What about time travel keeps us coming back to it in our stories? Some of the earliest time travel stories we know are hundreds of years old. Despite all our technological advancements, we continue to write stories about it and a time travel story. One or more characters either deliberately or accidentally gained the ability to travel into the past or future. Within such a story, they may be able to travel at will, or there are limits on how and when they will travel.
There are three main types of time travel stories that you’ll see today. The first type is preserving the status quo. The second is changing the status quo. The third type is time travel tourism. Preserving the status quo means that the hero needs to ensure that a particular action either does or does not occur. The next one, changing the status quo, is where specific past or present actions must be changed to prevent an undesirable outcome.
First and foremost, time travel gives you the power of what if something had happened differently or hadn’t happened. You can attempt to answer these questions by telling a time travel story. It completely contradicts our world, where we can’t change the past or see the future. We can’t press a reset button and try again. I’m fully supportive of people who want to tell these time travel stories as long as it serves their message. So, stay with me if you want to learn more.
How to write a time travel story?
Time travel stories allow the heroes to fix everything in the present with little to no consequences. It leads to lazy stories resolved with a time machine where everything returns to normal. Every decision we make in the real world has lasting consequences and cannot be undone. Despite this, it’s still important to push for change and improvement.
We’re going to talk about writing stories about time travel. These can be tricky because there are so many things to consider, and all-time paradoxes will drive you nuts. But I want to give you 5 tips that’ll simplify the process and help you decide whether you want to write a story about time travel and how you should execute such a story. Let’s travel!
1. Ask yourself
If you are writing about time travel, you need to ask yourself the question Why? Why are you writing about time travel? Often you don’t necessarily need to incorporate time travel elements into your story instead of writing a story about someone going to the past. Maybe you want to write about historical fiction.
Maybe you want to write a story that’s set back there, and you don’t need anybody from the present day in that setting. Or if you’re writing about somebody going to the future, you’re better off writing a story about a future society or the apocalypse.
Often, writers don’t want to write about time travel so much as they want to write about different periods or different futures. So keep that in mind. If you ever are in the situation where you think you have a good idea for a time travel story, ask yourself:
- Is the time travel necessary?
- What are the characters going to learn from the story?
- Why are they going back or forward in time?
- What is the purpose of all this?
2. Make decisions and device matter
Timeline is one of my favorite time travel novels for various reasons. At the story’s beginning, a team of archaeologists describes a significant battle. Once the time travel story starts unfolding, the macro details of the battle remain largely unchanged. However, the characters were able to use their future knowledge to nudge the past ever so slightly to make the story worth reading. That’s how to write an incredible time travel story, even when the details were already written in stone.
Also, the time travel vehicle or device matters. One major discrepancy between the book (Timeline) and the movie is that the book gave intention to the date and location that was being traveled to in the past.
On the other hand, in the movie, the scientists accidentally open up a wormhole to a random point in history. Then they recruited archaeologists who happened to be studying the castle that was nearby where the wormhole opened. It made the time travel mechanic of the story largely an accident in which the archaeologists happened to arrive shortly before the pivotal battle they were researching.
If the characters can go to any time or place, there should be a reason why they end up at a specific point, even if it isn’t known to the characters at that time. ‘Doctor Who’ does a wonderful job with this, where the TARDIS, the mechanism that they travel through time and space, is sentient and sends the doctor into harm’s way on an episodic basis.
3. Set a goal and give lessons
Characters who make time jumps there they’re going to learn some lessons. Maybe they go to the past and learn to appreciate the future more. Or they go to the future and learn to change themselves before the world becomes a worse place. When you start writing a time travel story. So, set an individual goal to achieve and give some lessons or experience while the characters are on their mission.
Readers don’t like stories where characters know what will happen to them. There was a critically acclaimed space opera, which I never enjoyed for various reasons, but the primary one was that the character knew their future.
All sense of drama about the character surviving was removed when the tension was automatically diffused for every trial. In the early part of the Harry Potter series, I understand why the characters couldn’t use time travel as they might mistake it for the work of an evil wizard. That makes sense. However, once they learned about time travel, they should have used it to their advantage.
4. Establish time travel rules
Another essential thing to remember is to establish the rules of time travel in your story. Who is capable of time travel? How many people can use time travel? Is there a specific device you need, or is there a magic spell? What are the consequences of using time travel? What if they get stuck in time? Can they get stuck in time?
All those different questions need to be asked and answered by the writer before you get into the storytelling. If you don’t understand the rules of time travel in your story, your readers will see through it. They’re going to see it as a fake story they’re not going to get into. You want to sell the idea, and you need to stick to the rules if you do that.
If something happened to a time traveler in the past, then it would have already happened. So when they return to the present and go home and go to sleep, there shouldn’t be a shift in time around them after a given, unspecified, inconsistent amount of time has passed. The biggest thing I’ll say about time travel rules is that they need to remain consistent.
There are plenty of time travel stories that selectively apply. Whatever their self-contained rules are set, the plot can continue and then ignore them whenever it doesn’t affect the plot. Failing to think about the what fully or why of time travel or applying it unravels these stories.
5. Focus on the primary trope
How seriously do you want to take time travel in your story? It’s fine if you want to write a story about time travel and its fun and lighthearted trope. Also, it doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of how it works. For instance, the story Groundhog Day is about Bill Murray reliving the same day over and over again until he finally becomes a better person. They never explain how time travel works in that story or why it exists. But nobody complains about that because it’s a great story.
However, if you are writing a much more serious and scientific story, you will want to do your research and get your details correct because those types of audiences will be much more critical of you. It’ll take them right out of the story if you get anything wrong.
Types Of Time Travel Stories (Tropes/Prompts)
Once you establish your story rules, you must decide what type of time travel story you will write. There are hundreds of time travel tropes, but none are more important than the message of your story. It’s important to consider setting limits on time travel or what it costs the hero. What could potentially stop you from being able to time travel? Maintain these limits throughout your stories.
Finding the balance between complete freedom and structure in your story is a good idea. Your story may be better served with a degree of logic added. So, it’s essential to consider the sociological implications of time travel in your world and how they affect your characters and the world you’ve built. Here are 4 types of time travel stories/tropes you can use in your story.
- Travel to the past.
- Travel to the future.
- Present is invaded.
- Time travel gimmicks.
Travel to past
The most common one is the story where someone from the present goes back in time to the past. If you are writing this type of story, you’re writing a historical fiction story with a sci-fi twist because you include that time travel.
To write a great historical fiction story, you must research the period you’re writing about. You need to be very knowledgeable about it. What was the technology and the world in general? What kind of expectations did they have for the future? What were the social customs? If you are writing a story about the past, you should find a way to get your readers invested in that time period. One of the best ways to do it is to get the details right and get a good feel for this story world.
Try to present life as it was so your readers could truly appreciate it. One major thing to be aware of when writing stories about characters who go to the past is the butterfly effect. If you have a time traveler who goes to the past, every change they make to this world will have consequences for the future.
If you do have people going into the past, remember that if they kill someone or prevent someone from being killed, that will have consequences in the future. So keep that in mind.
Travel to future
The next type of time travel story is one where characters go from the present into the future, and they may go into the future for various reasons. Maybe they go from the inferno of it because they invented the time machine that can take them into the future. Or, they might have to go to the future to stop some future evil from occurring.
Typically, those stories can get a little foolish because you have to ask yourself some questions. If they must go into the future to stop evil from happening, why don’t they take precautions now? Or why don’t they wait for the future to come to them?
So if you are looking at this type of story, ask yourself: Is it necessary for future time travel to happen? Aside from time travel stories, your main characters go into the past or future.
Present is invaded
Your characters stay in the present, and another character, usually a villain, comes to the present, either from the future or the past, and starts causing problems. The best example of this is Terminator one, an eighties movie that takes place during the eighties. But the main conflict arises because a machine comes from the future to kill Sarah Connor in the present. There isn’t much worldbuilding early on, and we can instantly empathize with Sarah Connor. It’s another technique you can keep in your arsenal.
If you are thinking about time travel stories, be aware that you do have to do the proper worldbuilding for the future or the past, even if you’re bringing one or two characters into that present.
Time travel gimmick
The fourth and final type of time travel story is one where there is a time travel gimmick involved. For instance, in the movie Groundhog Day, the gimmick is that Bill Murray’s character repeats the same day repeatedly until he becomes a better person.
Another example would be the video game, The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask. It is about a fantasy world about to be destroyed in three days when the moon crashes into Earth. However, the main character can play the ocarina to go back in time three days and repeat the process until he can finally solve the problem.
We can tell stories based on a world that exists in a hypothetical parallel universe to our own, one that could technically exist. It adds a degree of commitment missing from most time travel stories. Every decision your characters make last within the world that they’re in. Even if they leave that world, the decisions are still there. Also, some people need to live with the consequences of those actions.
When writing a story, sharing your work with a group of people you trust for feedback is essential. It can be beneficial for others to read your work because they can give you ideas for improvement that you had never even considered. So, I encourage you to create a group of people you trust where you can share your stories and ultimately be creative.
What is your all-time favorite time travel story? Let me know in the comments section below.
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