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Time Travel Tropes. Time Travel Tropes. Time Travel Tropes…

Updated: Apr 15

(Get it? Stuck in a loop?...)

Time travel is a staple of many science fiction stories and rears its head though less frequently in fantasy as well. Today I want to talk about this writing mechanic and a few of its problems, frequently used components and how to do it well.

There are no shortages of amazing time travel books.

-          The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

-          The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov

-          The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

-          11/22/63, by Stephen King

It’s a well used plot device with a lot going for it, but there are huge stumbling blocks too. The first two issue is want to jump right into are straight forward:

Step through the door of time

1)      Paradoxes and Logical Inconsistencies: Time travel stories can easily fall into the trap of creating paradoxes or logical inconsistencies that strain the audience's suspension of disbelief. As writers we must carefully construct narratives to ensure that the rules of time travel remain consistent and plausible within the story's universe. The reason this is hard is because we have no examples to go by! We have never time traveled backwards in time, or forward in big jumps. (Time naturally passing excluded of course!)

2)      Complexity and Confusion: Time travel plots can quickly become convoluted and difficult to follow, especially when dealing with multiple timelines, alternate realities, or paradoxes. Keeping track of the various timelines and their interconnected events can be challenging for both writers and readers/viewers.

3)      Lack of Stakes or Tension: In stories where time travel allows characters to undo mistakes or alter events at will, the sense of stakes and tension can be diminished. If there are no meaningful consequences to the characters' actions, the story may lack emotional impact and dramatic tension. It becomes very hard to increase the plot tension through the novel.


Some solutions to the first two items are the same. Write your rules, keep them close at hand when you write and refer to them often. Take your time before you start your actual writing. I strongly recommend an outline in the case of a time travel book, with threads clearly laid out so that you can follow them unequivocally. Hammer on those rules and make sure at each twist that you have not broken another rule by accident. You might find you need to write down more specific rules, or slightly different rules to achieve the world you want.

Lack of stakes is addressed differently. Like all superheroes or high magic problems where the answer is “because magic,” to avoid “Because time travel,” put limitations on the time travel. Make them rather extreme. In fact, the more extreme the better. They can still travel through time, and that makes them an unbelievably powerful person, but the more difficult it is to do, the more creative your characters need to be to use this amazing skill to solve real problems without the easy snap of a finger. It will make them and the tale more interesting.

Remember the genre is well trodden. Some of the biggest examples of time travel stories can be lumped into just four buckets.

1) The Grandfather Paradox: This classic trope involves a time traveler going back in time and inadvertently changing something that prevents their own existence, such as preventing their grandparents from meeting. This creates a paradox - if they were never born, how could they go back in time to prevent their own birth? I would advise against this one entirely. This has been done to death as has most of the ways out of it.

2) Butterfly Effect: Inspired by chaos theory, this trope suggests that even small changes in the past can have significant and unpredictable effects on the present and future. A time traveler might make seemingly innocuous alterations to the past, only to return to a drastically different present. This I believe is one of the standard tropes which still has a lot of mileage left in it to explore but be aware it has been done.  

3) Fixed Timeline vs. Mutable Timeline: In some stories, the timeline is immutable, meaning that events in the past cannot be changed and any attempt to do so is futile or leads to predetermined outcomes. In others, the timeline is mutable, allowing characters to alter the past and create new timelines or alternate realities. You will have to decide in your rules which you are dealing with, and then which you will tell the reader they are looking at. Sometimes writers fib too! They make it look like time is mutable, but then the book fulfills the old axiom, that we often meet our fate on the road we take to avoid it.

4) The Time Loop: This trope involves characters being trapped in a repeating cycle of events, often unaware that they are reliving the same period of time over and over again. Groundhog Day is a famous example of this trope. This is also well used ground and hard to do well. Remember that the investment here must be in the character development and how they grow through the loops to avoid boredom.


Whatever you choose to do, always remember that writers write, so go get writing.

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  George Santayana

“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” ― Sara Shepard

“Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” ― Edmund Burke

“Those unable to catalog the past are doomed to repeat it.” ― Lemony Snicket, The End

“He who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it.” ― Paul Christopher, The Lucifer Gospel

“He who doesn't understand history is doomed to repeat it.” ― Pittacus Lore, I Am Number Four

“It's been my experience, Langford, that the past always has a way of returning. Those who don't learn, or can't remember it, are doomed to repeat it.” ― Steve Berry, The Charlemagne Pursuit

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