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On Time Travel Yarns

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Aug. 3, 2019
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Time travel is a narrative trap. It's quicksand.

It's very alluring to use, being able to put a person from one historical era into another and watch as shenanigans ensue, but very quickly, a writer (and often the audience too) discovers that it quickly unravels, and the story collapses.

The most frequent reason for that is plot holes created by the time travel itself. From time paradoxes to time loops that the plot conveniently chooses to ignore, there is something to make your story go belly up at every corner.

You might end up with such troubling things as “why doesn't Marty's mom remember she had a crush on a guy with the same face as her son?” and “why don't you use the time turner to save Harry's parents, or stop Tom Riddle from becoming Voldemort?” and so many more.

Time travel needs an extremely well thought out plot, including interim scenes and even minute progression. Otherwise, it runs the risk of creating such questions in the minds of audiences even while they are watching (or reading) the story, which means they get thrown out of the immersion.

In my opinion time travel is the live bomb an author has to diffuse. (Yes it's apparent why I don't touch it)

There are some ways to go about it, safer ones and less safer ones that I'd like to mention. None though escape the check between ‘alternate history’ and ‘current history’, so to speak: why things are not altered enough from a past that has been altered during the story.

So one way to solve this, is to go linear with your time travel. The character(s) go forward in time. Whatever happens there, is still in the future, and doesn't affect the past. If the characters return in their normal timeline, it's still the present, and nothing will have changed.

But usually, we like time traveling into the past. That's where it gets juicy. Culture shock between older era people and our modern protagonists, the capacity to affect (or even jumpstart?) historical events, and so on.

That is where the risks are high. Because changing one thing in history, is usually a domino effect that will change more and more elements in ripple effects that are in many ways unpredictable.

So another way to solve this, is keep your character a minor element in big historical events. Make him fill in the shoes of some John Doe that was there, and let him react to things without being able to affect major (or medium) events.

Don't put him near Napoleon in a way that can dissuade him from fighting in Waterloo.

Don't make her start the great Bus Boycott in the USA.

Don't make him warn Julius Cesar that even Brutus has it in for him.

Let history flow as it already has.

Alternatively, commit to a new Alternate Reality- something like The Man in the High Castle, if it were a time travel thing.

Alternatively, if you feel you can manage it, let history veer off its normal course, only to return to its natural course by other means- if you like some determinism in your tea.

Whatever you do, work out all the details, so the little plot holes in your time travel will be so small, that nobody will notice.

Good luck! I admire your gumption :D

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anonymous?

rawdale at 9:32AM, Aug. 6, 2019

Curiously, is anyone watching Dark on Netflix? It is hands down the best exploration of time travel I have seen. it's time travel as existential horror and Greek tragedy. It does not shy away from the paradoxes that time travel could create and is phenomenal in its world building. Highly recommended.

Abt_Nihil at 7:01AM, Aug. 6, 2019

I love "Paradox Girl" (former Kickstarter-funded indie comic, now available from Image Comics), which embraces time travel paradoxes perfectly and spins them into wonderfully entertaining short stories.

bravo1102 at 3:45AM, Aug. 4, 2019

Dr. Who: the Curse of Fatal Death probably provides the best summation of time travel story conventions in less than a half hour and with Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor and Jonathan Pryce as the Master.

usedbooks at 11:19AM, Aug. 3, 2019

The best thing about involuntary time travel is that you can't just go back again and fix things. Characters still have no control over time. It has more suspense and uncertainty. If someone dies in a time machine story, it's not a big blow when you think "Meh, they'll probably fix that." Actually, a good plot device in the voluntary time machine/powers time travel is the discovery of limitations after the characters are lulled into that sense of being all powerful. Time machine no longer works. You've destroyed what makes time travel possible. You realize the act of traveling is killing you or destroying the world. You find out you can make only one trip so you can use it to fix something or go home but not both. Etc.

usedbooks at 11:14AM, Aug. 3, 2019

@bravo: True, that was a depressing story. Most of Twain's writing is. I picked him as a subject for a long-term literature project in high school. His quips stand up better, but gotta take frequent breaks when reading his novels. Premises and adaptations of his works are often really good (but they lose that unique bleak satire of his). Last season of MacGyver borrowed the Connecticut Yankee premise for an episode -- but that was a weird season.

Banes at 8:13AM, Aug. 3, 2019

The movie, I mean. Not the gif.

dpat57 at 8:13AM, Aug. 3, 2019

Present day history is the result of all the changes time influencers made in the past! But we take pictures when we're there, before we influence. Just to pass around among ourselves.

Banes at 8:13AM, Aug. 3, 2019

I love that "Scrooged" gif! We watch it every Christmas!

bravo1102 at 8:05AM, Aug. 3, 2019

"Behold the Man" by Michael Moorcock. A man travels into the past and finds out that someone is missing and he has to assume that role. In this case it's Jesus. A lot of time travel stories are actually comments on the time they were written, like Connecticut Yankee. I don't think the novel has ever been faithfully adapted because it is a pretty bleak satire of the medieval romance genre of the 19th century by that master of social commentary and satire Mark Twain with much commentary on the late 19th century. And of course Black Adder Back and Forth. Muck up history and then realize with a time machine you could do anything you wanted.

usedbooks at 4:11AM, Aug. 3, 2019

Speaking of Erased, involuntary time travel is an interesting sub-genre. If not started by then definitely brought into more popular use by A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. (Or, for future time travel, Rip van Winkle.) When a character simple finds himself in another time, it has a different flavor than using a time machine or manic powers. It almost changes it to a different genre than the sci-fi or fantasy realms time travel stories usually live in.

usedbooks at 3:50AM, Aug. 3, 2019

Oh, and Erased! One of my favorite series ever. I forgot it even used time travel. Lol. It's about a guy who sort of inexplicably finds himself reliving his childhood to catch a serial killer in the beginning of his "career" in order to prevent his mom's current-day murder. Amazingly well done, and the time travel was low-key (and involuntary).

usedbooks at 3:43AM, Aug. 3, 2019

My favorite time travel stories are the extremely limited travel dynamics. Two favorites are Stein's Gate (where the "time machine" allows only small amounts of information -- text messages, sent into the past) and Life is Strange (video game) where Max discovers she can "rewind" a few seconds at a time for instant do-overs. In the former, the discovery of time travel alone destroys humanity, basically. And time travel has to be used to stop time travel from existing. In the latter, Max's use of this power slowly destroys the fabric of the universe causing a catastrophic storm to build. When done well, time travel stories can be amazing, makes-you-thinkers. (Or you can play it tongue-in-cheek and let things go nuts, like in Futurama.) But it is a tough tool to wield correctly, so I haven't tried.


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