What if I Travelled Forward in Time to Post this and it was actually the First Post in this Series?

Back to time travel and how not to wreck your story (or sound like an idiot – see the title above) if you decide to use it in your writing.

So, if your name is H.G. Wells and you are writing about time travel in 1895, you get a pass on this. Why? Because H.G. Wells was a visionary, coined the term “The Time Machine,” and essentially popularized the entire notion with that one novella. In fact, prior to that, he wrote a short story in 1888 called the “Chronic Argonauts” (no, they weren’t baked out of their minds – Chronic as in Chrono) which is the first real Time Machine story, well, ever. (There may have been some other obscure publications, but this is the most widely recognized.) Wells also wrote:  The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes – and you didn’t.

If your name is Joe Haldeman, you get a pass too. The Forever War won the Hugo and Locus awards in the 70’s and it still holds up today as one of the best science fiction works ever written. In Forever War, there is no “time machine” however. All of the time travel occurs due to the relativistic effects of travelling at near light speeds. The soldiers depart to fight an engagement with an interstellar enemy and by the time they return home, decades have passed in their absence while they have barely aged. Why does this work? Well, it is more scientifically accurate for one, but in plot terms, it works because there are rules – the Time Travel only works one way, and not for everyone. And it works because it is an elegant vehicle to push character development and be thrust into conflict at both ends of the journey.

You need these kind of ground rules. Make sure however, the rules aren’t half thought out causing your readers to harrass you mercilessly about missed opportunities.

If you allow unfettered travel in time, one way for this to potentially work is to not allow changes. Events are fixed and the best a time traveller could do is observe. Attempts to force a change always result in the normal flow of events re-establishing themselves. You can even make seemingly arbitrary rules as well – if you have the chops to make them work. Larry Niven decided Time Travel was an absurdity for instance.

There is also the “alternate streams” idea but frankly, I think it is a cop-out (as discussed in my previous article.) Sure, there is theory that supports this on a theoretical basis but for the most part it invalidates anything you may want to write. Once a story flat out tells me “this ending is just one possibility out of an infinite number of possibilities” the resolution seems, well, pointless. The fact that they travelled in time at all is also pointless. It is a rule that really isn’t a rule.

The other thing you need to do is make sure that Time Travel isn’t the “star” of your story. Your characters are the stars of your story. Things need to revolve and resolve around their actions. If time travel or the time machine is the only thing that keeps the plot moving or that fixes all the problems, you no longer have an interesting story.

Hmm…all this talk about Time Travel has me considering writing something that plays around with the concept. If that ever happens, I’ll post some drafts. Though something tells me, in some “alternate time stream” I have already written hundreds of stories about saving the whales and killing Hitler…

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2 replies

  1. Just a quick note to say that the northern VA chapter of your fan club (the ‘Legion’? 🙂 is up and running.

    Interesting thoughts on time travel stories. I guess I’d have to say I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story where people go back and forth in time that left me really satisfied in the end. Even Steven King’s recent 11/22/63 seemed like a waste at the end; his depictions of 50’s and 60’s life were so vivid as to be worth the read, but I hated that he [Spoiler alert] fell back on the ‘you can’t change the past’ trope in the end.

    However, I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of Haldeman-type stories as time travel stories, even though they surely are, as you point out. (not that I’ve read Haldeman … I’ll put him on my list … But I’ve read others along those lines.) I think if the characters are only allowed to skip forward in time, and not backward, that keeps the time travel from solving any problems, such that the characters keep the spotlight and must resolve the Conflict themselves.

    Anyway, I’m adding your blog to my Google reader. Keep ’em coming!

    • Ahhh yes, my legions are many. Most hail from the country of Spamalot and I can’t post their engaging comments due to the difficulty of translating the things they say into something resembling English.

      Yeah, the bouncing back and forth really messes with things – especially if you accept changing things throughout. Pacing becomes meaningless. I mean, I’m sure there are some genius authors that have made it work, but for the most part it sidelines too much of what telling a story is all about.

      Yeah, relativistic effects of high speed space travel aren’t a pure definition of Time Travel, but with them someone is experiencing time differently than others. In fact, stories of prophecy could be loosely related to time travel – somebody knows the future and usually that someone is trying to change it or make it happen. There is no actual travel involved, but the prophecy is something taken “out of time” in a sense.

      If you read Haldeman, make sure to seek out his short story “For White Hill”. Sci-fi romance of all things (and not romance as in J.T. Kirk womanizing or space-vampire-boys-next-door glittering) that is sublime.

      Glad to have you aboard! I’ll book your blog as well so I can keep up with the VA “relatives” 🙂

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