The Trouble with Time Travel

Time travel: so interesting, so popular, so often poorly done. It’s possibly the most annoying thing to work with (not the same as inter-dimensional travel, that’ll be another post altogether). It tends to be a greedy thing, trying to demand the spotlight. Writers can (and usually do) fall into a massive trap: how much do you explain? And if you don’t do it right, then you have the ire of your readers, who will complain about possible loopholes, situations you didn’t cover, or things just didn’t make sense at all.

But, on the flip side, can you really blame them? I mean, time travel is interesting, it always has been and always will be, look at the longevity of Doctor Who (which is awesome). Haven’t we all fantasised about seeing the future or the distant past at some point? Isn’t that why we have so many books set in them? However, it seems like you either have to go over-board with information, or provide as little as possible. And then there’s the question of consequences, alternate timelines, can you change what has happened, what if you get stuck, or lost? It can take over.

I think that part of the problem is that there isn’t much in the way of a common understanding for time travel, beyond that you can go to a different time, and possibly a different place. The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How are completely up to the writer, which can be as difficult as it is liberating. With most aspects of writing, even in fantasy, there are precedents and established traditions that lend themselves to the readers so they can understand, even if someone does something revolutionary, it can still be compared against what has been established and understood. We don’t get that so much with time travel, because it has been done so many different ways across many different genres and sub-genres.

Anyway, time travel can make for a very interesting story, but it can also be a trap. Writers have to be careful with what they choose to explain and what they choose to leave out. Personally, I do enjoy time travel, but it can be difficult to find it done well. I think that it’s one of those things that you really have to know the story you want to tell, and how you want it to play out and what kinds of consequences you want to focus on and how, because that can dictate how much of a role it’ll play.

Know any examples of time travel done really well or gone horribly wrong? Post them in the comments!


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