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  • Writer's pictureA.R. McNevin

The forever broken - Time Travel

Time travel is one of those things which many talk about but, to my mind, few understand. Yes, I am one who claims to understand. How daring of me! But, not really. Ask yourself when was the last time you saw time travel done well? There have been plenty of attempts and, for the most part, they don't work.

I should add at this point that when I say they don't work I mean they don't work based on the rules of the universe the narrative, itself, has provided. I'm not making an arbitrary judgement based on rules I've made up. I am listening to what we are being told, by the writer, as to how their version of time travel works and then, inconveniently, point out all the ways they contradict their own rules.

This is also a problem with bad magic/super-tech systems but, while the magic can be a key part of the narrative, nothing is more essential to a story than the simple matter of cause and effect.

For simplicity, time travel falls into commonly two categories. There's also a pointless third, which I'll mention so we can discard it.

  • Predestination - In this form, everything is set. Nothing the characters do will have any effect on the timeline. Their intent and actions have already been factored in. This would be the type of time travel which "works" most often because the start point of the story and the end point of the story are essentially the same. Nothing changes. The tale has been told and the characters have moved, with the audience, from the starting point of the narrative to the end point of the narrative. They may have learned something or have been killed, but whether they know it or not, they will not demonstrate any agency, they will not have changed anything in their timeline.

  • Plastic universe - In a plastic universe, things can be changed. Typically, this is focused on a very small number of character. The more characters you have jumping around in time, the quicker things fall apart, so the "better" writer will focus on one, maybe two characters. Back to the Future (Pt #1) would be a good example of this. As much as Doc Brown is a part of the story, only Marty is actually doing the time travelling. As the traveler can change things, the writer should be aware of the effect those changes have on their world; that oft referred to butterfly effect. The more changes which are made, however, the more direct effects happen and the more secondary and tertiary effects begin to happen including, but not limited to, the time traveler themselves. How can they have done a thing at that time when the future version of themselves changed the past so that the past version of the time traveler couldn't do that thing and thus could not proceed on their personal timeline to become the future time traveler. Confused?

  • Multiverse - This doesn't matter. Simply, if the story is set in a multiverse, then it can happily be ignored. If there are infinite different worlds out there, each with infinitesimal differences, then nothing the time traveler does has any consequences. Why? Because there are an infinite number of worlds generated from any change they make. They saved the world? Great. Some world out there was a) already saved, b) didn't need saving, c) the time traveler both succeeded and failed in a myriad of ways. Indeed, including a multiverse in most narratives is questionable because, if things go sideways, you may find your audience longing to see what's happening on the other side of the mirror. What was meant to be an interesting what if becomes a better prescribed world. Actually, that's a whole other discussion. Back to time travel.

So, there you have it. Two categories of time travel; the predestination and the plastic. Call them different names, but it's all the same. In the first one your characters can't change anything, in the second they can.

But, you may say, what if you have a predestination story but in the end, you have the protagonists realize that something has changed? In that case, you've been in a plastic universe all along. That your characters had virtually no agency speaks to bad writing and that, maybe, the story isn't over yet.

I can go through many examples of bad time travel narratives... please, let me, it's so much fun... but another time. Most of them are attempts at plastic universes. When dealing with predestination, it's tends to be pretty straight forward. The audience (and/or POV character) sees something vague. They only realize at (or near) the end that they saw the events they were trying to stop play out in those vague memories/visions/dreams. They did nothing because they could do nothing to stop it.

The reason why so many plastic time travel stories go badly is two fold; a) they are fudging with a fundamental element of story telling and b) that they end up trying to subvert the audience's expectation by adding in one or two "discoveries" or "reveals" which the audience could never predict because they were outside of the accepted rules that they (themselves) stated.

While a lot can be said about the second part, I'd like to finish this particular diatribe with discussion about the first. The fundamental nature of the narrative.

In the most simplest of terms, by using time travel in your narrative, by using in a way that allows for change (plastic universe), then then it is virtually impossible to account for all the changes that the characters make. Murder and mayhem will make clear changes to the timeline, but what about a single word or a gesture. These can change someone's lives forever. This is especially true if, in the narrative, the writer uses something as simple as a conversation to change someone's mind, to convince them of the wrongness of their cause or set them on a different course.

I'd almost say time travel can't work because it's just too complicated.

While trying to do this near impossibility, the writer must also remember to tell a compelling tale. This can be a problem, because it's goddamned hard to do. In the normal run of a narrative, the writer chooses when to reveal both questions and the answers to those questions. In a time travel narrative, information is being passed backwards down the timeline of the narrative to be revealed perhaps before the question is introduced to the characters or before the answer was first provided, thus upsetting the answer-question-answer process.

The technical term for this is "boot-strapping", when information is passed to a point before it was otherwise created. It can be the meat for some interesting stories BUT... the writer must then figure out all the different combinations and permutations of the result of that information being introduced sooner.

Take a classic Agatha Christie murder/mystery. Part of the narrative involves a number of characters having moments of catharsis, shame or similar as their secrets are revealed. The affair is exposed, the illegitimate child is acknowledged, the love is expressed and the murderer is caught. Without that process to find the murderer, none of the rest of those reveals are made... in that way. So if the identity of the murderer is bootstrapped back to the start of the narrative, the entire sequence of events changes.

A new timeline results in a new narrative.

The problem with telling this story is that the audience already knows the answers. They already know the deepest secrets of the characters so you end up waiting for the characters to catch up. The audience invariably starts tearing their hair out as they demand the characters realize what the previous timeline told them.

And we haven't even mentioned the elephant in the room; the process. A time travel narrative,. by its very nature, requires a process for time travel. If the story isn't specifically about that process, or about the results from that process, then it becomes this unwelcome guest at the dinner party drawing everyone's attention.

Something to return to... at another time?

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