Columns > Published on February 3rd, 2017

Time Out: Don't Write Time Travel (Unless You Do It Right)

Time travel. It’s such a popular, big idea. Everyone wants to put their stamp on time travel, take their swing at it. See how I used two metaphors there, one for jocks who like baseball and one for nerds who like stamp collecting?

While I appreciate the excitement and enthusiasm for time travel tales, I think we could take a break, rethink some of what time travel really is, and then come back with better, more interesting stories.

What do I mean?

Problem the first: Infinite Possibilities, 5 Realities

I’m going to ask you to accept a principle: Time travel, being a big unknown, could present itself in any number of ways.

Is that acceptable? Seem pretty reasonable?

Why, then, do we only get about 5 flavors of time travel? Why are there six times as many flavors of ice cream, a substance created from Earthly materials, and we only have 5 versions of this hypothetical thing that doesn’t actually exist?

Oh, by the way, you'll notice I mostly talk about movies here. I heard sci-fi great Connie Willis (more on her later!) talk writing, and she used movie examples, saying, "I use movies to talk about story because it's more likely we've seen the same movies." If it's good enough for Connie Willis, it's good enough for me.

What are the 5 Flavors Of Time Travel?

Flavor 1: Character travels through time and must attempt to have as little impact as possible in order to maintain the integrity of the future

The character inevitably screws up and has to fix things. This is boring because having a character whose primary goal is to do nothing is a pretty bad setup. Also, we all know this character is headed for an inevitable screwup, so the first part of the story is a guaranteed waste of time.

Flavor 2: Character travels through time and is charged with some action that will either maintain or “fix” the future

Terminator. This one is okay, but the big flaw is that these stories end up explaining themselves a lot. Why not travel even further back? What impacts will all your character’s other actions have?

Flavor 3: Character travels through time and is not specifically charged with a task but has the opportunity for a do-over or to make improvements

Groundhog Day. This has high potential for universal appeal as we’d all like a do-over, but it’s hard to shake the stink of wish fulfillment as being the driver of this story.

Flavor 4: Character travels through time only to discover that events are inevitable

The issue here is that this story type is highly dependent on the shock of the ending, and the ol’ “time can’t be changed” being an ending many of us are familiar with, that shock is difficult to manufacture. It leaves viewers with a story that they’ve puzzled out long before the ending, and they have to watch the characters come to the same realization in painfully slow fashion. Also, it leaves your characters with no real agency.

Flavor 5: Relative Time

Rip Van Winkle, for example, didn’t actually time travel so much as perceive time as never having passed. Encino Man, same deal. This stinks of time travel somehow, but ultimately, if Rip was a time traveler, then we all are. If our perception of time’s passage is the only measure, and I assume we all perceive time differently, just as we do colors and flavors, then we’re all time travelers to a degree.

And yes, I made you think about Encino Man.

By my math, those five flavors account for Back to the Future, Looper, Donnie Darko, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Time Cop, Army of Darkness, Edge of Tomorrow, Hot Tub Time Machine, and just about any number of time travel stories. Timecrimes, Primer, The Butterfly Effect. Flight of the Navigator, Deja Vu. We could go on and on, and the fun would be me slipping in a couple fake titles (Time’s a Tickin’, Fools Of Us All), but let’s drop it.

There’s nothing new under the sun. We all know this. That’s why Kurt Vonnegut was able to summarize every story ever with a couple of single-line graphs. I’m not crapping on your time travel story because it falls into one of these categories. What I’m saying is, if it DOES fall into one of these, you’d better offer something pretty good on the periphery. Oh, and avoid the mistakes from the next section.

We Get Micro: Commonly-Ignored Issues In Time Travel

Here are some things that piss me off, and they happen ALL THE TIME in time travel stories. All The Time is another great fake movie title. Don’t steal that one. Mine.

Why Is Time Travel Cloning?

Typical scenario: A guy travels back in time, looks in his own window and sees himself in the house.

The fact that things were different at one time is not, in itself, a joke, people. Or maybe it is a joke, just not a very good one.

How does this work? If that IS me, then there are now two of me, correct? If that’s NOT me, then I’ve not just traveled in time, but to an identical dimension of sorts. Which means I haven’t traveled back in time so much as I’ve traveled across dimensions. My time machine didn’t so much move me along a timeline as it split my timeline into two.

This is something we take for granted in time travel. How does this happen, and why does it happen so often? Why do we think our characters are so intriguing that the best idea we've got is to have TWO of them?

Why Is Time Travel Space Travel?

This is an idea I totally stole from Atomic Robo comics:

If you were to jump in a time machine that took you 3 hours into the past, but you stayed in the same spot, you would arrive 3 hours in the past and the Earth would be about 200,000 miles away from you. Hope you brought a space suit and some snacks.

Your position in space would need to be accounted for very, very carefully in order to time travel and end up in the same spot where you left. And very, very rarely is this accounted for in time travel.

Time Travel Almost Always Involves Stupid, Arbitrary Rules

You can’t time travel with clothes or guns, but we can send organic and synthetic beings into the past?

How does that work? In what system are we able to send an entire human back in time and yet we’re somehow unable to send back a pair of sweatpants?

The obvious answer is because it’s 1984 and we cast Arnold Schwarzenegger in our time travel movie, and if he’s not nude we’ve wasted a tremendous amount of time and money.

There’s rules about how far back you can go, why you can’t just go back again, why there aren’t time travelers popping up all over the goddamn place.

The time machine is kind of treated the way cell phones are treated in modern horror movies. You HAVE to address why they only work when it’s convenient, and these reasons are often boring and a matter of checking the box. We're all sitting around waiting to hear some character explain the stupid reasons that make the plot work.

The Struggle Is So Often About How To Get Back

You made some crazy futuristic gizmo to travel in time. And now you’re in the old west and don’t have any nuclear material? Oh, shit!

When the story of time travel is mostly about “We time traveled, how do we undo it?” I’m gonna get bored. We did this exciting thing, and now we want to undo it? BORING. 

The Jokes Are Too Often “Ha! That’s the 80’s for ya!”

Back to the Future was probably the last one to do this well. We could laugh at the idea that Marty McFly was the original inventor (or the original thief) of rock music.

But it gets old. Oh my god, can you believe people dressed like that in the 50’s?

Something like Hot Tub Time Machine is totally guilty of this one, but even Mad Men plays this card at times. Oh, isn’t it funny that we used to drive drunk and let neighbors smack our kids around. What a different time it was!

The fact that things were different at one time is not, in itself, a joke, people. Or maybe it is a joke, just not a very good one.

The Mechanism Of Time Travel Gets Too Much Play

Frankly, I don’t care how you’re doing it. It’s like a body swap movie. The whole point is you swap bodies with someone else, which is a silly premise. Pissing in the same fountain, opening a fortune cookie, these ideas provide a reason for waking up in another body, but the reason is stupider than having no reason at all. Likewise, making some gadget that takes you through time is stupider than having this just sort of...happen.

When Time Travel Works

Here’s the key to a time travel story: It can’t be about time travel.

Let me be more specific here.

Time travel works when it’s about something besides time travel. When I’m not meant to look at it and go “Whoa, time travel! What a concept!”

A time travel story is all about suspension of disbelief. For me, suspension of disbelief only works when there’s a purpose, a payoff. I don’t really enjoy stories about dragons where the reason for the dragons in the story is: DRAGONS!

The way to surprise and interest a reader is to use time travel to evoke something seemingly unrelated to time travel. To use time travel as a tool to pull genuine emotions out of a reader.

I can totally buy the premise of time travel, but what helps it work a bit better is when you’ve got a good reason for the time travel. When the story is not so much about constant time traveling as it is about something else. When time travel is the tool to tell the story, to unlock something, not the story in and of itself.

For example:

Connie Willis

Personal sci-fi hero Connie Willis (see, I told you she’d come up again) tells time travel stories, but they’re a little different.

In Blackout, we’ve perfected time travel, and the past becomes the playground of historians. Which I like because if there was one group of folks who would want to travel to the past, it’d be history nerds.

Time travel is proven to be safe because we’re totally sure that there’s nothing you can do to screw up time. It’s inevitable. Historians can’t go back and change the future. They can just go back and experience it firsthand to better understand our world.

Until, holy crap, maybe we were wrong.

Here’s what’s great (other than the whole book and everything about Connie Willis): Willis’ book comes at the common tropes head-on. The characters in the book, like we do as readers, take it as a forgone conclusion that time travel works a certain way. Until it doesn’t. At which point the story is about the idea of being wrong about time travel while also keeping things high-interest with the backdrop of The Blitz in London.

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Charles Yu

A typical customer gets into a machine that can literally take her whenever she’d like to go. Do you want to know what the first stop usually is? Take a guess. Don’t guess. You already know: the unhappiest day of her life.

Explaining Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely In A Science Fiction Universe is almost impossible. I’m not sure I completely understand how time travel works in the book. And that’s okay because time travel is used here to talk about something else entirely. Using time travel, setting up an entire universe to tell the story of an absentee father, is a long way to go, and the effort pays off.

How To Live Safely In A Science Fiction Universe has to be the biggest slap-together of emotion and sci-fi, and it’s so charming and geeky that it manages to take readers somewhere brand new.

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Joe Haldeman

Haldeman's Forever War uses time travel of the Rip Van Winkle variety. Soldiers fighting in a super faraway war are, in essence, plucked out of time. When they return home, home is unrecognizable. Everyone they cared about died decades before, and everyone else has moved on despite the fact that soldiers are returning directly from the battlefield.

The point here is pretty obviously to explain Haldeman’s experience and views on the Vietnam War. He and his fellows went far away, were involved in a conflict very few people understood, and returned to a world that thought of them as barbarians and had moved on without them.

It’s a beautiful, painful use of not only time travel, but science fiction to show us something about our reality. By stripping away the biases, emotions and ideas of our reality, Haldeman gives us a the chance to see reality from a completely different perspective.

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Octavia E. Butler

Kindred earns points right away for not fucking around with the how of the time travel. Instead, it uses those energies to focus on the purpose of the time travel. Also, the book is circa 1974. While it engages in one of the above tropes, maintaining the future, the reason certain time travel tropes are overdone today is because writers like Butler made them so intriguing.

To summarize it quickly, Kindred’s main character, a black woman, finds herself transported back to antebellum Maryland. Through a short series of events, she figures out the rub: she’s gotta preserve the life of a young, white slaveholder because he is one of her ancestors.

Not only does a single difficult choice have to be made, but a series of them. This character doesn’t have the luxury of making one difficult choice but instead has to make the choice over and over.

Kindred makes good use of time travel, creating a situation that gives us a character with modern sensibilities and ideas experiencing, and actively participating in, the shittiness of slavery. The book is so readable and pitch perfect that you'll be pulled through even the tough spots where shit gets very real.

On the surface, the story is about the old saw of preserving the future. But when you dig just a little bit, the story and time travel serve to remind us that the past is very real and more closely related to the present than we think. 

By the way, I NEVER do this, never get into the commerce in the middle of a column, but Kindred is three fucking dollars on Kindle. C'mon. 

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Douglas Adams

Why does it work for Douglas Adams to do time travel? Because it’s in the name of a goof.

The book The Restaurant At The End of the Universe is set up with the premise that, hey, if we have the ability to travel in time, why not witness the end of the universe? And, as is the case with most of Adams’ stuff, the book comes to the logical conclusion that if there’s an end of the universe to watch, someone’s going to figure out a way to make a buck off it.

Adams’ and the work of others (Bill and Ted, John Swartzwelder, Dr. McNinja, Futurama) use time travel mostly in the service of joke telling. Which works because you’re acknowledging the inherent goofiness of the idea, and because if there’s one thing an overdone idea is still good for, it’s as a setup to a great punchline. 

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About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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