The Philosophy of Time Travel Fiction


Hey-o, I’m back again with another post discussing and disseminating genre into easy to understand concepts! You guys seem to like it, so I’m going to keep doing it until either A) You guys get tired of it or B) I run out of genres.

So today, we’re going to talk about one of the trickiest to write but most rewarding of genres (if done well): Time travel.

Time travel is  unique in that unlike other genres that have pretty clear rules, it actually has very few. Because of the distinct lack of rules, it often makes it incredibly difficult for people to start writing, because they don’t know where and when they’re messing it up outside of typical character development.

I’m going to help you today by bringing in that common theme that keeps popping up in these posts: People. One of the unique features of time travel narrative is that it is a universal language among all people: Almost everyone wishes they had advance knowledge of events, or had an opportunity to go back and do something over again.

Time travel narrative has THREE STEADFAST RULES about how they START, and they are all tied into human behavior. You can choose one, or two, or even all three to use. Regardless, at LEAST one of them will rear its head in your narrative, and they are the following:

  • Regret: “I wish that could be done over…” or “If I had only…”
  • Curiosity: “I wonder what this is like…”
  • Deterrence: “I have to make sure that this doesn’t happen.”

These are the only three rules that are potential absolutes in Time Travel fiction. Curiosity is the simplest form of time travel to tackle in fiction, because it needs no other justification than human curiosity itself. Interestingly enough, having Regret as the “starter” is almost exclusively used in the past tense (after all, one cannot regret an event that has not yet taken place), and Deterrence being the starter is used exclusively in the future tense (since one cannot take measures to prevent an event that has ALREADY HAPPENED in the past; trying to change something that has already passed would be Regret)! However, ONE CAN BE USED TO JUSTIFY THE OTHER.  Let’s take a look at a few well known examples of these rules below:

Back to the Future (Curiosity)

Terminator 2 (Deterrence)

Frequency (Regret)

Once you start mixing these three rules together, you get all sorts of fun and rewarding time travel fiction:

Donnie Darko: Deterrence AND Regret

12 Monkeys: Regret AND Curiosity

Chrono Trigger: Deterrence, Regret, AND Curiosity!

You’ll notice in these multi-cause examples, that each of them are considered some of the “best in class” of time travel fiction, and with good reason. Pulling off multiple time travel reasons in one piece of narrative is a fairly tricky maneuver, but doing it well is almost certain to be memorable!

Now, here’s where things start to get fun with time travel: Time travel isn’t necessarily limited to people. Almost ANYTHING can travel through time in these stories, from objects to even  ABSTRACT INFORMATION. If you’ll notice, there are quite a few examples of fiction where no person actually traverses the time lines, but they will glean important information from a time long past that was forgotten, or acquire knowledge from a time ahead of them and this will drive the story forward. Let’s take a look at two examples below in detail:

Frequency: Exchanging Information in Time

In Frequency, John Sullivan is able to communicate to his father Frank Sullivan by way of ham radio 30 years in the past concerning the details of his death and how to prevent it. INFORMATION from the future traveled backwards in time for the benefit of the Past, Present, and Future. Later on, Frank Sullivan will move an important object in the past to a location where it won’t be disturbed for 30 years so that John Sullivan can find it in the present. Important INFORMATION was relocated in the Past in order to benefit the Present and Future.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; Observing information that has vanished so that it can be utilized again.

In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the protagonist of the game lacks a specific dragon shout needed in order to prevent Alduin, the World-Eater dragon from destroying the world in an upcoming apocalyptic event. However, the Shout itself is lost to the annals of time. The protagonist will use the titular Elder Scroll to look INTO THE PAST in order to learn the dragon shout needed to fight Alduin at the time of its creation. The INFORMATION traveled through time by way of the observer, the player character, back into the present day.

At no point did any person travel through time in those two examples, but something DID, and it has a similar effect as if someone HAD. Information is a powerful, flexible narrative device!

So as you can see, the rules of time travel fiction although few in number, are very fast and incredibly loose. Because of the open nature of the genre there are basically infinite directions you can go with it, depending on how clever you are. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the genre, but it’s a good base to help you START WRITING from.

~Oliver

7 comments

    1. I think the genre itself is lovely, and has immense amounts of promise and potential. It’s also the most frustrating, as an audience, to consume. I really love it when it’s done well, though. It can teach you so much. I hope your project goes well. Will you keep us updated?

    2. Thank you.

      Also bear in mind (I didn’t bother to get into it in this post, thought it was going to get a little too heavy), but parallel worlds can ALSO be considered a form of Time Travel, when boiled down to its basics.

      A parallel world falls into the Regret category of “If only this had happened…” Simply put, that parallel world is merely that thought, manifest into a separate branch of time! Something to keep in mind, for sure.

      Another good thing for you to look at when you start getting into the higher complexities of your plot, is to look at time paradoxes. There are a great many problems that make time travel a difficult genre to write in, but if you take a look at this (along with the lists at the bottom) you can be prepared before you encounter them.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_travel_paradox

  1. This is a pretty interesting topic and I’ve enjoyed reading your post. You’ve given me something to think about the next time I pick up a time travel book. (Which will probably end up being the new Stephen King novel in all probability.)

  2. I like your theme and I, generally, hate time travel stories. Most often it is done poorly and with predictable results/endings. You might take a look at Forever War by Halderman. It’s a different twist on time travel.

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