Time travel never gets old. Ever since Rip Van Winkle emerged from his cave, it’s been a tempting theme for writers, rich with the potential for conflict and danger, misunderstanding and mystery. Time travel offers something irresistible in a story; the opportunity to put things right, to get a second chance, or at the very least, understand where you went wrong.
But time travel is also tricky. Which is why I didn’t dare attempt it until my fourth book for children. In The Time Traveller and the Tiger, my heroine Elsie – a girl from the present – smells a time-altering flower, and is hurtled back to the Indian jungle of 1946. There she meets her own great uncle John as a boy of twelve, on a mission to hunt a tiger. Elsie knows that killing the tiger will turn out to be the greatest mistake of John’s life. Which means her mission is to stop him at any cost.
When I sat down to write the book, I soon realized that I had two main problems. The paradoxical nature of time travel – its mind-bending loop of cause and effect – risked swamping the story with complicated explanations. Unless I was careful, I could easily create a scenario in which by changing the past, my heroine would make her own future impossible. And if that happened, she wouldn’t be able to go back to the past in the first place (I told you time travel was tricky!). My second problem was simpler but just as hard to overcome. Given how well-worn time travel is in literature, how could I make it feel fresh and original?
Solving these problems inspired me to make a list of starter suggestions for anyone else thinking of using time travel in their fiction. Daunting it may be, but I’m here to tell you it can be done!
First, decide on the rules. Can the past be changed, or is it fixed? In Ray Bradbury’s short story, A Sound of Thunder (the origin of the phrase ‘the butterfly effect’), a tiny action has enormous consequences for future events. In contrast, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang uses time travel to explore the opposite – that history is unalterable. Is time linear in your story, or is the past, present and future all happening at once? Is it a one-way trip, or can your characters come and go whenever they like? Can they bring objects with them? Other people?
Second, obey those rules. Nothing is more damaging to your story than a reader thinking but why doesn’t he or she just…? Or, GPS devices couldn’t work back then… Or worst of all, that’s cheating!
Third, keep it as simple as you can. Your time travel device can be a machine (the DeLorean in Back to the Future), a place (as in Tom’s Midnight Garden), an event (think Groundhog Day), or a mysterious, possibly magical object like the flower in The Time Traveller and the Tiger. Whatever it is, try to avoid getting bogged down in the details of how it works. I spent a lot of time agonizing over the nuts and bolts of my time-travel device before coming to the conclusion that often, the less you explain something, the easier it is to accept. For most readers, the ‘how’ of time travel is not nearly as interesting as the ‘what happens next’. Which leads me to my fourth and most important suggestion.
Do not write about time travel. The best, and most original time travel stories are not really about time travel at all. Take Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for example, or Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Both feature time travel, but one is a tale about a miser’s salvation and the other an exploration of the legacy of racial oppression. I love the wildly diverse nature of these two narratives. Time travel may be a well-worn device, but it can lead to a million different stories.
In fact, it can take you anywhere.