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.