In time travel fiction, it can be difficult maintaining suspense. If you have characters jumping back from the future, they can reveal what the future holds in store for your characters. There are three solutions to this problem, if we disallow the concept of parallel universes.
- Don’t let characters come back from the future.
- Make the characters from the future untrustworthy or secretive.
- Allow events that are known to have happened to be changed.
Let’s look closer at each solution.
Don’t let characters come back from the future.
The corollary to this is that none of your characters can visit the past. If any character goes to their past, then they’re a character from someone else’s future. If your plot doesn’t call for any characters visiting their pasts, then there’s no chance of any of them spilling the beans, right? Not quite. You can’t let them send messages back through time either.
If no characters or messages travel backwards in time, then maintaining suspense in your time travel fiction piece won’t differ from maintaining suspense in any other type of fiction.
Make the characters from the future untrustworthy or secretive.
Most time travel stories will include travel to the past. If one of the tenets of time travel in your story is that events can’t be changed, then you’re pretty much left with making characters from the future untrustworthy or for some reason unable or unwilling to reveal the truth about future events. A character from the future could have misunderstood events, have incomplete knowledge of them, or simply lie about them.
It becomes difficult when the character from the future is trustworthy and has full knowledge of future events. In this case, the character might choose to withhold information for some reason. If that’s the route you take, make sure the reason is a good one. How many times have you read any sort of genre fiction where the wise old man has the knowledge that would make saving the day so much easier, but he refuses for some totally hokey reason to divulge the information to the young adventurer who is desperately trying to save the world? Don’t write that kind of time travel story. If you are going to have a sidekick come back from the future and befriend your heroine in the past, come up with a damn good excuse why the sidekick doesn’t tell the heroine all the information that would short-circuit your story.
Allow events that are known to have happened to be changed.
This is the Star Trek method of maintaining suspense in a time travel story. I call it cheating the reader (or the viewer, in the case of Star Trek shows and movies). Basically, the author sets up an over-the-top perilous situation that no one could possibly extract themselves from, and then solves it by changing the events that led up to the disaster. It’s a form of Deus Ex Machina.
If the heroine is in 2013 and the sidekick comes from the year 2015 to tell the heroine about something that happened in 2014, the described events are in the heroine’s future, granted, but they are from the sidekick’s past. As far as the heroine is concerned, the future remains mutable, because she doesn’t know 100% for sure that the sidekick is being honest and knows everything. But if you made it clear to the reader that the sidekick did indeed experience certain events in the future, and the sidekick tells the heroine (more to the point, tells the reader) all about those events, then the only suspense you have left is whether the heroine believes the sidekick. The reader will know the truth, and the only way you can introduce uncertainty for the reader is to allow the sidekick’s experiences to be undone.
Of course, you don’t have to tell the reader up front that you’re writing that kind of story. You can spring it on your readers at the end of your story. When all possible solutions to the problem have failed, you can have your heroine jump back in time, destroy the villain’s secret weapon, and then say everything that had happened in the story suddenly hadn’t happened after all. Might as well have simply written a story that ends with the heroine suddenly waking up and realizing it was all just a dream.
I really don’t like solution #3. For most time travel stories, solution #1 isn’t viable. So you can figure that in any time travel stories I write, I’ll go with solution #2 and get creative with the reasons why time travelers can’t or won’t reveal all the information they have about the future.
What are your thoughts on maintaining suspense in a time travel story?
- You Can’t Escape Your Future or Your Past (Column) (popmatters.com)
- From Time to Untimed with Andy Gavin (naimeless.wordpress.com)
- Idea: Two Time Travel Movies Released In Real Time (ironicsans.com)
- Time Travel and Philosophy (nothingreallywas.wordpress.com)