Time Travel as a Plot Device

I’ve had a really bad day or so, and it’s mucked with my creative writing muse.  However, I have been exploring possibilities with Witchfire as I mentioned before.  I bounced the ideas off of Deanna Troi, who I was collaborating with for a while.  It came up in the conversation that time travel is seen by some as a weak plot device that’s used when an author is out of ideas and wants an easy fix.  Given as this is supposed to be a writing blog, I thought we could explore the idea here.

Bruce Lee once said there’s no such thing as a bad technique, only a bad time to use it.  This is true of any tool.  Some are specialty items that will get used on rare occasion, some get used constantly.  I view time travel as one of those rarely used specialty tools.

Time travel as a plot device gets a bad rep because it’s been abused by writers, with some specific stories getting used over and over until they’ve become cliche.  I can even tell my readers where this all first started; X-Men #142 in February of 1980:

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This issue was the start of the ubiquitous time traveler from the future coming back to the present to prevent their future from occurring.  In this issue, we find out Senator Robert Kelly had been assassinated by Mutants, leading to mutants being declared a public danger, hunted by the government and either killed or put into concentration camps.  Sound familiar, movie fans?

This is also where the cliche of the time traveler being the child of two current protagonists comes from.  The X-Man sent back in time was Rachel Summers; daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey.  And for once, a comic book cover didn’t lie about everybody dying also.  The time traveling child gimmick was even used in the most recent season of CW Network’s “The Flash”, with Barry and Iris’s daughter coming to the past to try to prevent Barry from disappearing in the (upcoming) Crisis on Infinite Earths.

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History lesson aside, what’s the right way to use time travel?  First, it has to fit the genre.  If you’re writing a regular romance story (vs a paranormal or fantasy setting one), the only way “time travel” would likely work is as a dream sequence.  Something along the lines of the movie Peggy Sue Got Married.  If you’re dealing with a world with powerful magic, advanced science, or metahuman powers, time travel becomes more feasible.  It can work in other genres, but you need something very creative to establish suspension of disbelief in your readers.

Suspension of disbelief is key to ANY plot device.  Does what’s happening feel real within the context of the story and it’s reality?

Using time travel too cheaply does weaken that suspension of disbelief also.  Remember  what I said about it properly being a rarely used tool?  I think sometimes authors are afraid to make their characters work their way out of a situation or deal with consequences of actions that the author didn’t think out.  Other times, an author wants to create an “epic” storyline and tries to come up with the most dramatic situation possible.  I’ve written before about the failings of the constantly bigger villain or disaster as ongoing stories.  It’s caused Marvel and DC to reboot their universes more than once.

Long story short, think about the likely long term consequences in your story’s world for anything you write, even if you’re a wing it kind of writer.  Also, make sure you’ve got a good reason for your characters to muck with the time stream beyond “I want an epic cool story”.  If that’s your only reason, what will you do for an encore?

Use time travel as a last resort or for a well thought out story.  Readers will appreciate a well thought out solution where characters fight through a problem more than another time jump to fix this week’s mess.  The 80s cartoon Silverhawks literally got that bad too.  They introduced a team member named ‘Flashback‘ whose cybernetics let him time jump.  Every time the Silverhawks got in over their head after that…  *poof*  Mistakes corrected.

Also, if you want to add a bit of “realism” to it, consider some unintended consequences to the characters’ actions too; fallout and secondary unintended changes.  Aside from the old problem of parallel universes, there’s a Taoist theory that the universe seeks balance.  Heroes rise to challenge villains, and attempts to change the time stream may result it the universe seeking to rebalance itself in interesting ways.

The last problem with time travel is the cliche factor.  You want your readers to be on the edge of their seat.  If they yawn and say been there, done that… you’re doing it wrong.  Star Trek, for example, has done a pretty good job with it’s time travel stories over the decades.  The only ones I found grating were the trapped in a time loop episodes.  Don’t do the time traveling child trying to change the future thing unless you can put such a unique spin on it that it’s barely recognized as copying the X-Men template.  Instead, think more along the lines of Star Trek 4 or Star Trek: First Contact.

What Writers Can Learn From Comic Books

Payoff for something hinted at a couple days ago. 🙂

Some of my readers may still think of comic books as a kid’s media.  Reality is, that started going away in the 60s.  They deal with all kinds of social issues and topics that would be considered more mature.  They just also do it in a grandiose setting much like ancient myths.  I’ve read them for decades, and I’ve seen the good and bad in the work.  I believe there are multiple lessons for other writers to take away from them as well.  So, here we go:

  1. Begin with the end in mind: I know about half the writers out there at least partially fly by the seat of their pants.  That’s OK, BUT, know the direction you’re heading.  If you have an outline (mental or written) of how that final chapter is going to go, you will have an easier time getting your characters to that point.  For better or worse, this is one thing the comic companies are good at doing.  We have a 12 issue story arc that will end with X being defeated this way.

 

2. Think About the Long Term Implications of the Story’s Events: This is mainly for authors writing sequels.  You never know when that one shot story or novel will inspire you to write more however.  You may have fans push for a sequel also.  This is something the comic companies have done very poorly since the 80s, hence all the reboots.  Actions have consequences, even in good fiction.  Destruction will cause public insecurity and backlash.  Captured doomsday devices are potentially going to end up in wrong hands again, etc…

My favorite example here it Geoff Johns unleashing a whole rainbow of different Lantern rings on the DC Universe.  It was pretty clearly, “oh this is cool, let’s take it a step farther” thinking with no thought for the impact on the story universe.  So we went from Sinestro having a yellow ring, to him recruiting an army of yellow ringed psychos terrorizing the universe with the yellow rings.  Then there were Red Rings based on rage, then came Blue rings based on hope, and Violet rings based on passion (not love), Indigo rings based on Compassion, an Orange Ring based on greed, White Rings based on Life, and Black Rings based on Death that reanimated dead characters as zombie black lanterns…  By the time all was said and done, DC had the universe overflowing with various lanterns running amok.  They had to go back and destroy most of the rings to restore some semblance of balance to the story universe.  Recently, not having learned, they started doubling down and introduced non-visible light spectrum rings for hidden emotions like shame.

Learn from this.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a spy story and the bad guy discovers our secret agent’s real name and that they have a family.  There’s long term implications there of the bad guy repeatedly coming after the family, and selling the information to other villains so they can do the same.  It’s OK to do that, just have a plan on how to handle it long term, like the family being relocated with new identities.

 

3 Every Character Should Have A Purpose:  The comic companies have gotten big the last decade or so on throwing out new characters in the hopes of appealing to new readers.  On the surface, that may seem logical.  It’s really trying to side step the fact that the story telling is suffering.  It’s treating a symptom, not the cause.  The characters are frequently introduced with little though and poor or no backstories also.

Principle characters should have a decent backstory to define their motivations and goals.  It can be as simple as the heroine works with the hero because they’re childhood friends and she has a secret crush.  It’s a reason for them to be there, then all you need is what skills, observations, connections, etc… do they add to the story, and how those will come into play in the story.

Even minor or cameo character should have a reason for being there.  The co-worker passed in the hall tells the protagonist about an event, etc…  If they’re just there to show the office has a staff, they’re not needed in the story.

Note that major characters / the protagonist should have as much depth as possible also.  Stan Lee talked about how what made Spider-Man successful was that it wasn’t his powers that let him win the day so often, it was Peter’s heart and scientific knowledge.  The more clearly the character is defined, the easier it is to avoid that Mary Sue ending where the protagonist is simply better than the antagonist at their game.

4 Make your heroes actually be heroes and your villains be villains: A major failing of almost all mass media anymore.  There’s precious little difference between protagonists and antagonists in so many TV stories, movies, etc…

A villain with depth is great.  Magneto from the X-Men being a classic example.  He has a cause, and a reason why he goes about it the way he does.  At the end of the day though, he’s still a villain.  The irony of the character that’s lost on many modern readers is that he was oppressed by Nazis so he feels justified in using the same logic and ideology as Nazis to protect mutants.

Nowadays, everything is moral relativism though, and some try to justify that as realism.  It’s about as realistic as saying there’s no difference between a peace loving Muslim and a suicide bomber.  Think about all the best selling books and movies in recent memory also.  Every one of them had a hero that was standing up for what was right.  Everything from Hunger Games to Avengers.  The heroes may be flawed, and should be to some degree, but at their core, they’re still heroes.  Likewise no matter how the villains try to justify themselves, or how tragic a character they might be, they’re still villains.

5 Do NOT Get Overly Preachy with Social Messages: Something the Twitter crowd doesn’t understand.  You LOSE and outright alienate more readers this way than you gain.  Comics have gotten BAD about this the last decade also.  It’s the same kind of mentality that led Jussie Smollett to do what he did, with the same result that less people are going to be willing to listen to similar issues in the future.

Social issues have had a place in story telling since the dawn of time.  Comics started with them in the 60s.  They did a fine job up until the 90s also.  My favorite old example is a Captain America storyline where the government tried to compel him back into gvernment service.  It was a great story about the meaning of patriotism.  Steve ultimately told the government to stuff it, and that while he believed in the country and the American Dream, the government had no right to control a citizen’s life.  It was a good story that acknowledged the good and bad of patriotism and loyalty in general; how there had to be common sense and balance.  Compare that with today how everything is about how horrible the West is while more and more of it’s critics flee TO the West.

Even when part of a story is racism or sexism; things with no upside…  Don’t aggressively beat people to death with it, or portray any group as all bad.  Yes, there are sexist men out there, but labeling every straight male in your story as a rapist is unrealistic and will alienate the average reader.  Strive for a rational portrayal of social issues and you’ll reach more people.

 

OK, long post.  Took forever to write also.  Hopefully I gave some of my fellow authors some food for thought however. 🙂

Most Curious…

I posted a bit of thinking out loud regarding the rules for writing yesterday.  Afterwards, I asked for opinions from other writers regarding how “carved in stone” these rules were, etc…  I got six likes in the post, which is awesome.  Absolutely NO replies however…

It got me wondering if anybody REALLY reads posts, or if they just take a quick glance, then either decide they like it OR just click “Like” in the hopes of getting reciprocal likes.

Just making that assumption would be pointlessly negative though.  I personally will click “Like” on content I enjoy, but won’t add a comment unless I can add something actually meaningful to the conversation.

Realistically, either option is, or at least COULD BE true of a segment of the likes.  So could other explanations. The whole thing just has me wondering now if anything I write here IS truly liked OR if we’re just spinning our wheels here pretending that what we say or do here matters any more than social media.

And if anybody didn’t guess, I’m pragmatic and consider social media largely about vanity and killing time.  Decent marketing tool though.