Time travel is a widely used trope in literature, kickstarted by H.G. Wells in 1895 (yikes!) when he published his now-famous novel, The Time Machine. Granted, when I read the novel it didn’t seem too compelling, but it introduced an idea into literature that hadn’t been thought of before: what if you could visit future realms by help of a machine?
Since then, the idea has been played with and evolved (heh heh, see what I did there) into something more complicated than traveling into the future and observing the future effects of evolution. Oftentimes, it doesn’t even utilize a machine. Sometimes it’s performed by magic. Sometimes it’s done by accessing a weird, otherworldly realm.
But there’s a lot of middle ground when it comes to time traveling. Not unlike Tolkien and high fantasy, Wells’ time travel has influenced many other aspects of literature: anything from Star Wars: Rebels to Back to the Future. There may be major differences between methods of time travel, and they’re as different from each other as Lord of the Rings is from Mistborn. But that middle ground in time travel is worth addressing.
First of all: time travel is a largely enigmatic science, even to those performing it. Maybe you can mention something about “Interdimensional Magic Quantum Gravitic Wormhole Theory” but trying to explain what that means to the reader is a fool’s errand. Keep it as mysterious for the performers as it is for the reader.
Allude to important details and aspects of the time travel (which I’ll explain in a minute) but don’t fall into the same trap as Wells: explaining your science as if it were real science. Brandon Sanderson treats systems of technology like systems of magic, albeit usually systems of hard magic. It has rules, regulations, and limitations–but narratively, it functions the same way magic does. And like magic, the readers are never going to fully understand your science, so refrain from trying to explain time travel in its entirety. Just throw in a bunch of scientific-y sounding words and tell the reader what things do.
One unnecessary limitation that a lot of writers put on themselves is the tendency to feel compelled tp write time travel as the result of technology in a postmodern or futuristic world. Let me make one thing absolutely clear: time travel outside of the traditional time machine is usually more interesting than including it.
Here’s the deal: the time machine is a bit overused. What about time travel in a fantasy world with magic? What about a rift in the universe that allows people to time travel? What about some other mechanism whereby people travel through time? The old “sit in a machine and it carries you back in time” has since become pathetic. People have come up with more original ideas: a time-traveling car (Back to the Future) a treehouse (Magic Treehouse series) heck, even an erratically time-traveling dude (The Time Traveler’s Wife), but that just goes to show that a more unconventional approach to time travel is more interesting than the stereotyped one.
Secondly: (it feels a bit more than secondly, but whatever) establish the rules to your time travel early on. Sometimes this is the selling point for your story: is Jack going to overwrite his past and be trapped in 1987 forever? Is there a possibility to create a paradox? Might you create infinite copies of yourself if you did the wrong thing? Does the hero accidentally wreck the economy by buying a candy bar when he wasn’t supposed to?
You see, time travel is nothing without rules. Can or can you not change the past? Will the universe correct paradoxes or prevent them from happening? Will paradoxes simply make the universe explode? These are common questions that pop up in time travel stories, and you should try to answer them in interesting ways. For example, Time itself has “agents” who hunt time travelers down to prevent paradoxes. This is similar to the plot of Loki, where the TVA is a group of “time cops” who stop people from going outside their set destiny within time. (Loki is a great show and I’d definitely recommend it; I’m eagerly awaiting season 2!)
And lastly, I’m going to give you a rule of thumb: put your own spin on everything. There are enough generic, boring time travel stories as it is. Take pride in your system of rules. Do things with elements of time travel that others do not, specifically addressing paradoxes, method, setting, time, and limitations.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!