When I told my wife I was going to do a writing prompt for the blog about time travel her response was less than enthusiastic. She’s not a fan of time travel stories, and neither am I and for a lot of the same reasons. She explained to me that she didn’t think she could be much help in reviewing whatever story I came up with from the prompt because of her feelings about time travel stories in general. The word hate came up. Several times.
Like it or not, time travel is an extremely polarizing plot device. A quick perusal of Chuck Sambuchino’s excellent blog of literary agents will soon reveal that many agents have strong enough opinions on time travel to include them in their bio. Some agents will say they want to see more time travel stories, others have absolutely no interest in them and refuse to read them. Fortunately for writers everywhere there are agents and readers enough to go around for every type of story to get a chance to reach its audience if you’re persistent enough to find them.
Time travel stories are prevalent in modern fiction and have been regular features in science fiction since the middle 19th century. Star Trek, Harry Potter, Superman, Power Rangers, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and countless other popular franchises have touched on time travel at some point in their histories. So how can something so popular be so polarizing? As is true in politics and pizza toppings, just because something is popular doesn’t mean that it is for everyone.
For every person who is entertained and intrigued by the possibilities opened up by breaking the bounds of time there is at least one other who is frustrated out of their mind by the inevitable plot holes and paradoxes.
Paradoxes are so common in time travel stories that they need a more aggressive plural form to really capture it. I propose we call these paradoxen. So to me, and others who are not fond of the style, time travel stories are usually a rattle-trap plot-wagon being hauled in a zig-zag pattern across the time stream by a burly team of paradoxen.
That may sound a bit extreme, and it is, but when I read a story I get invested. I care about the characters, I go along with the plot and suspend my disbelief as best I can and really try to believe the author about what’s going on. There is almost nothing harder on suspension of disbelief than time travel stories given that the slightest logical flaw or contradiction can make the story completely unbelievable.
It’s easy to believe that time travel is possible within the bounds of a story, whatever the explanation (barring self hypnosis which I think is a ridiculous plot device for time travel), where disbelief sets in is when the story doesn’t line up anymore. When those paradoxen come lumbering into view I, and many other readers, will typically bail out feeling robbed of the time and emotional investment I put into the story up to that point. Sure, maybe it somehow makes sense in the end, but often enough it doesn’t and that has cemented a prejudice against time travel in more than a few writers, readers and agents.
So given my feelings on the use of time travel in fiction why would I suggest that every author (regardless of their usual genres) should write a time travel story at least once? I generally write fantasy and science fiction, so it’s easy to see how I could benefit from trying to broaden my horizons and stretch as a writer. But how can a literary writer or memoirist grow in their craft by writing speculative fiction about time travel? Simple.
Ramifications, my inklings. Whenever you write anything there are ramifications to character’s actions and events going on in the world during your story. Every decision your characters make and every action they take should have implications and ramifications upon the world they live in and the plot they are forwarding. In a drama piece many of the characters actions won’t necessarily ruin the story if you don’t follow through believably with the consequences but in time travel if you don’t think everything through to the very utmost you have a much greater chance of creating plot holes.
Even if you don’t typically write impossible stories and your goal is to stay as realistic as possible you can grow by writing at least one time travel story. You will build those writing muscles needed for sniffing out the effects of every action your characters take. The ramifications are hugely important for every event that occurs in a format (i.e. time travel) where errors and overlooked details will be glaring. This way when you write a story that will suffer less dire consequences from missed details and loose plot threads you’ll be better at recognizing them and avoiding them in the first place.
So on to the prompt:
Write a short story/flash fiction piece which features time travel as an essential component of the plot. If you don’t usually write scifi then try taking one of your existing flash fiction pieces and add time travel. Consider how it would change the plot if time travel were an option for your characters and give it a whirl.
1. Set the Rules for Time Travel: Every time travel story needs rules. No rules for time travel means that there’s no limitations and your characters will look like idiots for not exploiting every possible angle that your reader can come up with.
Give the time traveler limitations and your reader will be more accepting as to why the characters can’t just try X to accomplish Y. You don’t have to divulge all of your rules, just enough of them to give the impression that the characters won’t be able to try everything the reader can think of.
Some examples to get you started:
a. No more than two of a given person per time period (the present self and the visiting self from another time). This eliminates the possibility of an army of one scenario where a person could have accomplished their goal by joining together in a big team of themselves from different time periods.
b. Time traveler can only visit times during their own lifespan. This has a great potential for helping you bring focus to your character’s goals and making them personal goals that would directly affect their own life, making the story more emotionally stirring by making the stakes personal. Why don’t they save Abraham Lincoln from being assassinated? Because they weren’t alive when that happened, of course.
2. Pick a Goal, Make it Obvious: Are your characters going into the future? Why? The Past? How come? The purpose of the journey should be understood early so that when success or failure occurs the reader knows and can react the way you want them to at the right times. Without rule number one, you don’t have limitations and as such failure could only ever occur if the characters simply gave up on trying again.
3. Avoid Paradoxen: Every effect needs a cause and creating an endless loop violates logic. Time travel is by definition illogical but if you’re going to learn something that you can apply to your other writing you need to avoid contradictions and paradoxes. Leaning on impossibilities and saying, “That’s just the way it works” is not going to help you improve as a writer. Try coming up with a cause for every action and a consequence for every change (especially if your story affects the past). If you solve a problem by having a future self give a past self the answer to a problem then it’s an endless loop. No one originates the idea in the first place and therefore the solution can not exist.
4. Don’t Panic if You Can’t Tie Up Every Loose End: It’s time travel and ultimately it’s plum loco anyway, so don’t worry if there are still plot holes at the end. The most successful time travel stories are about characters we care about and love of a character can go a long way to smooth over little flaws like the story being completely impossible. Try to clean up the worst offending paradoxes but don’t tinker on this project for the rest of your life. Take what you can learn from it and move on.
Have fun and happy writing! I’ll be giving this one a go and I’ll share what I get when it’s ready.
Robert JV Christensen