loop usually wakes up at the same time; however, the end-of-time loops tend to differ.

For deadline loops, the loop resets at the same time, always. In Groundhog Day the day resets at 4:00 am on February 3 and flips back to morning on February 2. Not only can Phil not stop the loop, but he also cannot control when the day loops over. No one can make the day loop earlier or later than 4:00 am on February 3.

Event Time Loops

For these time loops, the character gets sent back to the origin point (the time when they wake up, everything the same as before) with an event. Maybe they have a task they need to complete, so every time they fail said task the day will immediately loop.

In the movie Edge of Tomorrow, time loops over every time Tom Cruise’s character, Bill Cage, dies. This means in many loops Cage lives days, even weeks, before time loops again. Sometimes the time loops within a few hours. The characters even use this to their advantage, killing Cage before they are captured so he can start the day again.

Time loops are fun and quirky. They are usually used for self-discovery journeys for the main character. They are also probably the easiest form of time travel to write. With time loops stories, it’s imperative everything remains constant. Either the character wakes up in the same place and time each time, or there is a rule to where and when they wake up. Make sure your readers can follow the logic or it won’t be nearly as fun.

The Gift of Foresight:

When it comes to foresight, it’s information, not a person, that is traveling through time. The ability to see the future exists in many stories and can fit into many different genres. There are only two common subcategories for foresight.

Changeable visions

In this subcategory, the seer (or person who saw the future) can make it so what they saw in their vision (or read in their book or were told by a future self) never occurs.

The most classic example of this type of foresight is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the story, Scrooge is shown many terrible things by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Scrooge asks: “are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they the shadows of things that May be only?” He is asking if he could go back and change his life, therefore his fate. As it turns out, he can change his fate, and he goes back, celebrates Christmas, and Tiny Tim doesn’t die. Hooray for happy endings.

Unchangeable Visions

As you may be expecting, there are also visions of foresight that cannot be changed. The best example is any prophecy in Greek Mythology, most famously in the play Oedipus Rex.

In Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus goes to the oracle seeking advice and guidance and is instead dished out the worst prophecy to ever prophecy (seriously, screw death prophecies, Oedipus had it bad) he immediately leaves home, hoping to avoid that fate. However, that prophecy is locked in stone, and leaving how just solidified what was going to happen. He couldn’t escape the future he saw.

Greek mythology loved to play with inevitability. However, there are many modern shows or books that have used unchangeable visions and still included conflict. Many visions or prophecies are hard to decipher, and the character spends their time slowly unraveling the mysteries, only to discover it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. For example, if you were walking down the street and had a vision of a child almost being run over by a car, but before you saw how it ended you woke up, well start running because you can still save that kid.

Traveling Forward in Time:

There are plenty of movies and books dedicated to the question: what will the future be like? H.G Wells’ The Time Machine is the prime example. Traveling into the future is very similar to foresight. You know what will happen in the future, can you change it? There are two different subcategories of future time travel.

A Temporary Trip.

In The Time Machine The time traveler goes into the future with the help of, you guessed it, a machine. He discovers the world has fallen into disarray. At the end of his story, he returns to his own time. He can go forward and then travel back to where he belongs.

In Supernatural, Dean Winchester is sent forward in time where he meets his future self. He learns about the mess the apocalypse will cause and then is pulled back to his correct time.

In temporary trips, the traveler goes into the future, beholds what it is like, perhaps even meets his or her future self or grandchildren, and then returns to live out their life like they are supposed to.

Stopping the Aging Process.

In the book Ender’s Game or the movie Interstellar, we see hypersleep used as a method of time travel. A person chooses to go into a pod where they do not age and when they come out they have, basically, traveled in time. Captain America does this accidentally in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, going from the 1940s to the 2010s. To the “traveler,” it feels like no time at all. In reality, they have been sitting and waiting for years.

With this form of time travel, you won’t meet your future self or your descendants. And there is no return journey.

Traveling Back in Time:

At last, we have arrived at what is, by far, the most confusing method of time travel and also the most commonly used in stories. For this type of time travel, we have a whopping five subcategories. Ready? Okay.

Changing the past.

This is probably the most common type. Let’s say you go back in time and accidentally kill your grandfather. Seems not great, right? You’re right, it’s not great at all. However, in this subcategory, there are two subcategories. What happens if you kill your grandfather?

a. You create a paradox.

So, you go back in time and kill your grandfather. Now, you can’t exist. But if you don’t exist then how did you kill your grandfather? So, you didn’t kill your grandfather. But if you didn’t kill your grandfather, you still exist, making it possible to kill your grandfather. But… you see the problem. There are a few ways to handle a paradox in writing (I won’t create subcategories for them, though I am tempted).

In the latest season of The Umbrella Academy, this paradox creates a Kugelblitz, a black hole thing that destroys the entire universe. Whoops. This is one way to handle a paradox: embrace it. Let the world collapse in on itself in confusion.

Another way to handle a paradox? Just ignore it. Yeah, it may be cowardly, but you can just ignore a Paradox. It’s your world, you make the rules. We see this in the unfortunate Harry Potter sequel The Cursed Child. In the play, Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy go back in time and accidentally kill Harry, making it so Albus can’t exist. So, when they return to the present, Albus simply doesn’t exist. Ta-da, bye bye paradox. The time traveler made it so they don’t exist. So now, in this new present they create, they just don’t.

b. The butterfly effect destroys everything.

A bit of an exaggeration, but let’s say you go back in time just to have a look around. You accidentally step on a twig, scare a squirrel, and cause a dog to chase the squirrel. This causes the kid to chase the dog and long story short Martin Luther King was never born. You then return to your timeline, and everything is different now. Very similar to The Cursed Child, though not so paradoxical. You live in a world you don’t recognize, and no one seems to understand why you're so confused. The only person who remembers the old present is you.

c. You create an alternate reality.

Let’s say you go back in time and you change the past. Do whatever you want, kill Hitler, kill your grandfather, who cares. You have now created an alternate reality from your own. The timeline has split into two paths. Sometimes, a character can go back to their correct reality, but now that other place will always exist. But most of the time the traveler cannot return.

Take Star Trek: 2009. Lenard Nimoy’s Spock accidentally travels back in time, along with a bunch of angry Romulans. They kill a fleet of Federation ships including Kirk’s father. They also destroy Vulcan. Now, there is a different timeline and Zachary Quinto plays Spock. And yet Nimoy Spock can never return to his timeline. He has to exist and watch his younger self as they move forward in an alternate reality.

Confused yet? Don’t worry, it gets worse.

Unchangeable past.

As seen in Harry Potter 3 and Twelve Monkeys, sometimes travelers cannot change the past because they always existed in the past. This time travel isn’t necessarily tromping through the past as it is creating multiple copies of yourself in one time.

In Harry Potter 3, the crew goes on a little adventure down to Hagrid’s hut before Buckbeak, the beloved hippogriff, is executed. When they leave, they eventually hear the swing and thud of an axe, dictating to them that the execution happened. A lot more stuff happens and eventually, Harry finds himself about to be killed by a bunch of dementors, only to have a figure across the lake scare them away. He believes the figure is his father.

Then, Harry and Hermione travel back in time. They wait in the woods for their past selves to leave and then hurry and rescue Buckbeak. When the executioner comes out and sees that Buckbeak is gone, he swings his axe against the fence in frustration, causing the swing and thud the trio heard before. Later on, Harry himself rushes out and scares away the dementors.

They didn’t change anything in the past, they didn’t come back to an odd present, they merely let themselves exist in many places at once.

It is the same with Twelve Monkeys, our traveler goes back to stop a terrible virus from being made, only to discover at the end that the man he witnessed die when he was a little kid was really an older version of himself. You don’t add things to the past with this time travel.

Whichever form of time travel, remember that decide what is in your story. Steal from others where you want to but don't forget that straying too far from the pack might make your audience confused. Figure out what you want your story to say and do and choose accordingly. Happy writing.


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 published 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.


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