Time travel stories, part 2

Time Travel

Last week I covered the basics of time travel stories and why they are great for science fiction writers. This week: what not to do when writing time travel stories. Be warned, this can ruin movies and books for you, and I don’t mean by spoilers (I’ll try to play nice), but by taking your first step along the I-nitpick-movies-and-books-too-much path.

For the first part of this blog, go here.

It’s all in the rules

Every time travel story has time travel rules. Since time travel into the past is not proven science, there are various things open to interpretation. That means the writer is free to make up some of it. This gives the writer a lot of freedom. However, when a story presents rules regarding time travel, they had better be consistent throughout the story.

I feel Michael Crichton’s novel Timeline is a good example of how not to do it. The story starts with archaeologists finding a modern-day camera in a dig. Then it is established that time travel is actually travelling to a parallel dimension where time is going slower so it looks like our past. If that is so, why is the time travelling affecting the current timeline? The book is called ‘timeline’, dang it, you can’t switch gears mid-book.

Avoiding the Deus ex machina

Although time travel is generally considered a ‘science fiction’ thing, it is actually more magic than science, since we just don’t know how it works yet. This means that Sanderson’s first law from fantasy applies:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

If you substitute ‘magic’ by ‘time travel’ you’ll get where I’m going with this; if a plot hinges on the rules of time travel, the reader must understand those rules.

Doctor Who (the 2005 series, I saw a lot less of the old one) has a number of these errors in episodes. One episode stands out: the Time of the Doctor. I’ll not spoil the exact plot, but it’s a doozy. This is the end of the seventh series of the new show, and by this time they seem to have thrown any rules overboard and are just making it up as they go along. I couldn’t make heads or tails of this episode, but the kicker comes at the end, where the final plot resolution is pulled completely out of thin air. The foreshadowing for this was minimal, and I don’t think anybody exists who could understand the time travel rules of this episode. The result: deus ex machina.

This is possibly the worst of the time travel problems, and it is present in a lot of bad movies and novels.  Have a look at the final Temporal Cold War episodes from Star Trek: Enterprise for another example, or some of the other incomprehensible Dr. Who episodes.

Let’s not use time travel idiot plot

Do you know why Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure is so brilliant? Because they use time travel very smartly to go back to the past after their adventure and place helpful stuff for themselves in the past.

A lot of  science fiction tales fail to use such obvious applications of time travel. In the better ones it’s not so noticeable, but sometimes it’s a glaringly obvious case of idiot plotting.

I think Star Trek: First Contact is arguably the best Star Trek movie, but there is a troublesome flaw in the Borg’s strategy. The Borg attack Earth, then travel to the past to try to prevent First Contact so they can conquer earth in the future. Fine so far, but they are followed by the Enterprise back to the past. If I was the Borg, and I could travel back to the past, you know what I would do? Go back to the past first and then travel to Earth instead of vice versa. Would’ve worked, wouldn’t it?

Remember Harry Potter, where Hermione got time travel magic. Okay, here are some spoilers coming! So, stop reading if you mind.

Hermione used her time travel device to… mostly have extra time to study. Harry and she smartly use it to solve some problems in book three, however… why didn’t they use it to save Sirius Black in book five? And maybe Dumbledore could have used it to save himself before getting terminally magicked in book 6. And… Well, you get my drift.

Of course, it shows one of the major problems of time travel. It’s very powerful so a writer needs to devote some serious thought and words to making it workable.


Person A travels to the past, accidentally prevents important historical event X and has to restore the timeline by making sure X still happens. It’s been done. It’s been done again. It’s time not to use that one anymore.

Another one. Villian B travels to the past to conquer the world. Hero A follows B back to the past. Hero A stops B, but A falls in love with a man or woman from that time and decides to stay behind.

And of course, this one: person A travels to the past and has a grand adventure, then A causes something that is fundamental to their own life in the future, but until now they didn’t realise they had caused it themselves. The winner of this one is the ‘I am my own father’ story line.

Suffice it to say, a lot has already been done in time travel. If a writer adds some nice twist or original execution to a trope I can still enjoy it, but often as not, they just propagate more cliches.


Time travel is cool and dangerous. It’s the trenchcoat detective of science fiction: cool if given a nice twist, dull if used in cliché fashion.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands