I received a request on my last post about time travel for some more specific tips on how to write it well. As such, here are some things I think it is vital to remember.
1. The story is almost certainly not about time travel. Unless you sign your cheques ‘H.G.Wells’ the odds are that the time has passed when merely having a trip through time in your story is enough. The story is going to be about the usual elements of character growth and development, with time travel merely as a device.
2. Consider plotting out your story with as little time travel as possible, and then adding it in. This probably sounds strange, but it ensures you get a coherent story that plays in the right order, which is something time travel stories often have trouble with.
3. As a wider thought on that theme, treat time travel principally as a way of accessing interesting locations and characters for your story, rather than as a vital component of your plot. If you put together a perfectly ordinary ‘heroic journey’ type plot and it just happens to involve wandering through ancient Rome, the English Civil War and last Tuesday, that is a good thing.
4. On the character front, many of the interesting time travel stories I’ve read/seen simply drop a character from a different time into the story, then take away the time travel. Think of the Terminator films for a famous example. Those plots play out in linear time, just with characters from the future, and a motivation based on the future.
5. Observation is better than action. Don’t get me wrong, your character has to do things, but plots get very confusing when they start doing things that make it impossible for them to have been born, or start supplying themselves with clues from the future. What Wells did was more of an occasion for sharply observed social commentary, and probably makes more sense.
6. Avoid circularity. If your hero is doing something because they went back into the past to tell themselves to do it, then ask yourself why they went back into the past to tell themselves to do it. If the answer is ‘because at the start of the story they went back into the past to tell themselves to do it’ you have a problem. And possibly a headache.
7. Make your terms of reference clear. What can time travel do? What can’t it do? Let your readers know early, so that this stuff obeys some sort of rules, and isn’t just ‘oh, the author’s looking for a way out’
8. Finally (or, this being time travel, to begin with) avoid the typical time travel ending. They get to the end, go back, and make it so nothing ever happened. Or everything’s all right. Why not just say that it was all a dream while you’re at it?