How to Write Time Travel


With the recent advent of time-travel coming back with a punch to YA fiction and beyond it's really handy not just to know where you are but when you are in the books. I've come up with these five handy lessons for keeping your characters on top of things should you wish to had dived straight in! I find it almost impossible to write time-travel (although I do have something in the works about a toaster time-machine; it's very sad really because it is also kind of a sore point in the WIP's family and it only has two defrost settings, but let's not dwell on my tribulations!) so these are lessons I am still learning:


Lesson One: Abandon Secrets

To a time-traveller, everything is changable With that in mind it is always an idea to let somebody in the immediate circle of characters know the current status vis a vis the wobbly timey wimey stuff so that there is somebody to refer to for important things like who the president is and how many corgis the Queen owns**. This is normally played out as the main character and a close compadre; although a book involving a character who didn't realise they were all over the time might be hilarious so you have my permission to deceive! As a trans-timeline wanderer it is helpful if your main character can convincingly drop hints of their exotic travels into conversation to identify other like-minded individuals. Alternatively, tell only your reader (and nobody else!) about the time-travel and avoid any confusion vis a vis timelines. See Lesson Three for more details on why this is even an issue.

Lesson Two: Attempt Tenses

A great deal of time and energy (in preparation for what will have been the invention of the time machine) has gone into making sure we're all on the same page RE tenses in time-travel. This has mostly led to widespread confusion and panic. Just how will your character have warned their grandfather of an event that hasn't but will happened yet? The answer is simple! First allow yourself to read Dr Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveller's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. Secondly, forget everything you have diligently read! It is widely accepted that so long as your characters give the future definite tense a proper British try then it doesn't matter whether they got it right or not. See Lesson One for more details on how to cope with not being about talking about what characters will have done during their travels.


Bob: Don't worry about Flora! I left her in 1897. She got better... will get... would get... had... woll? RATS. Henry: ... Bob: ... Henry: ...? Bob: Forget it. Let's just go prod dinosaurs again.

Lesson Three: Attune Timelines

Fiddling with time leads to a fiddly mess!*** So, if you can find a way of clarifying what timeline we are on as the story progresses that is an added bonus. Colour or smell coding chapters is definitely an option. Having your characters write journals might seem a little weird but this is also a tool in clarification of exactly when we are in space and time. Your readers are only as intelligent as your writing so make sure you also know things too.

Lesson Four: Accept Paradoxes

The best way to handle a paradox is to admit it's a little confusing and move the story along! It is generally accepted that the universe is a pretty complicated chap, and were we to ever understand him he would promptly explode, so use that to your advantage! Remember, when the plot takes a turn that you don't like you can always write your way around that! I have it on the highest authority that spinning the earth backwards turns back time so there is always that to fall back on.

Lesson Five: Admit Difficulties

It's probably going to be hard. Not going to lie, my dalliances with the time toaster, microwave, and kettle has not been easy!***** Time-travel is fabulous at providing agency, and moving the plot forward and creating conflicts and drama, but it's also fabtacular at creating headaches. Be patient with yourself! Recall that there's a reason we gave up on the tenses thing. Let yourself have fun!


What are (have been)(had)(will have)(woll)(RATS) your thoughts on time-travel in books and fiction? Any particular mistakes you see a lot of? What's your favourite time-travel series or story? I have so many it's hard to choose but definitely the Time Machine by George Orwell is up the top simply for scaring me stupid as a four year old.

* except non-changable time-space continuum fixed points but that's a different lesson altogether omg see TARDIS and every series of Doctor Who ever for more details on how not to deal with that

** a reliable method of testing for time-travel and/or amnesia, so much so that I can neither confirm nor deny the actual number of corgis she has off the top of my head

*** messier even than jam tennis on the international space station****

**** don't tell me that's not a thing, it's totally a thing

***** this is probably partially due to my obsession with household appliances that can time-travel