Time Travel Guidelines

February 18, 2019

The following are the most important guidelines to be aware of when writing time travel fiction. Some of these are hard-and-fast rules that should always be applied (Rule #1 in particular), while the rest are things you can sometimes ignore or subvert, depending on the situation. But if you're having trouble, look here for ways to improve. 

  1. BE CONSISTENT AND KNOW THE RULES - No matter what the rules of time travel are in your fiction, you have to know them, and you have to follow those rules.
  2. YOUR CHARACTERS DON'T HAVE TO - Even if you have to know all the rules, your characters don't, nor does the audience. They can be mistaken about the rules, or not know them at all. If used properly, this can provide nice drama.
    1. Unless you're dealing with interactive fiction. When your audience is also helping to craft the story, they need to understand the rules, and if you pull the rug out from under their characters/agents/whatever, you'll also be pulling the rug out from them, which will feel like a betrayal.
  3. TAKE NOTES - Take copious, copious notes. 
    1. If you're traveling to real historical times & places, do your research and get it right.
    2. Even if you're in a fictional universe, remember that everything your characters do could be important. Everything they say, anyone they interact with, could be affected in small or very large ways.
    3. If you're dealing with interactive fiction, it's probably a good idea to record your sessions.
  4. TAKE YOUR TIME -  Any time a character or characters travel through time (either forward or backward), stop and check your notes. Make sure you've got everything lined up, extrapolate answers to questions, figure out as many ramifications to changes made as possible.
    1. If you're writing a novel, end the chapter or section here.
    2. If you're writing a screenplay for a film, use this as a scene- or act-break.
    3. If it's a TV show, go to commercial.
    4. If it's interactive fiction, end the session there.

The following guidelines apply when you're dealing with any form of Variable Thread time travel:

  1. LOOK OUTSIDE - Make sure you are taking the Outsider Problem into account, and figure out a way to handle it, either within the narrative, or by using the mode of travel to mitigate it.

The following guidelines apply when you're dealing with any form of Fixed Thread time travel:

  1. USE FORESHADOWING - In Fixed Thread, effect will often precede cause.  As soon as you've figured out what your travelers do in the past, go back to that part of the narrative and seed those actions into the story. It can be subtle (a cigarette butt on the ground, an unexpectedly unlocked door), or less so (a detailed schematic of the interior of the building they're about to infiltrate in an envelop with their name on it), but it won't feel like a Fixed Thread story without these seeds.
  2. CAUSAL LOOPS, YEA OR NAY? - You'll want to be mindful of causal loops in your narrative. There aren't any hard-and-fast rules about _how_ to handle them here: You can disallow them entirely, or have a mechanic to handle them, or just go wild with it. Much like Rule #1, the rules for causal loops are up to you, but you need to know them, and you need to be consistent with them.
  3. THE TIME MACHINE ADDS TEN YEARS - Remember that your character will continue to age as they travel, so if your character travels back six months, spends a month in the past, then travels forward to the day after they left, they'll be a month older instead of a day. Most of the time this won't be perceptible, but if they travel frequently, and stay for an extended period of time, at some point their friends & family (and doctor) in the present may start to notice.