I’ve had a really bad day or so, and it’s mucked with my creative writing muse. However, I have been exploring possibilities with Witchfire as I mentioned before. I bounced the ideas off of Deanna Troi, who I was collaborating with for a while. It came up in the conversation that time travel is seen by some as a weak plot device that’s used when an author is out of ideas and wants an easy fix. Given as this is supposed to be a writing blog, I thought we could explore the idea here.
Bruce Lee once said there’s no such thing as a bad technique, only a bad time to use it. This is true of any tool. Some are specialty items that will get used on rare occasion, some get used constantly. I view time travel as one of those rarely used specialty tools.
Time travel as a plot device gets a bad rep because it’s been abused by writers, with some specific stories getting used over and over until they’ve become cliche. I can even tell my readers where this all first started; X-Men #142 in February of 1980:
This issue was the start of the ubiquitous time traveler from the future coming back to the present to prevent their future from occurring. In this issue, we find out Senator Robert Kelly had been assassinated by Mutants, leading to mutants being declared a public danger, hunted by the government and either killed or put into concentration camps. Sound familiar, movie fans?
This is also where the cliche of the time traveler being the child of two current protagonists comes from. The X-Man sent back in time was Rachel Summers; daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey. And for once, a comic book cover didn’t lie about everybody dying also. The time traveling child gimmick was even used in the most recent season of CW Network’s “The Flash”, with Barry and Iris’s daughter coming to the past to try to prevent Barry from disappearing in the (upcoming) Crisis on Infinite Earths.
History lesson aside, what’s the right way to use time travel? First, it has to fit the genre. If you’re writing a regular romance story (vs a paranormal or fantasy setting one), the only way “time travel” would likely work is as a dream sequence. Something along the lines of the movie Peggy Sue Got Married. If you’re dealing with a world with powerful magic, advanced science, or metahuman powers, time travel becomes more feasible. It can work in other genres, but you need something very creative to establish suspension of disbelief in your readers.
Suspension of disbelief is key to ANY plot device. Does what’s happening feel real within the context of the story and it’s reality?
Using time travel too cheaply does weaken that suspension of disbelief also. Remember what I said about it properly being a rarely used tool? I think sometimes authors are afraid to make their characters work their way out of a situation or deal with consequences of actions that the author didn’t think out. Other times, an author wants to create an “epic” storyline and tries to come up with the most dramatic situation possible. I’ve written before about the failings of the constantly bigger villain or disaster as ongoing stories. It’s caused Marvel and DC to reboot their universes more than once.
Long story short, think about the likely long term consequences in your story’s world for anything you write, even if you’re a wing it kind of writer. Also, make sure you’ve got a good reason for your characters to muck with the time stream beyond “I want an epic cool story”. If that’s your only reason, what will you do for an encore?
Use time travel as a last resort or for a well thought out story. Readers will appreciate a well thought out solution where characters fight through a problem more than another time jump to fix this week’s mess. The 80s cartoon Silverhawks literally got that bad too. They introduced a team member named ‘Flashback‘ whose cybernetics let him time jump. Every time the Silverhawks got in over their head after that… *poof* Mistakes corrected.
Also, if you want to add a bit of “realism” to it, consider some unintended consequences to the characters’ actions too; fallout and secondary unintended changes. Aside from the old problem of parallel universes, there’s a Taoist theory that the universe seeks balance. Heroes rise to challenge villains, and attempts to change the time stream may result it the universe seeking to rebalance itself in interesting ways.
The last problem with time travel is the cliche factor. You want your readers to be on the edge of their seat. If they yawn and say been there, done that… you’re doing it wrong. Star Trek, for example, has done a pretty good job with it’s time travel stories over the decades. The only ones I found grating were the trapped in a time loop episodes. Don’t do the time traveling child trying to change the future thing unless you can put such a unique spin on it that it’s barely recognized as copying the X-Men template. Instead, think more along the lines of Star Trek 4 or Star Trek: First Contact.