Writing Excuses 7.23: Time Travel

Coming to you pre-recorded from the boomy basement of Brandon Sanderson, here’s an episode about time travel. Oddly, there’s an audio artifact here where we’re hearing faint echoes of those speaking, and some of them precede the stuff they’re echoing. “Oddly?” More like “Serendipitously.” It’s a shame we didn’t know that would happen. If we really WERE time travelers we’d have seen that coming.

We begin by categorizing three major types of time travel by the movies they appear in: “Twelve Monkeys,” “Back to the Future,” and “A Sound of Thunder” (the short story, though. Not the movie.) We then talk about the tools each of these provide to storytellers. We also talk about the challenges involved in writing a time travel story, and how to overcome these challenges by writing about the things that will always be interesting, rather than focusing on the time travel itself. We also talk a little about time travel clichés, perhaps by way of warning you.


You can only go back in time as far as your own life-span, but somebody needs to go back a hundred years. A team of 100-year-olds is assembled as time traveling heroes.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, narrated by Fred Berman and Phoebe Stole

48 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.23: Time Travel”

  1. One of my favorite uses of time travel where it is used less as a device and more as an integrated part of the world, is Jasper Fforde’s use of it in the Thursday Next books. Just throwing it out there, in case you guys haven’t run across them (unlikely. They’ve been around for a while and they are awesome).

  2. The old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles And Other Strangeness Roleplaying game had a time travel suppliment, called “Transdimensional TMNT”, that offered an excellent approach to time travel. imagine time as water flowing through a curled up hose. you can’t move against the flow, but you can open holes between the coils to move ‘sideways’ through time into the past or future. this approach limited travel to specific eras. you couldn’t jump back say, 5 minutes, but you could travel back 5 centuries. and time passed at the same rate in all eras. so if you went back 500 years, spent 5 hours there, and came back to your original time, you’d find you got back 5 hours later. this combination meant you couldn’t ‘micromanage’ an event by jumping back and forth to retroactively solve a problem. no Bill and Ted time battles here.
    if you go back, and make changes, the ripple effects from the change move forward from the point of the change, so when you go back to your own time, you find the changes gradually catch up with you, causing increasingly bigger changes in what happened verses what you remember. but history had a ‘self-correcting’ element to it, so that minor changes (like a few anachronistic people showing up and fighting bad guys) didn’t really make major changes to history.
    this approach, while not really based on any kind of real science, had the advantage of avoiding most of the typical paradox issues. you couldn’t kill your own grandfather, for example.

    on the other hand, it opened up some other interesting ones. one of the detailed adventures in the book for example had a guy using a time machine to sell modern (well, 1980’s) assualt rifles to the Confederate states of America, in exchange for things like muzzleloading rifles and other ‘historical’ artifacts he could sell in our time. the players had to stop him because (due to gameplay reasons) they could tell the effects were beginning to ripple forward and change events, and if the Confederates got enough 20th century weapons the civil war would change completely, along with all of modern time. since you couldn’t just pop back and prevent him from time travelling in the first place, the players had to travel back themselves and track down the weapons and him, before the changes grew too big to enable the original timeline to restore itself.

  3. Good episode, interesting topic. Now, I need you guys to carry out a mission for me. I have traveled back in time because I need you to stop me from writing any more books. This mission is of the utmost importance.


    Future Dan Brown

  4. @Ghost of Future Dan Brown:

    We passed your note back in time to Young Dan Brown, who gave up on a career writing cyberpunk and epic fantasy. He writes pseudo-historical thriller mysteries now, and is MUCH more successful.

    I hope that’s what you wanted. I can imagine how a career as a B-lister writing sterile, also-ran cyberpunk novels would wear on you and make you want to quit. You’re a best-seller now!

  5. Good episode.
    The echo effect was a little distracting at times and I had to go back and listen to some passages all over again because I was thrown out of the context by the echo.
    But still a good episode.

    One of my favourite time travel story devices was in the Star Trek Next Generation episode “Cause and effect”.
    There they relive the same series of events several times, each time ending in that the ship explodes. Each repition gives them a sense of deja vu and they get some clues as to what’s going on and how to solve it. It works well as a tv program but I don’t think it would be a good book. People would get bored by the repition before they got what was going on.

  6. Should have added the following to the example in the previous post.

    After that the crew solves the mystery and saves the day they realise that they’ve been stuck in a time-loop for 20 or so days.

    (Sorry about the extra post. There isn’t any editing possibilities here.)

  7. I totally agree with K. Solomon–the Thursday Next series is awesome. It does so many things with time travel that it doesn’t make any sense at all (it’s pretty much the poster child for Timey Wimey Ball) but you don’t care because of Rule of Cool and there are weirder things to worry about.

    The whole thing with Harry Potter time travel is dealt with in the awesome fanfic “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,” where time turners are in fact used for important things like national incidents.

    Also, “Wikihistory” (http://www.tor.com/stories/2011/08/wikihistory) didn’t make it to the liner notes.

  8. @Tomas the star trek episode was basically their take on the “groundhogs day” timeloop concept, from the movie of the same name. Stargate SG1 did their own version based on both, called “Window of Opportunity”. after encountering an odd set of ruins and a mysterious device, jack O’neill and Teal’c find themselves repeating the same day over and over. like in the groundhogs day movie, they are perfectly aware of the events in all their loops, and are actively trying to figure out what caused it and how to stop it. at least, until about 20 minutes into the episode, at which point the strain of having to repeat the same day over and over , albeit differently each time due to accumulated knowledge, starts getting to them. so they take a few dozen loops off, goof around. had some great scenes in that montage, like ‘Neall driving golfballs through the stargate, and him handing in a resignation and kissing carter just seconds prior to to a loop starting all over again.

    personally i prefer the stargate version of the concept.. as big a fan of TNG as i am, the trek episode was just dull to watch, made worse by being repeated in the same episode, and while the solution was clever, the stargate episode has more of a timetravel solution.. they travel to the planet before the events begin, and convince the guy who turned on the machine to not turn it on. much more satisfying an ending than “data pulls technobabble out his rear, saves day”. plus the stargate episode had actual character development going on, not to mention introduced material that would show up again in later season.

  9. My favorite form of time travel comes from Babylon 5. It’s similar to the “12 Monkeys” method, except things can still be changed. Where it maintains the similarity to “12 Monkeys” is that actions that the characters choose to interact with in season 3 directly cause things in season 1 and in the pre-history of the series.

    Then Straczynski adds reincarnation to the mix and it gets really interesting.

    My description might seem bland or twisted, but if you see the time travel episodes in season 3, it’ll not only make sense, it’ll make you go, “oh, that’s cool.” At least it did for me.

  10. My personal favorite comes in Isaac Asimov’s novel The End of Eternity, which explores the ramifications of time travel, and the temptation to use it to remove all instability and disaster from human history. Little changes are made, one event at a time, until all the greatest risks and threats which once faced humanity are neutralized. Wars are prevented, epidemics are quashed before their first infection, and wasted resources are captured again and invested in safe and worthy causes.

    The result is that humanity develops in a bubble. The temptation to remove all uncertainty and risk leads to a civilization which has been denied both its triumphs and its tragedies.

    And the story begins with a character whose job it is to engineer these “reality changes” by stepping back and forth between a fluid timeline and a space outside of time known as Eternity.

    That’s about all I can say without spoilers. Anyway, really interesting book, with a unique treatment of paradox through the interaction between a very malleable timeline and static Eternity where those who are actually creating the paradoxes reside.

  11. Ironic coincidence: xkcd.com/1063/

    The Friday before this podcast aired, xkcd was about time travelling to kill Hitler…

    I guess this means that Randall Munroe: a) Has a time machine, and b) Listens to Writing Excuses…

    Both are plausible.

  12. What was the series that Mary mentioned at the end, in which you couldn’t change recorded history? It sounded like she said Kay Jaykers’, “the Gentleman”? But somebody cleared their throat right then and it’s hard to hear her clearly.

  13. Hi,
    Can you please dub Mary louder? I’m stuck listening on my crap monitor speakers on full volume and I’m practically pressing my ear to the screen to try and figure out what she’s saying.

  14. The book “Tom’s Midnight Garden” by Phillipa Pearce is another interesting example of time travel. It’s a middle-grade novel from the 50s, and won the Carnegie medal. As for Harry Potter 3, regardless of how it is described by the characters, time travel is demonstrated to be the “12 monkeys” kind, so you can’t just go change the past.

  15. I *finally* figured out Mary was saying Kage Baker — “The Company.”

    You guys should list the novels and such you discuss here in the show notes!

  16. I love time travel stories!

    I actually wrote & directed a time travel short film (called “Savepoint”), which went with the idea that you could save your life like a video game, then reload the savepoint if you messed up or wanted to try something different. Like this podcast encourages, I used the concept of this time travel to match the main character’s flaw, which was his fear of failure, when in truth sometimes screwing something up can lead to something better.

    I might have to disagree with the Harry Potter example. The HP time travel was *not* the Doc Brown, multiple thread type of time travel, but rather the 12 Monkeys it-already-happened time travel, and you cannot change the past. Therefore you couldn’t save Harry’s parents. In fact, time traveling might have caused their death, for all we know. Harry saw himself save himself with the patronus.

    On Star Trek time travel, what about the Tasha Yar story? My family and I used to argue about the Tasha Yar paradox from Star Trek and how it worked. Whenever there is something confusing in a time travel story, we expect Tasha Yar to suddenly appear. However, I think it makes sense if you draw out the time threads on a whiteboard.

    I think a huge mistake in time travel stories is when the author mixes up the rules. I think you have to decide between single threaded and multi-threaded. (I am contemplating a story where a duo time travels and argues about what kind of time travel they are doing.)

    One thing I noticed with time travels stories, or most of them that I’ve seen, is that there is generally only one time machine. What if everyone had access to a time machine? It would make the story chaos!

  17. I actually always wonder why time often *doesn’t* mess up in stories with space travel, especially since it’s most often faster than light. Maybe I don’t know enough sience fiction yet (am in the process of correcting that), but I don’t know many examples where relativistic speeds or even FTL travel messes with time in the way that it should. Mostly people want their space flight to do just one thing which is getting their characters to cool places fast or even instantaneously (by warping space, for example). They forget that this would automatically warp time as well, since space and time are not seperate. In other words, they forget to explore all the ramifications of this “magic”.

    I’m trying to write a hard science fiction story WITHOUT time paradoxes or time travel but with FTL interstellar travel and instantaneous communication. I’m probably not gonna mention it in the book, but I keep wondering how to eliminate time paradoxes. If all else fails, there’s possibly a law about this, since it’s against the interests of the powerful to have time paradoxes.

    P.S.: Great Episode!

  18. The TV show Red Dwarf had some pretty good examples of time travel.

    If it hasn’t been mentioned before and you feel like losing a significant portion of your life check out a website called TV Tropes. I guarantee you will have multiple tabs open before you know it. The website is a great resource as it has many examples of how tropes have been used whether it be in Film, TV, Web Comics, books or even real life (obviously not Time Travel in this case).
    The Larren Niven time travelling stories described by Howard has a special mention at the bottom of the Time Travel page.
    …and I just found out that Writing Excuses even has its own page. There goes the rest of my night.

  19. Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” mentioned in the ‘cast–I’ve always thought it was the U.S. becoming Nazis, not communists. The result of the butterfly was that in the previous day’s presidential election the country chose Deutscher (German for “German”), who was “the worst kind of dictator [. . .] militarist, anti-Christ, anti-human, anti-intellectual.” That plus the story’s context (written in the fifties) makes me think that the result of stepping on a butterfly was that Hitler was elected president.
    Not that a communist U.S. would have been any less terrifying, especially to the U.S. in the fifties.

  20. I both love and abhor the Rule of Cool that allows Doctor Who to exist. I think the lesson is: if your characters and story are interesting enough, you don’t have to be particularly consistent with your science/magic.

    The only versions of time travel that don’t make my head hurt are:

    A: Things are fixed
    B: Branching Time Streams
    C: Time travelling throws the characters “outside” the time stream so that even if they went back to the future, they’d encounter themselves.

    I agree with time travel being classed as the most powerful kind of magic. The climax of Harry Potter should have had Harry split into different Time Selves so that one of them could die as the Horcrux and the other could waste Voldemort.

    Did anyone else use to watch the UPN show “Seven Days?” The premise was that they could send a chrononaut back in time, but only seven days, so that he could tell them all about the disaster that was about to happen and avert it.

    The MOST GLARING PROBLEM that was never, ever answered was what happened to the chrononaut’s past self when he traveled back? He was always hanging out at the base during the beginning of the episode, until disaster struck, then he traveled back they just received him and briefed him. If he traveled back to Thursday from Monday, what happened to his Thursday self?

    To my knowledge, the show NEVER addressed this, ever. Not even once did they try.

    Sorry, childhood trauma I guess. I’m going to go lie down on a couch…

  21. Michael,

    Seven days was probably using a fourth system of time travel, that was not mentioned in the podcast. I saw a B sci fi movie on the Sci Fi network a while ago called “retroactive”. In it, the system was very simple. Time travel only happened backwards, and when it did, you took your own place, with all the knowledge and experience you had when you stepped through the machine. Kind of like hitting the reset button on a video game. You start over, but this time you know what bush the bad guys are hiding behind. This is also what is used in Galaxy Quest, when the Omega 13 rearranges all the matter in the universe to what it was 13 seconds previous. Only one person remembers what it was like in those 13 seconds, but hitting the reset gave him a chance to correct the mistake.

  22. Great episode. One genre saturated by time travel plots is the superhero genre; in both the DC and Marvel universes everybody and their dog plays time-tourist sooner or later, so in my novel Wearing the Cape I wanted to use time travel as one of the represented superhero tropes.

    My solution was The Teatime Anarchist, a time traveler who could travel to an unfixed, potential future (the future that would unfold from his point of departure–but only if he didn’t change anything when he got back), and to a fixed, unchangeable past. The present was the moving point at which, second by second, the space of all potential futures collapsed into the point of the actual, set, past–like opening the box on Schroedinger’s Cat.

    The solution worked very well, mainly the Teatime Anarchist wasn’t the main character; he served as a mysterious and tricky Merlin-type figure in the story; my Collapsing Wave-Function model of time travel allowed me to bring in cautionary visions of the future while not having to explain why the Teatime Anarchist didn’t simply go back to the past and change any event he wanted to (i.e. kill Hitler).

  23. Hands down, my favorite time travel story was an episode of Quantum Leap. It was the multi-parter where Sam has to stop Oswald from assassinating JFK, or at least, that’s what Sam and Al and the audience all assume is Sam’s mission. But at the last second he realizes it’s not to save JFK but Jackie instead, because in his original timeline (that Sam can’t remember but Al does) they both died, which basically meant they changed history into the one WE all know. Blew my mind. Loved it.

    Also, I’m surprised no one’s mentioned “Primer”. If you want a movie about time travel with well-defined, clear rules but still manages to totally mess with you, watch it.

    And another upcoming movie called “Looper” puts a new spin on things. Time travel is used by criminals to send people back in time to be assassinated, but then the assassin’s future self is sent back. Looks crazy awesome.

  24. I just wanted to say a couple things, first: Time travel is a serious soft spot of mine and I love it to death. One of my all time favorite novels is Bearing an Hourglass by Piers Anthony, and I’m watching Back to the Future while listening to this episode, so thanks for the great topic!

    Also, I had a story idea that reminds me of your prompt and I thought of it a long time ago and just haven’t pulled it out yet to work on. I thought that in the future time travel would be so common that schools would use them for history lessons. Think magic school bus except all the teachers can travel back in time. There would be strict rules of course to traveling through time, and when you’re a teenager, certain kids would be selected for special classes because they had traveled back in time and changed something int he past, contributing to history, and it was essentially their destiny to sign up for this time class and go back and do the thing they already know they did from history books. The actual main plot I haven’t thought up completely yet, but that’s the world.

    Hey if you guys end up seeing this, let me know what you think!

    All the best,

  25. @Stephen,

    I agree with your definition of the fourth type of time travel, and it seems the most likely explanation. My problem was that he always arrives amid great hubbub in a giant blue sphere, which means that his present self must have disappeared the moment his future self appeared.

    The show just never explained it, which is too bad since I think they could have had a lot of fun with him disappearing in the middle of lunch or conversations and they know it means he’s arrived somewhere in the ship.

  26. Fun podcast. Though I was pleased to hear Connie Willis’ “Doomsday Book” mentioned, I think her second novel in that world, “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” does far more interesting things with time travel, and explores that whole “time protects itself” thing in a really cool way. This is a top 5 book for me. I simple love it.

    Another time travel story that takes the “time is fixed” rule and twists it is Tim Power’s “Anubis Gates”. Simply fantastic.

    For me it seems clear that HP is a fixed time stream, and I loved this book, as I think its solution and resolution was the coolest and tightest within the series. In regards to Harry Potter and time turners, I think one of the things the story stressed was that the danger was not the changing of things, but of the wearer going mad, perhaps because they never can keep straight “when” they are, especially when jumping back and forth and meeting yourself. (Or maybe there’s a “Time Cop” problem of the same person not being able to occupy the same space.)

    For a different take, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsYWT5Q_R_w

  27. Absolutely the most internally consistent time travel story ever, and one that I didn’t have the ending figured out by the end Act 2: Dinosaur Beach by Keith Laumer. Old School SF at its best.

  28. I loved To Say Nothing Of The Dog, although it had several logical problems–the most glaring one being why nothing living could be brought back from the past (not even a rodent) but non-living items were fine. But TSNOTD was really a comedy of manners dressed up in a time travel plot (no reader is really expected to believe that time might unravel like a cheap sweater, and it had the funniest Mcguffin I’ve ever seen).

  29. Great episode.

    The Time Traveller’s Wife is a great example of how to use time travel for a character driven narrative. A beautifully crafted story with a really complex timeline. Good pick Mary.

  30. Great episode. I love time travelling stories, solving and creating paradoxes in original ways is complicated, but it’s oh so satisfying to read :) I liked the comparison to the 12 Monkeys style time travel to Oadipus Rex, in a way it can be seen as a modern version of the classic tragedies in which the hero can’t defeat fate or the will of the gods.

    I was actually surprised when you got such a reaction to Harry Potter, is Time Travel in Harry Potter really an issue people discuss? I thought it was clear in the book that any changes you do in the past already happened, you can’t change history as you know it. Harry saw a man defeating the dementors, he thought it was his father, when he travelled back in time and waited for his father to appear, he realized the mysterious figure was actually himself all along and so he stepped forward and defeated the dementors in front of his past self. He didn’t changed anything, he just completed a stable time loop.

    Using the Time Turner to save Harry’s parents sounds like the plot for a fanfiction if you want James and Lily in your story, but in the actual books the rules of time travel really don’t work that way.

  31. Did Mary ever say the name of the story where an agency put all of the major historical figures back in the past?

  32. The Harry Potter example is a weird one, and not quite like it’s portrayed on the episode because, as several people have mentioned, nothing actually changed. In fact, the present of the story was dependent upon them going back in the past and making it happen that way.

    The real paradox (contradiction?) came when Harry saved himself from the dementors, because if he doesn’t live long enough to travel back he can’t travel back and save himself. His surviving the dementor attack was dependent on him surviving the dementor attack.

    And in all honesty, I think the Harry Potter example when it comes to magic or the Star Wars example in terms of sci-fi generally is that while it’s generally a good idea to have consistent rules to follow, depending on the tone and focus of a story the non-existence of those rules may not actually ruin the story. Both of those stories did just fine playing fast and loose with various rules.

  33. I really like this writing prompt, but here’s my spin on it:

    -The travelers go back to occupy the minds of their former selves
    -It is a one way ticket

    The character conflicts are that they are essentially banishing the world that they experienced including those relationships etc. and they are going from geriatric to juvenile.

    As an aside, the time machine is actually the fabled fountain of youth that relocates every time it is used.

  34. Time Traveller’s Wife: What time will you be home for dinner dear?
    Time Traveller: Oh, about 1957

  35. I read in one of these Quantum Theory books that there’s only 2 types of Paradox;

    1. The Grandfather Paradox: An event which stops itself from happening, which then means that event can’t happen, etc.

    2. The Self-Creating Time-Machine: An event which causes itself to happen, like an inventor going back in time to give that time machine to himself before he’s invented it.

    Both of these violate the normal laws of ‘causality’ and both can be explained by the many worlds theory. Both can actually happen at the quantum level according to current understanding, so time travel is sort of possible, which is kind of freaky.

  36. Concerning “12 Monkeys” — I thought they had gotten enough information to prevent the plague from spreading in the end?

  37. IIRC, they found the point of origin, but they didn’t stop the plague. Bruce Willis’ character as a child saw his adult self taken down by airport security while his adult self saw the plague carrier get on the plane.

  38. Surprised you didn’t mention Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” from this year, up for a nebula and a hugo. Perfect demo of adding to the discussion, IMHO.

  39. Sorry, sorry, the white rabbit forgot to wind his watch, and so we’re late, we’re late…

    Now, did we get the time tunnel set right? All right, on 3. One, two… four! Did you miss it again?

    Oh, well, here’s a transcript of what the gang might have said if someone had adjusted the DeLorean correctly when they took that last ride through the time vortex…


    See you all on the slingshot through time with the Enterprise! And a load of whales? It’s yesterday once more…

  40. I’m VERY glad Mary brought up Doctor Who. Had the Doctor not been mentioned in this episode, I would have been very concerned about your sci fi creds and reported you to CONduit. :P That was a pretty great episode, by the way. And the Eccleston episodes in general were meh until about the last 3 or 4.

    I research paranormal/parapsychology topics, and time travel figures into that. A radio show in Minnesota releases their episodes as podcasts, and this interview with a guy who claims he was part of a CIA project that utilized Tesla’s technology to create gates in time/space and go witness historical events was very interesting. Even if you don’t believe him at all, it’s a very interesting concept and story: http://bit.ly/M0AFPa

    An interesting book by a local (UT county) author that falls into your writing prompt is Jack Knife by Virgina Baker: http://amzn.to/PlE0Jy. Time travel is used as a plot point but the focus of the story is on the Jack the Ripper murders themselves, and trying to solve the case using more modern techniques. Not perfect, but has some interesting viewpoints.

    Thanks for the episode, keep up the good work!

  41. Just have to mention that doctor who said that certain points in time are “Fixed” So it uses a combination model of the linear and the infinite branching model (Used more commonly in East Asian time travel–no paradoxes or creation model. They already existed). So for example, Hitler being born is a “fixed” time point. This came up a lot in Moffat but other things are gooey and can be manipulated. So minor events can be manipulated, but larger ones can’t… not that anyone cares. They explained it within the series quite a few times. (Between blowing up the chicken and the explanation of wibbly wobbly.)

    You can see it again when the Doctor is told his fate in the latest series and he doesn’t seem to care. Again with the “Fixed points.” Rose’s father IN EPISODE dying was described as a *fixed point.* =P Which is how they got away with it. They also have had episodes where they screwed up and had to replay everything exactly, if not the time stream will skip.

    =P Doesn’t anyone pay attention? Probably won’t be seen, but it’s probably just me that’s that obsessive about picking up such points.

  42. One really cool time travel story is “The Great Work of Time” by John Crowley…it’s in a short story collection. It’s about a group of individuals who are in charge of traveling through time to do things like killing Hitler etc., and how that plays out. Really elegant and interesting story.

  43. I”m playing catchup but couldn’t let this sit without adding David Gerrold’s “The Man Who Folded Himself” (warning that like much of his writing, may offend homophobics).

    I’m not quite sure which genre it fits, maybe across them.

  44. Quite late in coming, but I thought it might be useful to reference the game, Chrono Trigger, in this context. In addition to it having a wonderfully clear three act structure, it also has a slightly ridiculous fan base (housed at the Chrono Compendium) that has explored many time travel considerations. For example, if your story’s time travel doesn’t operate on the branching universe model, how does it take into account the fact that information can’t be destroyed? The Chrono series postulates a “darkness beyond time” where such information is deposited. However, that then raises the question of when that information is a person (or otherwise acting agency). And so on.

Comments are closed.