Monday, 3 February 2014

The Perils of Plotting a Time Travel Novel, an article by Tim C. Taylor

One of the great fantasies in fiction is to travel into the past to experience what it might have been like to live in historical worlds that we see only in history books, or to travel the other direction into the future. In most cases, authors and scriptwriters present these fantasies by simply setting the entire story in this other time: hence historical dramas and futuristic science fiction. But there’s another way to present this fantasy, and that is to have your characters travel into the past or the future, usually starting their journey from a setting in today’s world.

Welcome to the time travel novel!

In 2012 I published a series of time travel novels called The Reality War. In this post, I’ll share some of my experiences because plotting a time travel novel isn’t always as simple as it looks.

A brief history of time travel
Most commonly the writer sets up most or all of these time-traveling characters to come from the present day so that we, the reader, identify with them. As the characters marvel at the wonders these other times present, and struggle to prosper in worlds they don’t fully understand, we marvel and struggle with them. We’re right in there, exploring these times as if we too are time travelers.

Writers have used this approach to time travel for most of the past few centuries. TV shows such as  Quantum Leap, books such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) by Mark Twain, and films such as  Back to the Future (1985-90) largely fit this description, though some of these stories, such as Twain’s, are designed to satirize contemporary society, and by the time Quantum Leap and Back to the Future were shown, there’s an increasing interest in the mechanisms and the reasons for time travel, something that has often been to the fore with the longest-running time travel saga of them all: Doctor Who (first shown in 1963, the day after President Kennedy was shot, as I guess we all now know in 2013).

More recently, while many time travel stories remain content to transport the characters to an adventure in another time, others are increasingly interested in the consequences of time travel, such as the beautifully circular nature of Schwarzenegger film The Terminator (1984), and the complicated romance of The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger.

So when I started writing a time travel novel a few years ago, I first had to make some decisions about what kind of book I wanted to write.

Scientific Romance or technobabble?
First off, I read some novels featuring time travel. It’s quite a fun kind of research. Plenty of people would point to The Time Machine (1895) by HG Wells as the first modern time travel novel. Wells described his ‘scientific romances’ (as he called them) as changing just one thing about the modern world and seeing what would happen as a consequence. In his case, that change is the time machine built by the Victorian gentleman inventor. The future worlds the inventor travels to extrapolate Wells’ thinking about the class divide in the wake of the industrial revolution (Wells has the workers and the wealthy evolve into separate species), and contemporary scientific thinking about the entropic universe (in his story, the Earth of the far future is dying). While Wells makes a lot of effort to invent credible futures, he makes no attempt to explain the physics of time travel or its possible consequences. We see shiny brass control panels and levers; that’s enough for Wells.

I also listened to an audio version of Kindred (1976) by Octavia Butler. Here the author takes a black woman living in 1976 California and transports her to a life of slavery in Maryland of the early 1800s. Rather than present a straight historical novel, Butler uses time travel as a literary device to transport a modern woman into the past in order to make the realities of slavery more immediate to the modern reader; we’re also transported with the main character, and we also find the transition shocking.

But in Kindred, there is no attempt to cast a veil of explanation over the way in which the character time travels. There’s no moment of Star Trek technobabble, where (at its worst) it suddenly occurs to the chief engineer that if we reverse the phase of the forward shield modulators, we conveniently have the capability to time travel. Butler’s time travel is a literary contrivance in order to set up an otherwise impossible scenario that she wants to write a story about. We know it’s contrived. Butler knows that we know it’s contrived, but none of that matters. She makes such a brief reference to the traveling that we quickly accept the story conceit, and get on with enjoying what Butler wants to show us.

Then there were other books I read that I’m too embarrassed to mention here. Ones that start with the worst technobabble from Star Trek, add some half-remembered terms from school such as hypotenuse and coefficient, and present that as impressive science. No, I wasn’t going to take that approach with my novel. (BTW: I love Star Trek; a consequence of the Trek universe having such a vast fictional output is that inevitably are some dark corners of plotting naughtiness.)

I thought Kindred’s if-I-mention-it-quickly-no-one-will-notice approach to time travel worked for that book, but was too vague for the science fiction I like to read. So to start with, I decided that HG Wells would be my pilot through time, and that’s not a bad thing.

How to make your reader’s brain melt
Time travel can get really complicated.

I’m not talking about the mechanics of how it’s done, I’m talking about the storytelling. In most conventional novels, each scene takes place a little further along in time than the previous one. If there’s a big gap, the author will probably start a new part and add something like ‘Ten Years Later...’ so you know there’s a big jump in time. The reader is so familiar with this sequencing of scenes that he or she won’t even stop to notice what the author’s doing.

But with time travel, what is the correct sequence of scenes? Well, of course, there isn’t one. When the characters can move backward and forward in time, it’s up to the author to choose whatever sequence best fits the story they want to tell.

Sometimes the author wants to write about the dislocating effect of time travel. Well, that’s easy enough: just jumble your scenes into a random order; that should do the trick. Problem is, most readers will give up if you do that; I know I would.

The Time Traveler’s Wife pushes this about as far as I think an author could go and still retain a readership. The sequence of scenes is difficult to follow, but that’s okay because that book’s more about the psychology of troubled relationships, with the time traveling more of a metaphor for how people in relationships often don’t seem quite in phase with each other. I wanted my book to be essentially action-adventure (though a thematic connection with The Pilgrim’s Progress soon became very important — but that’s another post). So I knew I had to make my plot easier to follow than The Time Traveler’s Wife.

That’s much easier said than done. I kept a book of scrawled notes and diagrams about how my fictional world(s) worked. I needed to be clear how everything fitted together because that way I could concentrate on the parts of the story that mattered most and were most exciting. Sounds strange, perhaps, but I find the deeper my understanding of the background to a story, the more confident I am at knowing what to focus on, and what I can safely leave out.

Even so, there were two redrafts where I looked at my notes, and then scratched thick red lines through sections of the plot that were overcomplicating the story and so had to go.

But I wanted a story where time travel wasn’t only an excuse to have an adventure; it was at the heart of event, it caused them.

So I couldn’t ignore perhaps the most powerful — and dangerous — idea in plotting time travel novels: CAUSALITY.

Causality causes confusion
At the kind of simplified level that you and I might understand, causality is actually a pretty obvious concept. It’s a fancy way of saying that cause leads to effect.

Take this example: you hold a glass vase of flowers out of the fifth-floor window. You let go... what happens?

Well, it’s not a trick question. You let go — nothing resists gravity accelerating the vase toward the ground — vase hits ground — vase shatters. It’s so obvious it seems a pointless waste of time describing the sequence of cause leads to effect. Cause happens first (drop the vase) followed by the effect (vase breaks).
Not so with time travel.

Take the first Terminator film: John Connor leads the human resistance in the future — so a cyborg assassin goes back in time to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor — so John sends his friend, Kyle, back in time to protect his mother — which leads to Kyle getting Sarah pregnant with John — so Sarah goes into hiding and prepares to train up John to be an effective leader and fighter — which brings us back to John Connor leads the human resistance in the future — a cyborg assassin goes back in time... and so on.

In this example, causality breaks down. In other words, it is no longer true that effect always happens after cause. Humanity needs John Connor to lead the resistance (cause) which leads to Sarah preparing him for that role (effect). But the rise of the machines hasn’t happened yet. The effect is occurring before the cause.

If that feels complicated, it’s because it is complicated. In the world we live in, cause always appears to lead to effect; time only flows in one direction and our brains can’t really cope with anything else. In The Terminator, the script cleverly implies a closed loop. If you follow events in the right sequence, as I listed them above, then it appears that effect follows cause and everything appears simpler than it really is. And yet the sequence is impossible; it’s a paradox, but maybe it’s just what the universe has decided to settle with. It might be impossible, but it’s the most stable version of history.

That’s a neat trick, so I make use of closed loops and the idea of reality settling into the most stable and least confusing version of history.

But I wanted something in my novels to shatter all this neatness, to be the spanner in the works that kicks off the Reality War I write about. And for that I need a little more from PARADOX.

Professor Paradox is/ was/ will be my grandfather
Let’s go back to The Terminator. If Schwarzenegger’s cyborg assassin succeeded in killing John Connor’s mother in the past, then John would never be born — which would mean the cyborg would not be sent back in time — which means...

This is sometimes called the Grandfather Paradox. If you go back in time and kill your grandfather, then you would never have been born... in which case you couldn’t have killed your grandfather... in which case you can travel back in time and kill him...


Plotting with time paradoxes is like cooking with the hottest chili peppers: a supremely memorable ingredient, but use sparingly or you’ll blow your readers’ heads off.

But if we can time travel...
One more time travel plotting idea to consider... If time travel is possible, what’s so special about the times when your story is set? Take the Victorian gentleman inventor of HG Wells. If he invented time travel in the 1890s, why don’t other people invent time travel in his future, or make use of the technology first developed in the 1890s and has been in continual use since then? And what about the people in their future? And in the future of their future too? What is so special about the 1890s that this is the only point that time travel is invented? To his credit, Wells raises this point in his novel. I think he’s right to do so, which is why you need to keep watching the shadows in my novel because in The Reality War there are other people hiding there.

Conclusion: Plotting for time travel 
In conclusion, plotting a full-on time travel is not for the fainthearted There are many pitfalls and a lot of  work, and it’s rather like wearing fresh underwear, as I explain in this post. And when you sit back and release your novel into the world, I have no doubt that some readers will vigorously attack it because they will be convinced that’s not how time travel really works.

No worries. I look forward to such discussions, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing time travel, it’s that it is addictive.

1 comment:

  1. Very relevant article for me, as I'm about halfway through writing a time travel novel right now. It's maddening to keep everything straight - especially the cause and effect. I appreciate your thoughts on the subject!