How to Write a Time Travel Story – 10 Things to Consider & 5 Examples

How To Write A Time Travel Story

If you’re a writer and a fan of time travel themes, your next project could naturally be writing a time travel story. This is easier said than done though and naturally, you will have some questions in terms of formatting, how to get point of view across and prevent any confusion between different time points. It is a good idea to take some time and do your research here.

Time travel is a famous sci-fi genre and is used popularly in stories, TV series, plays and more. When used skillfully, it can turn your story into a real page-turner. However, time travel stories can appear to be deceptively simple on the surface.

In comparison to other types of stories, writing a time travel story is more complex. There are many rules of science, laws of physics and do’s and don’ts of time travel which come into play. So, if you want to write a time travel story, you have to make allowances for them.

Even if you’re not going to make allowances, you have to be aware of these elements before you begin to write. So, if you’re wondering how to write a time travel story, the following will help you on your quest.

How to Write a Time Travel Story

When you’re writing time travel books, you have to consider that there are a lot of factors that come into play. First of which is that time travel is one element that binds both fictional and factual elements of science.

These include topics like wormholes, black holes and then enchanted possessions that grant the protagonist with time travel. It is also a subject that resonates with people of all ages. Traveling in time is a fascinating thing and there are endless possibilities that this medium offers.

That’s why many writers often make mistakes when they start writing. Additionally, you’ll see that when you start writing time travel stories, you are going to have to face different problems in your writing; the following are some of them:

1. Picking the Model of Time Travel

As an author, you’re the one with the power to dictate how your fictional universe is going to be. But, time travel has its own rules and regulations too. You also have to pick the rules and regulations that will apply to your model of time travel. The following are the ones that you should consider finding the answers:

  • Is it possible to change the past or the future?
  • Does some significant action need to be undertaken to trigger this change?
  • How many timelines are there?
  • Does going into the time loop open a new timeline each time?

With the help of these questions, you can have a more definite idea about the kind of time traveling model you will be applying to your story.

A good way to go about this is to make sure that your model of time travel is believable, even if the idea appears wholly impossible. Take a look at Dr. Who as an example. The story follows the adventures of an extraterrestrial being that is a Time Lord and travels the universe in a phone booth.

This isn’t the most possible situation but with his status as a Time Lord, it is believable that he would know how to manipulate time. That touch of believability is the element that allows readers to connect with the story.

2. Understanding the Role of Time Travel in the Story

Once you have established the model of time travel that you’re going to use, you have to also decide on the role that time travel will play in your story. This also impacts the kind of time travel and the science that you are going to apply here.

Remember that the more central the role that time travel has in your story, the more you will have to explore the concept and explain it to your readers. If you’re a newcomer to time travel, it’s a good idea to keep the role of time travel at a minimal.

This gives you more creative freedom and you’re able to also add a touch of mystery. Your readers will be entranced by the time travel but they will also be more focused on the entire story as well. A major thing to avoid here is to turn your time travel device as a plot point or a loophole.

It can turn into a cheesy cliché which is only good if you’re trying to write a comedy time travel book. For a serious one, clichés can be a major issue.

3. Using Time Travel Paradoxes in the Story

One of the major areas that you need to focus when figuring out how to write a time travel story is the paradoxes. These occur because there are many areas of time travel which can start to contradict with each other. While they do add a fun element to your writing, it is necessary not to lose sight of the major goal.

Generally, a rule of time travel that applies or counts in the first chapter should still apply or remain valid for the next few chapters too. If there are going to be any ripples caused by the character’s journey in time travel, make sure that these ripples are present in the other chapters too.

Apart from continuity, you will see that there are certain paradoxes which are not only more frequent but present such a large problem that they have their own names. The following are the ones you can use or try to avoid when trying to write about time travel paradoxes.

The Grand Father Paradox

This paradox is a popular one and raises the question of if you make any changes in the past, will it affect your future self too? It’s famously shown in the first Back to the Future Movie where Marty McFly has to help his dad start dating his mom, otherwise, he’s technically never going to be born.

Similarly, you can apply the grandfather paradox in your story and try to add a new dimension for your readers and you to explore. It’s an interesting paradox which introduces a unique perspective and makes your readers really think.

You have to remember to use it skilfully though since it has been done so many times that it has turned almost into a cliché.

The Hitler paradox allows you imagine how the world would have been without a particular leader or person

The Hitler Paradox

The Hitler paradox shares similarities with the grandfather paradox in that any changes in the past might affect the future self. However, changes here are considered on a larger scale than just killing someone’s grandfather.

Imagine if spies were sent back in time, to kill Hitler before he rose to power. This means that the Nazi party would never have been formed, the Holocaust would never have happened. How then would the world have been shaped? Would World War II have occurred?

This paradox opens up a lot of questions and makes room for answers too so you can explore different ideas with ease.

The Predestination Paradox

This paradox refers to a time loop that is caused by your past self which makes it necessary for your future self to go back in time and try to break the loop. A contrast to this can be when a predestination loop is created to keep your past self safe, allowing your future self to live on.

A good example of the predestination paradox can be seen in the story Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The house and the children are kept in a consistent time loop to prevent them from being persecuted by people for being different. While they’re kept in one loop, they also don’t age at all despite the fact that decades have gone by.

It’s an interesting paradox and can give you a lot of room for creative freedom. Just be careful as it can also create a lot of loose ends or plot holes.

The Bootstrap Paradox

This is a unique paradox as it occurs when something is sent back to the original person, which then means that the original person doesn’t have to create it at all. A Rick and Morty episode shows a good example of this when the portal gun is actually gifted to Rick by other versions of him.

However, it also means that at some point, in some other timeline, a future Rick did invent the portal gun. By sending the gun to the Rick in this timeline, future Rick was able to save his life because this Rick was not the one to do it.

You can apply this in other areas of your writing as well or for other concepts as well. For example: Suppose that J.K.Rowling was actually given the finished scripts for her books by a future version of herself. That could explain why her tweets and opinions about the Potterverse are so different from the rest of the world. She’s just not aware of the work she wrote.

These paradoxes can all be used to add interest in your story. Additionally, the flexibility in their usage means that you can turn your story into a real page turner.

Keep things easier and plotlines untangled by making a time line map of the story you have in mind

4. Mapping Out Timelines in Your Work

When you’re developing the plot for your time travel story, you need to start mapping out the timelines that are active in your story as well. As a rule of thumb, your time travel story should include a minimum of three timelines.

  • The first timeline is the one where the story is taking place including the protagonist, antagonist and supporting characters.
  • The second timeline is the one where history comes to life. It’s the one where all external, major events will take place.

Once you have established these two timelines, you will then map out the third timeline. This one is dedicated to time travel. With this one, you have to start noting the alternative events that happen with the protagonist, antagonist and other characters.

You also have to consider where the timelines will combine, detract or even have plot points or loopholes. This should be done on a large whiteboard or a piece of paper that you can continue to use a reference. It can remove much of the confusion you might have about how to write a time travel story with a coherent plot.

5. Being Historically Accurate

Always make sure that you’re writing about a particular time, century or even country in accordance with the historical accuracy of that time. This means that you’re going to have to do a lot of research to make sure that your work is relevant and incorporates proper, historical elements.

This also means that two to three hours on Wikipedia or Google aren’t going to cut it here. You will have to go to the museum, the library or even talk to professors and relevant professionals to get the information you need. Learn as much as you can about the lifestyle, the technology used, the artifacts and even the mode of transportation.

The more you know, the better you’d be able to write about it in your time travel story. The only area where you have room for speculation is when you’re writing about a character that travels into the future. You’re then free to imagine how the world would be.

However, if you’re going back in time, it’s time to do your research and spend your time being relevant here. In fact, try to imagine yourself as a historian because that is the amount of research you will have to undertake here.

Check the accuracy of all the facts that you are planning to add to your story to avoid inaccuracies

6. Fact Checking Before Adding Information

As an author, you have complete creative freedom over what you’re writing but be careful not to change up historical events to suit your story. This can not only ruin the narrative, it can also end up offending others.

In the movie Titanic, Officer William McMaster Murdoch is shown shooting and killing a passenger before killing himself with the same gun, as the ship is about to go down. Unfortunately, there is no proof that this incident ever occurred.

It was only added to make the movie dramatic. This ended up making the family and relatives of Mr. Murdoch extremely upset at seeing his memory tarnished in this manner. It also drew a lot of criticism from historians who had studied the sinking of the Titanic for decades.

So, if you’re writing about time travel to a particular time or incident, always fact check or do your research about it. If you’re talking about real life characters, try to keep their role minimal, especially if you feel that it is going to make people angry.

7. Avoid Creating Dumps of Information

When you research or learn something new, it can be pretty hard to resist not wanting to talk about all that you have learned. However, it is something else to learn something and completely another to write about it. You have to ensure that you’re not getting carried away and just dumping useless information on the reader.

Information dumps occur when the author completely forgets about the reading age of their audience and starts to talk about the most irrelevant things in great detail. Most authors can avoid this but beginners fall into this trap early, especially when talking about the plumbing or the cooking methods. The author can then dedicate paragraphs or even pages about this particular area.

It is interesting that you found out the 12th Century recipe of country pottage, a peasant dish but, you don’t have to include it verbatim in the story. You have to remember that you’re writing a story, not a textbook. Your readers aren’t interested in replicating or knowing what the characters are cooking.

If you must add this detail, try to gloss over them as much as possible while still retaining the relevant bits.

8. Accommodate the Cultural Climate

When writing about the past, you have to pay attention to the cultural climate of that time. So, when your character time travels to the past, they will have to assimilate to the cultural climate. Avoid trying to focus on how difficult life is without running water or proper jeans pants or other small details.

Instead, give a broader picture of how a 21st century, independent woman has to deal with when thrown into the 15th century. At this time, women were expected to be housewives and a working woman was rare. Women were also never allowed to go anywhere alone or unaccompanied.

Similarly, attitudes toward children were also different with many being expected to be seen but never heard. Servants and maids were common for everyone to have. It was also understood that children would be sent away to the nursery once the guests had all seen them.

The archaic cultural climate of the past can make your time travel story more appealing and add an authentic touch of history into it.

Make sure that you keep the language historically accurate when writing about time travel

9. Keep the Language in Mind

This is an area that some writers often forget about. Don’t make it seem like your protagonist just shows up in the 9th century in Britain with the Vikings and everyone was able to communicate without problems. English wasn’t the common language at that time. Instead, Old Norse was the commonly used language.

If you are including language in a foreign tongue, make sure to add a translation right next to it. This will make sure that your readers understand the subject matter that is being discussed:

  • Kemst þó hægt fari – You will reach your destination even though you travel slowly.

As you can see, not everyone who isn’t fluent in this language would be able to distinguish the meaning behind the phrase. You will have to help your readers here.

Over the years, Old Norse has been modified to make way for English. So, you should make sure to include some phrases in this language in your work. Or you can show that your protagonist was studying Old Norse so can luckily understand and communicate with them.

10. It’s Going to be a Big Journey

Learning how to write a time travel story is going to be a big journey for you. You have to make sure that you’re ready to commit here because time travel stories can require a lot of research, a lot of rewrites and attention to continuity. You will not be able to write this book in a month or two. Some authors have even taken a year or more to write their time travel novel. 

As you can see, there is no hard and fast rule about how much time you should dedicate to your writing, but the more time you invest, the better your results will be. Additionally, remember to use timeline maps, do your research and also go and meet people to get more information. Writing a time travel novel can actually be a very fun undertaking.

It allows you to truly expand your mind and challenge your skill sets as a writer. So, it is time to stop wondering about how to write a time travel story and start to write one!

The only way to understand time travel stories is to read some!

5 Examples of Good Time Travel Stories

Before you head to the writing table, if you are still facing any doubts about writing a time travel novel, it is a good idea to try and read some. Reading such novels will give you a closer look at different elements and how you should handle other fine details that are mentioned here.

The following is our collection of the best time travel stories for you:

1. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Read it here: Outlander

Famed for its historical accuracy, romance and simple time travel elements, The Outlander series has won awards and acclaim. It has also been developed into a series which has also earned a lot of popularity.

The time travel in this revolves around a Scottish myth surrounding the standing stones which are believed to be gateways for fairies and other mythical creatures. Turns out, they allow one to time travel into the past or the future as well.

2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Read it here: 11/22/63

It has taken Stephen King decades to write a time travel story but he’s hit a home run with this one. 11/22/63 is based on how the life of an English teacher in Lisbon is turned upside down when his friend reveals that his storeroom opens to the past.

It leads to Jake promising to take on the mission and stepping into a world where legends and people of influence like Elvis, Ike and John F Kennedy are still alive. So, what’s the mission? To prevent JFK’s horrendous assassination and change the course of American history forever!

3. Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers

Read it here: Medusa’s Web

This one is a simpler story based on two estranged people meeting with the rest of their family at a funeral. With the reunion come a lot of family secrets and a dangerous setting where time travel has turned into an addiction for certain members of the Madden family.

To save his sister, himself, and the family, Scott must use the addictive time travel “spiders” himself but will this lead to their eventual doom or will it help them uncover the mystery of the Madden family?

4. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Read it here: Slaughterhouse Five

A more fun take on time travel, the Slaughterhouse shows you the funny side here. A time traveler becomes unstuck and unable to control his traveling abilities. This leads to him showing up in random places such as World War II and even an alien zoo.

The adventures all have a light airy feel to them and show you that sometimes, time travel doesn’t have to be too serious. It can be light and fun too.

5. The Time Travelers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Read it here: The Time Travelers Wife

Another story that explores the powerlessness that a traveler feels when he cannot control his journeys, this story focuses on the psychological impact of having to live such a life. The traveler has a genetic flaw which allows him to time travel but it is not something he can control and it occurs at random.

When placed in such a scenario, the gift of time traveling becomes a burden instead of a superpower and almost drives one crazy.

With these books and tips mentioned here, you can easily find out how to write a time travel story without any issues.