“What is a good way that I could write time travelling without it being cliche?”
Ooh, I love questions like this! They’re so much fun, and on a somewhat self-indulgent level, they really get me thinking on the tropes themselves.
So without further ado, here are my personal thoughts on writing about time travel:
1. Embrace the fact that it’s not gonna make total sense.
This goes for a lot of creative fiction. When I was writing my urban fantasy novel, for example, I used a lot of traditional mythological figures whose duties and depictions (i.e. one humanoid being reaping the dead despite the fact that over a hundred thousand people die a day, billion-year-old entities who still look and behave like teenagers, figures from religions whose world views wildly conflict interacting with each other, etc.) weren’t compatible with what we currently know about the laws of physics.
And the sooner I resolved not to even attempt to explain it, the sooner my novel improved.
The wonderful thing about fiction is that it doesn’t have to imitate reality as we know it; the laws of the physical universe need not apply. And as long as the characters in your universe accept that, so will the reader.
I’ve had around twenty beta readers look at my book, and not one of them has poked holes in my casual disregard for the conventionally accepted rules of physical reality. The suspension of disbelief is an amazing thing.
As for how to best apply this to time travel, take Back to the Future, for example. This is one of the best time travel series ever made, but if you really look at what’s going on, you’ll come to find that none of it really makes any sense at all.
First of all, Marty McFly is a popular high school student whose best friend is an eccentric nuclear physicist. Conventional wisdom (and just about every fiction writing book or advice blog I’ve ever read) would dictate that this is a pretty heavy plot-point and warrants some explanation. But the narrative never questions it, and as such neither does the vast majority of its audience.
It is in this exact manner that Back to the Future handles its heaviest of all plotpoints, the act of time travel, which is the main driving force behind its entire plot.
How does it explain Doc Brown’s ability to time travel? Well, he invented the Flux Capacitor, of course. What is a Flux Capacitor, you ask? How does it work, exactly? Well, fucked if I know. All I know is that the narrative treats it like it’s a real thing, and by default, so do I.
The same could be said for the magically changing family portrait, the fact that the characters can’t interact with their past or future selves without universal destruction, flying cars, and the fact that the McFlys’ future children inexplicably look exactly like them. None of it makes any sense. And it’s fucking magical.
Another of my favorite examples of this is pre-Moffat Doctor Who. The science is campy, occasionally straight-up ridiculous, and unabashedly nonsensical, yet paves the way for some truly great and thought provoking storylines and commentary.
Bottom line is, I don’t know how to time travel. I’m guessing you don’t either, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be asking me for advice on how to write it. Accept it. Embrace it. Don’t be bashful about it – trust me, time travelers are probably a minority in your readership, so they won’t judge you.
So as to what would be a good means of writing time travel, the short answer is: any way you want. For obvious reasons, I’d stay away from old cars, police boxes, and phone booths, but with the power of the suspension of disbelief, virtually nothing is off the table: a pair of magic sneakers, a refrigerator, a closet, a treehouse -oh, crap, that one’s been done before. But you get the picture. You can be as creative as you want to be about it. Don’t be afraid to step outside the police box, so to speak.
Trust in the magic of the suspension of disbelief, and don’t overthink things. Your story and readers will thank you.
As for how to avoid other cliches, that brings me to my next point:
2. Look at the tried and true tropes of time traveling. Now subvert them.
This might just be me and my adoration of irony talking, but since you specifically asked how to avoid cliche I’m going to indulge myself here.
Do the exact opposite of what people expect from narratives about time travel. You know the old trope: the protagonist steps on a bug, and comes back to the present to find the world being ruled by gorillas.
I’m not telling you not to include drastic consequences for time travel, because there would probably be quite a few (at least if you believe in the chaos theory, which states every action has a universal reaction.)
But you could toy around with the idea that fate isn’t something that can ultimately be altered at all, and that all the protagonist accomplishes is solidifying (or even triggering) a pre-existing outcome.
My knee-jerk suggestion, as someone who takes fiendish glee in incorporating humor into my writing, would be to make the protagonist have some Forrest Gump-type encounters that unwittingly trigger huge, history-defining event, but it can also be significantly more tragic than that: maybe the protagonist goes back in time to save his father from a hit-and-run car accident, for example, and then accidentally kills him. Or perhaps he realizes that his father was a bad man (beat his mother, planned on killing someone, etc.) and makes a moral decision to kill him (which is also a great way to ask philosophical questions. More on that later.)
I don’t know what kind of time travel your writing or what your style of writing is, but these are things I’d personally just love to play around with.
Or maybe time travel does change things, but it’s not even close to what the protagonist expected: maybe his words of wisdom to his newly married mother about true love and the meaning of life and whatnot unexpectedly lead her to realize that she’s deeply unhappy in her current marriage, and he returns to the present to find her divorced (lesbian stepmom optional.)
Maybe absolutely nothing at all changes, but he realizes that he’s responsible for some famous Mandela Effect, like the Bearenstein/Bearenstain discrepancy.
Bottom line is, don’t be afraid to do the unexpected. But conversely, don’t be afraid to use tried and true tropes, either: regardless of how overdone they may seem to be, they can almost always be rejuvenated when interjected with a thought-provoking plot.
Which brings me to my final point:
3. Make sure it has something to say.
Science fiction, especially the speculative variety, tends to be best when it begins by asking a question, for which it will later provide an answer. Take, for example, Planet of the Apes. The pervasive question of the movie is whether or not humanity is inherently self-destructive, which it ultimately answers with its famed final plot twist that humanity has long since destroyed itself.
Rod Serling (who was incidentally responsible for the original Planet of the Apes, by the way) did this remarkably well: almost every episode of the Twilight Zone packed a massive philosophical punch due to the fact that they followed this simplistic formula. The episode would begin with the presentation of a question, big or small (frequently by the charismatic Serling himself) and by the end of the episode, that question would be answered.
I’m not going to go in to detail here, as it would spoil the magic of uncovering the plot twists for the first time, but Serling used his speculation to tackle the narrow-mindedness of beauty standards in Eye of the Beholder, the dangers of fascism in Obsolete Man, the communist paranoia of the time period with the Monsters are Due on Maple Street, and countless more.
I would recommend watching the original Twilight Zone for almost anyone looking to write speculative fiction such as time travel.
Even if your work isn’t compatible with this specific formula of Question => Debate => Answer (which some work isn’t) it will still need to have some kind of underlying statement to it, or no matter how clever the science fiction is or how original the time travel is, it will fall flat.
This is why Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, Back to the Future, and (pre-Moffat, as I always feel inclined to stress – he does literally the opposite of almost everything I recommend here) Doctor Who still remain widely enjoyed today, despite the fact that many of their tropes have been used many, many times since they original aired.
So for time travel, remember that it is a means, not an end. You could write the most cliched type of time travel story imaginable, and your audience will still feel fulfilled by it if your message is heartfelt, thought-provoking, and/or poignant.
Maybe you want to use time travel to make a statement about your belief in the existence of fate, or lack thereof. In this case, using the Sterling Approach, you would have your story begin with the question of whether or not humans can alter or change destiny, allow the narrative/characters to argue the question back and forth for a while, and then ultimately disclose what you believe the answer to be.
Or maybe you want to use time travel to explore or subvert the treachery of history and how it is taught, and show how the true narrative can be explored, purposefully or otherwise, by the victors.
Maybe you want to show that there’s no clear answer, or maybe no answer at all, a la the cheerful nihilism of Douglas Adams novels.
Either way, figure out what you want your message to be long before you put pen to paper, and then use time travel, like any other creative trope, as a means to an end to answer it. Your story will thank you for it.
“It all happened on the afternoon the 30th of August. It was a beautiful day and I was on my way home from a job in Färjestaden. When I got home, I found water on the kitchen floor. Somehow there was a leak. I got my tools and opened up the doors to the sink. And started to work. When I reached in to examine the pipes, they seemed to be further in than I remembered. I had to crawl inside the cabinet, and as I did so, I discovered that it just continued. So I kept on crawling further and further into the cabinet. In the end of the tunnel I saw a light, and when I got there, I realised I was in the future. I met myself as 72 years old, the year was 2042. I did a lot of tests on him to see if he was really me. And the strange thing is that he knew everything about me. Where I hid my secret stuff when I was in first grade, and what the score was in the soccer match against Växjö Norra in the summer of 88. He knew it all. We even had the same tattoo, although his was a little faded. He told me some of the stuff that will happen, but not so much. And I promised not to tell anyone. I made a film with my mobile phone. Unfortunately the quality is not the best. But it’s what I have got. Actually I don’t care if people think I am a liar. I know I’m not. I met myself in the future, and I was fine. That’s all I know.
But if it happened to me it probably must have happened to someone else.”
- This is Håkan Nordkvist. Back in 2006, the Swedish plumber claimed he time travelled. The story seems like a flamboyant hoax, with nothing more than a lookalike and the same tattoo involved, but a lot of people believe he is telling the truth. Nordkvist regularly gives speeches, has his own blog, and is adamant that he really did time-travel.