time travel in writing

We Are All Sci-Fi Writers: Making Use of Time Travel in Writing

As a writer of speculative fiction, I’m wary of time travel as a narrative tool. It occupies this strange place where it somehow both makes things easier and makes things more complicated.

Take Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I love the “time turner” sequence. It does a great job of resolving the major conflicts of that novel in a clever, clean, and satisfying manner. It answers surface-level questions like “why is Hermione so stressed throughout this book?” and thematic questions like “how much is Harry truly like his father?” But it raises many practical questions for readers that detract from the overall experience. Why can’t Dumbledore just time travel back to when he first met Voldemort and kill him there? If an underage witch like Hermione is given the power of time travel, then shouldn’t it be easy for villains to get their hands on that magic and use it for terrible purposes? In the end it raises more questions than it answers.

For this reason, I find the cons outweigh the pros, so I refuse to allow myself to touch the time-travel trope until I feel I’m a far better writer than I am. However, while I was contemplating the topic, I realized something: all writers—not just speculative fiction writers—use time travel in writing, and they use it constantly.

Four Types of Time Travel All Writers Use

Consider these examples:

1. The Flashback

Flashbacks are a time-travel narrative tool used by writers of all genres. They frequently involve bringing the reader on a time-travel adventure. A total third-person narrative flashback often feels as if we have been dropped off in a totally different world and are witnessing it against the laws of nature.

2. The Memory

A memory scene counts as a flashback, but it differs in that it involves both the character and the reader traveling back in time. In this way, our view of the past event is affected by the emotions and biases of the character, but we still get that “time travel” experience.

3. The Fractured Narrative

Whenever we choose to avoid a linear narrative structure, we are playing with time. If we jump from different moments in time and space to structure our narrative thematically rather than sequentially, then we are time traveling.

4. The Narrative Aside

Sometimes, even just one line from the author can break the rules of linear narration. For example: “And that was the last time she ever saw him.” Throwing lines like that into the narrative allows the author to create drama, but also reinforces the control the author has over the narrative. In essence, the author is telling the reader, “I am the master of time in this book. I know the past, present, and future, and I can give you any one at any time.”

How to Use Time Travel to Enhance Any Story

So we are all time travel writers in a sense. The point of this post, however, isn’t just to make you realize something about the writing you already do; the point is not to read this, think about our writing, and say, “Well isn’t that neat-o. I do use time travel a lot!” The point is to become more conscious of what being a time-travel writer means and to use that awareness to enhance your craft.

Here are some specific tips on how to do just that:

1. Use the Butterfly Effect

In time travel terms, the butterfly effect refers to how one small change made in the past can have monumental consequences for the future. Often, flashbacks are too one-note. A typical flashback might show something from a villain’s past, the obvious point of which is to get readers to say, “Huh, I understand why he is the way he is.” But what if a number of small details about that flashback could get readers to reevaluate more than just the villain’s essential nature? Allow flashbacks to play with the butterfly effect. Rather than using one main scene to force us to recognize one major character development, let multiple small details from the flashback continually pop up in relevant ways.

2. Remember, the Past is Unstable Too

The butterfly effect shows how the past changes the unstable present, but our experience of the past is also unstable. If the past can be changed, then the past is not set in stone. Don’t let flashbacks show the one and eternal past that has occurred. Use flashbacks to show different perspectives on the past. Purposely play with readers’ expectations of stability. Perhaps that one flashback to the villain’s past makes readers more sympathetic to him, but what if that same scene, shown from a different perspective, can make readers feel even more opposed to him? Never pretend the backstory is more straightforward and simplistic than your present-time narrative.

3. Don’t Be Cheap

As I said at the beginning, time travel can be annoying because it feels like cheating. Well, there is a reason it feels like cheating. The reason is that it is cheating.

Likewise, it’s also cheating if you only use flashbacks to reveal secrets that everyone but your reader already knows about. If flashbacks and nonlinear narrative structures only serve to provide you with a way to keep your reader in the dark, so you can surprise them later, then you’re just playing mind games and not necessarily telling a story. Moments of time travel in writing should add texture and complexity to the narrative. If they’re just information dumps of plot points you’ve withheld from readers, then you are using your time powers ineffectively. Make moments of time travel part of the story, not departures from it.

Tell me your opinion: How do you use time travel, as defined in this post, in your work-in-progress?

time travel in writing

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About L.B. Gale | @lbgale

L.B. Gale received her Master’s degree from the University of Chicago, where she studied literary theory, fantasy and mythology. She currently lives in New York. A good deal of her time is spent blogging about speculative fiction and the fantasy writing process. You can access her blog and find her on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Alberto Leal says:

    As a big fan of Doctor Who, I have to say I enjoyed this article. I’m a novice writer so my timeline is very straight forward. But I admit that, more through accident than by design, I have two main events happening at the same time only to overlap at the end of the chapter. I will however try to be more sophisticated in my story by playing with time a little. Even I as a reader, it makes things more interesting when I come across it in a book.

    • It may be that this level of planning works best on a second draft. I might let the first draft develop organically and then think over how to toy with these issues when polishing further revisions.

  2. Thrilled to be here today. Thanks K.M.!

  3. All of the above, though I’ve never thought of them as time-travel before. Lol. Interesting and yes, true. I like the butterfly effect and showing a ripple in the pond having more power than one thinks.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, L.B.!

  5. Wow! Thanks so much for sharing all this. The point that really popped out at me was the idea of playing with the reader’s idea of stability. I can see it adding depth to my writing-and also providing plenty of mind-bending food for thought in just how to do it. :-)

    • Glad it can help add depth. I do think it is *fun* to do as well, which is what makes it useful. It adds depth, and for the writer, it adds a bit of playfulness to the process. There’s no event I know from my past or any other person’s past that can be explained with authority; why should books get away with it so easily?

  6. What an amazing post! Thank you! I never thought about it this way but now I will :D

  7. I’m also determined to write a time travel novel when I grow up. Especially from a biblical standpoint. I imagine the possibilities of a God who sees time the way we see space–simply another dimension that He has full control over. But I need a bit of practice first as well. I love the methods employed by clever writers who use “time travel” to give the reader a taste of what’s to come. I see it a lot on TV shows now, too. Southland, my favorite cop show, always started with a glimpse of a scene that wouldn’t take place until late in the show. After that, you couldn’t just walk away. Breaking Bad showed the same scene at the beginning of each episode, adding just one or two more details. You didn’t find out what was going on until the season finale. So they managed to hook you for the entire season. Dear Lord, we have to know why a charred Teddy Bear is in the swimming pool!

    Thanks for the post. Good info.

  8. Stephen King does flashbacks nicely, I think. Lisey’s Story, in particular, features major flashbacks that serve to reveal not just backstory, but major plot points.

    In general, the way he segues into flashbacks – usually be repeating the sentence and staggering the placement of words – is also an effective way of making sure the reader knows where they are in the story.

  9. The detective/mystery story is time travel. The crime solver starts at the end of the crime and through clues and deductions travels back in time to the murder itself as well as back to the original motive of the killer.

  10. LB,

    Good read. I just happened across your article from my Twitter feed, and I’m glad that I did. I enjoyed it, especially the point that you make about the “unstable past.” I agree that it is best to allow for multiple perspectives on something that has already occurred from different characters so that the reader is left with the ultimate decision regarding the interpretation. Nobody likes to be force-fed, especially savvy readers, and sharing history through different lenses opens things up. This is an approach that I am employing with the novel that I am writing.

    Thanks so much for your work! Looking forward to reading more!

    Sincerely,

    Jeremy
    @CYLeadership
    createyourleadership.com

  11. Larry Niven had one of the best lines ever about a time machine, ‘the promise of a time machine to fix tragic mistakes…’!
    Nostalgia, regret and to be a participant in things blocked by the past or outpacing by the future.
    Wells was right, we are prisoners in the 4th Dimension.

    It may turn out that time is just another form of geography?

    Through an imaginary viewpoint of a story, we as readers get to go on the most exciting, yet potentially dangerous trips possible.

    1 trillion years hence, this Universe may become dead… time machines might be the last refuge of desperate natives?

    None of this deals with writing style, but poorly played time travel fiction is no different than anything else that is produced badly.
    Is there actually someone who can top H.G. Wells for originality?

    Its been over a hundred years, and frankly the most original was ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ as a musical in 1949.

    You could count ‘The 3 Stooges meet Hercules.’

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  1. […] As a writer of speculative fiction, I’m wary of time travel as a narrative tool. It occupies this strange place where it somehow both makes things easier and makes things more complicated. However, while I was contemplating the topic, I realized something: all writers—not just speculative fiction writers—use time travel in writing, and they use it constantly.  […]

  2. […] Catch me over at K.M. Weiland’s blog for a post on time travel and writing. […]

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