Tag Archives: Relativity

Maintaining Suspense in Time Travel Fiction

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.

  1. Don’t let characters come back from the future.
  2. Make the characters from the future untrustworthy or secretive.
  3. Allow events that are known to have happened to be changed.

Let’s look closer at each solution.

English: in the future, the evolution make all...

SPOILER ALERT: In the future, evolution will make all women beautiful. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?



Filed under Time Travel, Writing

Time Travel: The Bug on the Windshield

Bug on Windshield

Bug on Windshield (Photo credit: fauxto_digit)

Today let me introduce you to my concept of the “Bug on the Windshield” in the context of time travel.

To understand this concept, think of the bug as the time traveler and the windshield as the world. The bug can go to any spot on the windshield by crawling around. It stays in the present as it crawls around, never leaving the windshield or traveling through time, except in the normal forward progression of the time stream.

The outer surface of the windshield is the only world the bug knows. Suppose the windshield is attached to a car that is rolling along slow enough the bug doesn’t realize the windshield is moving. Suddenly the bug gets the urge to travel through time and jumps into the distant future. What happens to the bug with respect to its location on the windshield?

The answer depends on how time travel works. It might be a locally relative effect. By that I mean the bug jumps forward in time and reappears in the future still on the windshield. The car could have made any number of turns, accelerations, stops or reversals during the period elapsed between the bug’s departure from the present and its arrival in the future. No matter what the car does or how much the bug jumps around in time, the bug remains stuck to the windshield.

On the other hand, time travel could be a universally relative effect. By that I mean the bug jumps in time and reappears in the future still in the same place it was relative to something universal, such as the center of the universe, wherever that is. The windshield could easily be in a different place in the future than it was when the bug initiated the time jump. The car and windshield have been moving, as has the earth, the solar system and the galaxy. The bug could easily arrive in the future somewhere quite different from the world it knows. The chance is not zero that it would arrive in the future on some other planet, in some other solar system, some other galaxy, or on the windshield of some other car. But most likely the bug would end up in the vacuum of space. Oops.

Think about that bug the next time you consider time traveling. You’re lying there on your bed looking up at the ceiling and on a whim decide to pop into the future. If you’re still on your bed when you arrive in the future, then thank your lucky stars the bug was stuck to the windshield.


Filed under Time Travel