9 Rules for Writing Time Travel

I’m a sucker for time travel stories. I’ll read any book or short story, watch any movie or TV show, if it has a time travel element. I can’t get enough.

As a connoisseur of the art form – and as a novelist myself – I’ve developed these story-building tips for writing time travel

1. Give us the Shock & Awe

Writers are always told to start each story in media res, so it’s tempting to skip over the typical set-up scenes. With a time travel story, however, it’s best to introduce us to the characters before learn that time manipulation is possible. Why? Because if we watch them travel for the first time, we get to experience it with them.

Sure, we’ve seen hundred variations of this already, where the character who knows time travel doesn’t exist gradually comes to accept that it is real. It may be hard to find a fresh take. On the other hand, mastering the 4th dimension is a mind-blowing concept, so it ought to take a while to process.

The original draft of Groundhog’s Day opened with Phil Connors already trapped in his loop of repeating days. Had they filmed that version, we’d have been robbed of all the great build-up scenes where the tiny details of Phil’s day start to build, hinting at him that something is very, very wrong.

We’d have skipped past the catalyst of the story and the audience would be struggling to keep up.

Picture Marty McFly walking through 1955’s Hill Valley for the first time in Back to the Future. He has already been told that Doc invented time travel. The writers might have had him immediately accept that fact and jump straight toward some decisive action to change his predicament. Instead, they allowed him a little time for confusion, a period of denial, which also gave us time to look around with him and spot the changes in the town. With every new person or building he sees, we feel his sense of awe growing, taking in the enormity of where he is and what has happened to him. These few moments immerse us in the world with him.

It’s worth mentioning that in Palm Springs, Nyles has been repeating this day for years, but this works because we, the audience, get to watch the other main character, Sarah, enter the time loop for the first time.

This is the magic of a time travel story. Think of it as your “Dorothy opens the door to Oz” moment. Don’t rush it. This is often the most captivating scene of any time travel story.

2. Pick Your Method

Every time travel story has to have something that functions as the device, portal, or catalyst to time travel.

Devices

In H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, it was a literal machine that the hero climbed into, and that set the standard for decades of time travel stories. Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories employ hover-motorcycles that can jump through time. Doc Brown used a Delorean. Time Travelling with a Hamster (a very funny middle-grade book) uses a metal washtub wired to an old Mac computer.

Portals

Just like the wardrobe leading to Narnia, portals are a specific location that allows you to pass between times. In Stephen King’s 11.22.63 the portal is simply a staircase that they refer to as “the rabbit hole.” Star Trek TNG often utilizes worm holes for its time jumps.

Catalysts

Sometimes there is nothing mechanical involved, nothing that would give our characters any control of their destination. Any number of stories involve a character getting a concussion or struck on the head and waking up in another time. In The Time-Traveller’s Wife, Henry has a chromosome disorder that randomly catapults him through time; before each occurrence, he can feel the sensation of an impending jump.

3. Anything goes, as long as you explain it.

The important thing is to show the audience what your method looks like so that we know what to watch for during the story. Even if the character doesn’t know what caused it, if we witnessed him falling asleep and waking up in a different time, we have a framework for the story. We don’t know how the person will get home, but we realize something similar will have to happen to return them to their own time.

No matter what means you use to allow your characters to time travel, the important thing is to show the audience how it happened – at least, as much as your characters know – then give us the rules that govern it.

Doc Brown explains how to set the target date, load the plutonium, and get the car going 88 mph to trigger the time jump. When we see Marty doing exactly those steps a few minutes later, we know before he does that he’s about to travel to 1955. It also sets up the rules for bringing him back home.

In The Edge of Tomorrow, we learn that it’s the blood of the “Alphas” that allows the hero to loop through time. Therefore, if he gets a blood transfusion he will lose the ability. Until then, every time he dies the day resets. All of this is explained to him in the first act of the story, and is repeated again so the audience knows the rules and the way to end it.

It’s OK to keep the explanation brief, and even to leave out critical information, if that’s what your plot requires. But when you skip the explanation altogether, you’ll leave your audience wondering. You don’t want them to be distracted throughout the story, looking for clues that you haven’t dropped, as they try to understand how the hero is going to get back home.

4. Create Your Own Rules

Can the characters change the past? If so, can they make changes to their own future? How does the cause/effect work? There are a million permutations to this, and the most wondrous thing about his genre is that since time travel doesn’t really exist, your logic can never be wrong. How freeing is that?

The only thing your audience will expect is that you stay consistent with whatever version of time travel you set up initially.

Some of the most common time travel tropes are:

  • “I know what I’m doing.” – the time-traveller knows both the original time line and the new version because he is immune to the effects of the change – see Jodi Taylor’s Chonicles of St. Mary’s series.
  • “I used to know what was going on.” – as soon as the hero interacts with the time line, he is changing the past, including his own memories – see Looper, Quantum Leap (Sam and Al’s memories of events differ after a major change, as Sam is remembering only the original time line. For example: Watergate.)
  • “There is no cause and effect.” – anything the traveller does are events that always existed. The past changes him as he changes the past, so there are no alternate time lines. – See The Time-Traveller’s Wife.
  • “Nothing is able to change.” – the time-traveller is forbidden from making changes (not just a rule, but a law of physics) so they are viewing the past only. Alternately, they can make only minor changes that have no lasting effects. – See To Say Nothing of the Dog.
  • “I’m only looking” – our heroes cannot move through time, but they can send technology that allows them to see the future or past – See Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus.
  • “Time corrects itself.” – attempts at major changes are thwarted as the universe finds its own ways of staying on track. – See Night Watch (Sam’s mentor is killed when he visits the past and he is forced to take the man’s place, thereby making himself a major influence in his own young life.)
  • “Everything changes.” – any large-scale disruptions in the time stream will completely disrupt everything “downstream” from that event. See Anderson’s Time Patrol series (These time cops base their operations a million years B.C. so that if anything upsets the time stream, their patrol can still exist to fix it.)

Know which type of story you are writing and stay true to the cause/effect rules you have created.

If your character goes back in time, confident that the past cannot be changed, then kills his own grandfather and blinks himself out of existence, both you and the audience are now in quite a pickle. This character who no longer exists was never there to kill the grandpa. Oops. You’ve introduced a paradox that is going to hurt everyone’s brain unless you have an amazing trick up your sleeve to get us out of it.

Paradoxes suck for everyone. Give your readers an expected structure and then stick to it so that we’re not left arguing with the screen that, “that makes no sense!”

5. Or Give Yourself an “Out” to Break the Rules

Because it’s difficult to write time travel without flirting with paradoxes, some writers give themselves a work-around — a way of breaking their own rules in a way that feels as though it’s still consistent.

You can cheat.

Avengers: Endgame is a brilliant movie. It’s so good, in fact, that it gets a pass on blatantly breaking its own rules about time travel constraints. The Hulk gives a short lecture explaining why they can’t change the past, they then go on to twist time in ways that make no sense against the structure of time travel in this movie (remember the scene where AntMan is turned into a baby, then an old man, then himself again in what appears to be seconds for him?). But all these discrepancies get glossed over by explaining that the Quantum Realm is mysterious. Ah, Quantum Realm, the magical spackle for filling in plot holes.

You can play dumb.

Ever notice how the main character in these stories is rarely ever the brilliant scientist who developed time travel? Not only is it easier to relate to an everyman character, it saves us all from having to understand the science. You can have your extremely smart person introduce it and explain the rules, then let your hero accept it on faith without thoroughly understanding it.

I love this method because it gives you, the author, the freedom to include as much or as little science as you want to. Gloss over as much as you want to and have the scientist say, “Just push this button” and you can forge ahead with your plot. It’s enough for the audience to know that someone in this world understands it all.

You can yell “Hey, look over there!”

One of my favorite “nevermind my rules” moments is from Grand Tour: A Disaster in Time. Our hero, Ben, has jumped through time to break himself out of prison. The viewer immediately has to wonder how the universe will reconcile this, as Ben has now changed his past and there are suddenly two of him living in town. The writer must have felt trapped in a corner as well, because he threw in this beautiful bit of dialogue:

Original Ben: “How can we both be in the same place at the same time?”

Time-Travelling Ben: “(Forget) the physics, Ben! By the time you figure out whether it’s possible or not, we’re gonna be dead. Twice!”

Easy as that! The paradox doesn’t really matter because we’re now diving back into the action.

Which brings me to:

6. Keep the Clock Ticking

When you have time at your command, why panic, right? Why rush anything?

Because stories need tension. And a great way to add tension is to give your hero a ticking clock. As the wise Rufus once said (in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), “No matter what you do, no matter where you go … the clock in San Dimas is always running.” They had only 24 hours to get to their history exam, despite being able to hop through time.

A less silly example is King’s 11.22.63, where his time portal leads him to the year 1958. In order to prevent the JFK assassination, Jake must spend 5 years in the past. Because of that time commitment, the idea of doing it more than once becomes nearly impossible. Thus, in the countdown to November 22nd, his time is as short as everyone else’s. The time portal can’t help him anymore. And the tension is every bit as high as if he had never discovered time travel.

7. Flip the Script to Make it Difficult

We are rooting for people, not gods of time. It’s cool that they have this wonderful ability, but your story is more gripping if something happens to make them unable to use it. We want them to be able to suffer setbacks, something they can’t easily undo.

Perhaps there is something inherent in your rules of time travel that will constrain the hero. In the Time Patrol stories, one unbreakable rule is that a traveller can never visit the same time twice. So if they make a mistake, they can’t return to that same time to undo it. In About Time, Tim can travel at will to any day within his own lifetime. Just as he’s getting used to this ability, he discovers that changing anything that happened before his children were born will cause them not to exist.

Sudden reversals are even better. In Time Bandits, our heroes have a map of every time portal in world history … so, of course, they lose the map!

8. Choose a Global Background, Then Make it Personal

Give in to the temptation to choose huge moments in world history. Why not? That’s the lure of time travel — the great question of “Where would you visit if you could go anywhere at any time?”

The birth of Christ? The signing of the Declaration of Independence? Woodstock? Pompeii? The assassination of Lincoln? The birth of Rock & Roll?

The history books are open to you. Pick something awesome.

But here’s the thing – as cool as all of those are, the best time travel books are the ones that focus on people. The bigger your background event, the more important it is to show it through the eyes of the people living there.

Connie Willis set The Doomsday Book in the middle of the Black Plague. Instead of showing the cities, she sent her hero to live with a small family out in the safety (uh-oh) of the country. She also created a 2-book series, Blackout and All Clear, set during the blitzkreig of London. Her plucky historians mix with civilians and military personnel, forging relationships that make us care about the fate of those individuals.

King’s 11.22.63 is ostensibly about the JFK assassination, but the characters our hero meets along the way are so wonderful that, to be honest, I wanted the hero to give up on trying to save Kennedy and settle into his fake life in the ’60s.

Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series stretches from the Jacobite Uprising in Scotland through the American Revolution. We see wonderful scenery, experience famous events, and encounter great figures from history. But no one reads those books just for the historical details. The heart of that story is the romance of Claire and Jamie.

Remember that time-travel is a means of telling your story, not the entire story itself. Make your characters matter.

9. Be Unique

Time travel has been the source of some of the most creative sci-fi works ever made. Keep twisting it to create your own rules and your own wonderful stories.

Remember that it does not have to be linear time travel. Though most of the stories I’ve mentioned involve a person being displaced from his own time, there are other permutations to explore.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe involved a bubble existing outside of space-time so that elite diners could watch the death of the universe while enjoying cocktails.

Groundhog’s Day introduced such a charming notion of 24-hour time loops that it created a whole sub-genre, including the comedic horror film Happy Death Day.

And The Girl, The Gold Watch, and Everything allows its main character to stretch time, living an entire hour in the space between seconds. This gives him the superpower of incredible speed, as viewed by other people. Since we’re living in the time gaps with him, it makes for an intriguing notion of time travel.

One last thought … if you are looking for inspiration for a new type of time travel story, I recommend the book Einstein’s Dreams, a quick read with beautiful vignettes that illustrate different time theories.

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