The second part of this series on writing time travel fiction is precautionary. Hopefully it will help you avoid stuff that’s just weird. A good example of weirdness is not Lea Thompson playing Lorraine Baines. No, a good example of weirdness is that family photograph that Marty carried around in Back to the Future. People loved that movie, so much so that it’s become a trope (very Back-to-the-Future), and its quotes have entered daily dialogue (“You’re my density!” and “1.61 gigawatts of electricity,” and “Great Scott!”). But as much as people loved the movie they hated that damn photograph, and the way Marty’s family faded in and out depending how he was messing up the timeline.
With that in mind, here are a few other cliches you’ll want to avoid if you’re writing about time travel:
- If the hero’s past and future selves encounter each other it’ll destroy the universe. This one is just plain stupid. And who’s to decide what’s stupid and what’s not? I am. It’s my blog.
- The Butterfly Effect. This one is just too worn-out or, as Doctor Who put it, “Just don’t step on butterflies, then.”
- Overuse of Daylight Savings Time, the International Date Line, and clocks that run backward, and any other type of artificial construct.
- Avoid having the hero travel back in time to give the time machine to himself. This is actually my favorite paradox, but it doesn’t make for a good story. You know what does make for a good story? Characters.
- Avoid the mysterious stranger who is revealed to be the hero’s past or future self. Readers will spot this one immediately. It’s much better to start with this as a premise and see how it goes from there, e.g., John the Younger has just discovered that spooky ol’ John the Older, who lives right next door, is actually his future self. Have the story, novel, screenplay, etc, start there.
- Going back in time 65 million years to be chased by a dinosaur. If you want to get chased by a T-Rex just fly down to Isla Nublar. It’s much closer.
- Repeating the same eras as destinations: I touched on this in Part I of this blog entry. There are certain time periods that have captured our imagination. Among them are prehistoric times, the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, the Wild West, World War II, the (not-so) good ol’ days of the 50s, and the Kennedy Assassination. But if you just quickly browse any good bookstore you’ll realize that history is much more than this. In fact, it’s been around for a long time.
- Having the main character change sex as a result of time travel. Robert Heinlein did this in “All You Zombies.” It worked for him, but chances are you’re not going to ooh-aah anybody with that zinger these days.
- Don’t make the future a dystopia. A nuclear ash-heap of post-apocalyptic, angst-ridden, one-armed assholes carrying assault rifles fighting off hords of zombies and a virtual reality “Big Brother” is … tiring as hell. I just made all that up, by the way. So, if I can make up a cliche in thirty seconds there’s a damn good chance it’s overused.
This is just a snapshot of the cliches. And also remember that if you’ve seen it once in a movie (e.g., Groundhog Day) it’s been done dozens of times in fiction.
A word of encouragement before I sign off … If you want your character to travel back to the Kennedy assassination it’s perfectly fine to do so. But what you need to do is find a fresh angle. I’ll give you an example as a sort of writing prompt: Instead of writing about the events in Dealey Plaza why not write about the interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald by the Dallas Police and the FBI? Make your time traveler one of the FBI agents. He could’ve “just flown in” from Washington. And not only does he have to deal with the stress of the situation he also has to deal with a culture that is hostile to Federal agents. Food for thought. Or, as they say in the UK, food for thought.
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