A couple of months ago, I finally got the chance to see one of the few episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” that I haven’t seen before. If anyone is curious, the episode in question is the ninth episode of season five. Anyway, since the plot of this episode revolved around the subject of time travel, I thought that I’d give you a few random tips about how to write these kinds of storylines.
Before I go any further, I should probably point out that there are obviously two types of time travel storyline – one where the characters travel into the past and one where the characters travel into the future.
The easiest types of time travel stories to write – since they don’t require historical research- are either stories where people travel into the distant future or stories where people travel back from the distant future into another part of the future.
Anyway, let’s talk about time travel:
1) Explaining the technology: Generally speaking, you don’t have to explain the time travel technology that your characters use too much.
Since the main attraction of your story is either what the distant future might look like or how your characters influence (or react to) past events, you don’t have to place too much emphasis on the actual time travel technology itself. As long as it works and has a vaguely scientific-sounding explanation, then your audience probably isn’t going to care.
Likewise, because time travel technology hasn’t been invented yet, you have a lot more creative liberty when it comes to how you depict time travel compared to, say, futuristic technology that is based on modern technology.
But, if you want to make your story more “realistic”, your time travel technology should probably be based on Einstein’s theory of relativity (?) which suggests that time slows down if you were to somehow accelerate to the speed of light – this, in effect, allows one-way time travel to a random point in the future.
However, regardless of what type of time travel technology you use, you will probably need to explain the rules of time travel in your story. For example, If your time travel device only allows one-way travel into the future, then you need to make this very clear and stick to your own rules about it.
2) Language: If you want to tell a compelling time travel story, then your depictions of either the past or the future should be at least slightly unrealistic. In other words, they should be similar enough to the present day to be easily understandable by your readers. This may sound strange, but there’s a good chance that you’ll do this without even realising it.
Take language for example – were you to travel back to medieval England, everyone would still be speaking English. However, it would be middle English rather than the language that this article is written in.
Since writing large portions of dialogue in historically-accurate middle English would probably confuse your readers, it would probably be a better idea to use a slightly old-fashioned sounding version of modern English in the dialogue.
Likewise, although I’ve written about this before, people are probably going to speak very differently in the distant future to how they speak now. Again, if this is shown too often in your story, then you’ll probably end up confusing your readers. So, stick with a slightly altered or stylised version of modern English.
3) Culture: One of the main attractions of time travel stories is seeing how people from one period in time react to the culture of another period of time.
Whether it’s the crew of the USS Enterprise making sarcastic comments about how backwards 20th century Earth was, or whether it’s this hilarious scene from “Demolition Man” where Sylvester Stallone suddenly notices that people don’t use toilet paper in the future, one of the coolest things about time travel is seeing how the characters react to it.
Cultural misunderstandings in time travel stories can obviously be a great source of comedy, but they can – of course- be used to make all sorts of serious comments about the world. Just don’t go overboard with this, since no-one wants to read a stern moral lecture about historical things that everyone already knows were bad.
Likewise, if you want to make a satirical comment about the future, then it’s usually best to do this in a subtle way. Again, I refer you to “Demolition Man” – this is a comedy/action/sci-fi movie that is set in a dystopic future where everything is (for want of a better description) ludicrously “politically correct”.
Most of the social satire in this film is done in a fairly subtle way, using background details (like machines that automatically fine you if you say anything “offensive”, like restaurants only serving healthy nutrition pills etc…) but if it had been done in a more blatant way, then the film would end up being more of a boring social tract than a funny comedy movie. So, keep your satire as subtle as possible.
4) Time Paradoxes: As anyone with even a vague familiarity with time travel fiction will know, any slight alterations to the past will cause exponentially larger alterations to the future and/or universe-endangering time paradoxes. .
This is why, in a lot of time travel stories, the characters often go to great pains not to alter anything or reveal too much about the future. But, well, this is kind of boring. After all, who wants to read a story about a group of people who visit somewhere and try to do nothing?
So, you can make these types of stories a lot more interesting by showing your characters taking a lot of effort to make sure that history plays out as it should. You can show them working in secret to ensure that historical events happen as they should. You can even show them travelling to the past to undo the damage that another time traveller has done to history.
Likewise, another approach that can work well is to show your characters trying to change history, only to find out that – despite their efforts – history remained the same. These kinds of storylines raise all sorts of interesting questions about fate and free will and they can be interesting to write (especially since you’ll have to come up with an alternative explanation for how well-known historical events happened).
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂