Time travel is interesting to explore and can bring an obvious conflict to your story. Time travel displaces your character and they need to learn first, how to survive in this new time period they don't know well, and second, figure out how to return to their own time. Or, if they've purposely travelled to a different time period, then they must fulfill their quest.
So let's look a little at this trope and how to use it effectively.
Fantasy or Science Fiction?
I ask this question to decide one vital component - how did your character travel through time? If you use anti-gravity forces through space, or a time machine, you've created a science fiction subplot. If you use something such a myth or folklore, like falling through stones in Outlander, then you have a fantasy subplot. So it is important to decide whether you will take the science fiction or fantasy approach to set the tone for your whole novel as it will essentially fall into the subgenre of one or the other.
On Purpose or Accidental?
This is a vital plot question and will determine your story arc. If your character has purposely travelled through time, then they're more likely to be prepared for their journey and have a motive and goal. There may even be a time limit that they're aware of and need to fulfill their quest to return before the portal closes.
However, if your character accidentally travels through time, then they are going to be very displaced, confused, and unprepared for their journey. As well as likely wishing to return to their own time, they may be caught up in a separate quest when arriving in this new time they also need to fulfill.
Whether the time travel is purposful or accidental will be the first question you need to ask yourself.
There are many ways in which you may use time travel. Essentially, your time periods include the PRESENT, the PAST, and the FUTURE. So you can choose any of the following combinations for your time travel story:
- Present to the Past
- Present to the Future
- Past to the Present
- Future to the Present
or maybe even
- Future to the Past
- Past to the Future
No matter which time period you use, you will need to consider the following questions when planning your story:
- What is different for the character - dress, technology, etc?
- What have they lost? Medical advances? Flushing toilets?
- What have they gained? Advanced technology? A new medicine?
- How will your character react to the new time? What concepts will be difficult for them to grasp?
So let's look at the characteristics that need to be considered for each time period.
This is an easy time period for us to use - it's exactly what we know! Generally, 'contemporary' is anything from 1950 to the present day. In this time, we have good knowledge of medicine, good plumbing, the computer technology gets better towards the end of the 20th century, there are telephones, and we have good and quick transport - cars, trains, and planes. Life is also different since the two world wars - monarchy and the aristocracy almost died and the working-class man rose. Women's rights also improved and there is probably a lot more that changed that I have not listed.
Using a contemporary time or character in your story can easily set the tone as we know what this time or person is like and used to. Therefore we can use that knowledge to transport a character from another time into our time, or take a person from our time and displace them elsewhere.
The past is the second easiest time period to use because we have history to tell us what this time period was like. No matter what time period you choose, you can research and find out what that time was like and use this to create conflict for your character. When travelling back in time, there are two important things to consider:
- What has your character lost? This is likely to be some kind of technological advancement. They no longer have instant communication through phones or internet. They may need to travel by horseback for days rather than a few hours in the car. And personal hygiene is probably on the decline too.
- They carry knowledge of the future. How will this impact your story? Is it key that they don't share what they know? Or will what they know be an advantage?
However, if you're using a character from the past, they will have the exact opposite reaction. Suddenly, the character has been transported to a time of modern technology and a different social structure. How will your character react to this and what will they find to be most different?
This is where you have creative license as we know what the present is like, we have records from the past, but we have no idea what the future holds. So what does your future look like and how far forward are you going to travel? But most importantly, make sure your future makes sense. We won't have the ability to live on Mars in ten years time. Essentially, ten years will probably be very similar to now. But in two hundred years? Well, we might be taking regular visits to Mars - or at least the rich might be.
Or do you have a completely different future to the current timeline we're on? Is it an apocalyptic future? Was there another World War and has social status changed again? Did one race take over and are now the more dominant force in the world? Essentially, what is the one drastic change in this future time that you wish to explore?
So as you can see, there is a lot to consider when planning a time travel story, but the best thing you can do is read the trope and get to know it better. So here are some of the time travel stories that I've read.
Time Travel Stories
Outlander by Diana Galbaldon
Claire travels from 1946, where she was a nurse in WWII, to 1746 Scotland where she's taken under the care of a Scottish clan. Claire fell through a stone circle near Inverness, so Diana has used a Scottish legend here to transport her character. Stuck in the past, Claire's initial goal is to return to Inverness and the stone circle to go back to her own time and husband. However, she falls in love with Jamie and remains in the past hoping to help him and his fellow countrymen at the Battle of Collodan, a battle Claire knows leads the Scots to doom.
Time Was by Nora Roberts
In this story, Caleb is a goods carrier between Earth and Mars in the twenty-third century when he gets sucked into a black hole and crashes his spaceship ... in 1980 Washington State. In addition to needing to return to his time, Caleb struggles to not fall in love with Liberty. But of course, it's a Nora Roberts novel so they do fall in love and Caleb wonders if he can remain living in the past, where food takes far longer to cook. I loved how time travel worked in this book and the tension it created between Caleb and Liberty as choosing to remain in the past cannot be an easy decision for anyone to make.
Times Change by Nora Roberts
In the sequal to Time Was, Caleb's brother Jacob works out how to time travel and purposely travels back in the past to get his brother and tell him to come home. What differed this book from the first was that, unlike Caleb, Jacob was prepared for the trip and therefore wasn't so lost when he time travelled. The only thing he didn't expect was to fall in love with Liberty's sister Sunny. This was another fun time travel story story that made sense and, like Time Was, probably falls into the science fiction take on time travel more than fantasy as black holes and spaceships were used.
The Secret Runners of New York by Matthew Reilly
In this novel, a group of teenagers from our time use special stones that open a portal to an apocalyptic future, where most of the human race is extinct. Because the stones appear to be of some mythical nature, I'd call this fantasy more than science fiction. Throughout the novel, Skye continues to travel to the future to find out what happens in order to survive the apocalypse that occurs in the present. Also, the 'future' is only a few decades later, so the same characters are used, giving them knowledge of the time travel and the ability to use this to their advantage, which was an interesting addition to this time travel story.
So that's just a little bit about some time travel. I haven't read a lot of science fiction or time travel stories, but I think it's an interesting concept and sure can cause your character some problems, especially if they fall through time unexpectedly.
So until next time,
Rachel is a writer of romantic fiction who enjoys discussing tropes. This blog thread will focus on identifying different tropes of romance fiction, as well as other crime, thriller, and fantasy tropes. Rachel will share her thoughts on each trope, discuss their vital elements, and discuss books featuring each trope.