Time travel in stories are one of those things where if it’s misused it can be detrimental to the story. I compiled some guidelines for using time travel. I say guidelines and not rules because there should be no rules for anything in regards to story. You can make anything work based on context and presentation.
Clearly defined rules of the time travel
Minimal plot holes and time paradoxes
Easy for audience to follow events taking place (when you need a flow chart you are in trouble)
Time travel serves the story, not the other way around (doesn’t distract)
Exposition of the time travel doesn’t stop the story (for long)
None (or very few) unanswered questions
Many of these feed and relate to each other. I will go through each of these points and give some examples of media that I think use it right and ones that use it incorrectly. Here are some examples I will use. If you are sensitive to spoilers and haven’t watched these then avoid reading further.
Possible spoilers for:
Girl who leapt through time
Steins; gate 0
Back to the future
Ground hog day
The Butterfly Effect
1. Clearly defined rules of the time travel
This means: What are the rules of your time travel? What can and cannot happen? How does it happen? How far back in time or in the future will your time travel take place?
Click is an example of clear rules. He presses the rewind button and it rewinds time. Press pause, and time is paused. Simple. Clear. This is also the advantage of taking a real-world object of a remote control which most people are familiar with.
An example of unclear rules is Girl who leapt through time. It is not clear how far a leap will take her back in time. Larger leaps will take her further back in time? I think. The concept is straight forward it is just that aspect of it that is not clear. However, it’s not distracting from the story, so you can ignore this aspect pretty easily. What I gathered was that the further the jump the further back you travel. That may be wrong but that is my assumption based on the movie.
Another example of unclear rules is the Butterfly Effect. He reads from his old journal or looks a picture and therefore he can travel back in time… Why? How? Time travel mechanics are more of an afterthought and you are just expected to go along with it. I can accept this because they are trying to tell a story and the time travel mechanics are inconsequential. Not what I would recommend in studying time travel for your story.
2. Minimal plot holes and time paradoxes
There is an inherit problem with time travel. That is the mess that become of events that should happen when you travel back in time. Alot of cause and effect problems. The biggest trap of time travel is time paradoxes. Most famous of these is the grandfather paradox. If you can travel back in time it would allow you to kill your own grandfather. If do that how can you still exist?
Terminator 1 doesn’t exactly make sense when you think about it. How is the person sent from future the father of John Connor? How could he be the original father in the first place? John Connor sent his father back in time? Who sent him back in time if John Connor didn’t exist in the first place? Doesn’t make sense. Terminator 2 on the other hand is simple and straightforward. 2 robots go back in time and events play out.
Interstellar also has this problem. I probably shouldn’t get started on this but it has the a similar problem to Terminator 1.
Groundhog day has no plot holes or paradoxes. The same day just replays. That’s it. It’s simple so the audience doesn’t need to think much about it and can concentrate on the story.
I know you have asked this question. ‘(Event A) should not have been able to happen! That doesn’t make sense!’. Try to think about those sort of questions with your story. Look and nit pick it to make sure nothing is out of place.
3. Easy for audience to follow events taking place (when you need a flow chart you are in trouble)
This comes back to clearly to clearly defined rules. However, your rules may be simple but if there are too many rules it can be hard to follow the who, what, where, when and why. Also, this relates to the actual time travel itself and how much it is used in the story. For instance, if the main character makes 5 time travel trips in the space of 10 minutes of the run-time it can be hard to keep track for the audience.
A good example is Steins; Gate and a bad example is Steins; Gate 0. In Steins; Gate the main character does the same time loop over and over in one episode, but it is easy to follow because he goes back to the same starting point every time and consequences of every time loop is erased. In the overall plot there is 2 distinct anchor points where timelines diverge. You can follow that because it gives you the event that takes place at those anchors. Events further diverge the timeline, but they are undone later on so there is less to keep track of. In the show we are given 3 main timelines. The majority of it focuses on 2 of them. In Steins; Gate 0, the follow up to Steins; Gate, makes things a little harder to track. It has timeline changes without letting you know how or who changed them which is only revealed later. Time travel is used alot more freely and gave me a headache at times. Also, the plot of Stiens; Gate 0 takes place over 20-30 years, I want to say, so there is a lot of time to consider. While the original Steins; Gate was only set over a few months.
4. Time travel serves the story, not the other way around (doesn’t distract)
You can use time travel to send the protagonist of a journey of isolation and growth. That is what I find it’s best used for in stories. Use it to tell the story you want. Making a time travel idea you really think is cool and then thinking of a story you care less about is a recipe for disaster.
Kinds of time travel stories:
1 Trip to future/past - fish out of water scenario (eg. the black knight, the time machine)
A time loop – personal hell there is no escape from unless the protagonist learns and grows from the experience. (Groundhog Day)
Multiple trips to future/present/past (main character controls) (eg. Back to the future)
Some stories will have a mix of these.
What time travel is good for:
Isolate main character
Telling personal stories
Traps main character (forces change)
Puts characters out of there comfort zone
5. Exposition of the time travel does not stop the story (for long)
Show don’t tell. This is doesn’t mean show the time travel and rules silently. It means explaining it in sync with the story itself. If you need to stop the story to give exposition on how the time travel works make sure it is not too long, otherwise you will bore the audience and possibly turning the audience against you. Dress and jazz, it up to keep the audience’s attention. Have it as part of conflict or complication. Have a motivation to it and you will keep the audience engaged.
6. No (or very few) unanswered questions
I am far more lenient on this one. Sometimes they are just unavoidable. If those questions are inconsequential and not distracting, then you are fine. What you don’t want though is people finishing your tv show/movie/game and having a dozen of questions. You don’t want to make people annoyed with your lack of attention to detail.
Time travel stories are very appealing because everyone has had thoughts of ‘what if’ or ‘I could have done this better’. They are universal thoughts. Exploring these many possibilities is therefore interesting to most people. I personally really enjoy movies and shows that explore this because the possibilities are endless. I would encourage more media use it but use it wisely. Think about the details because that attention to detail can elevate your story from good to great.