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Writing Excuses 7.23: Time Travel

Writing Excuses 7.23: Time Travel


Key Points: 12 Monkeys: past is set, no changes. Doc Brown: branches galore. Sound of Thunder: changes in the past are reflected in the future you return to. "Paradoxes are often what time travel stories are about." [Brandon] Don't use time travel just as a MacGuffin to save the day, use it because it is interesting, it provides a conflict, or to grapple with character. Be aware that there is a lot of history of time travel stories. Don't try to use time travel just as a geewhiz factor. Be careful of ramifications and cliches. Make sure to put your own spin on it!

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 23, Time Travel.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you're in a hurry. I'm sorry I was waiting for somebody to go in the other direction.
[Brandon] None of us are clever enough for that, remember.
[Dan] 15 minutes in the past, because you will be in a hurry, and we will have... Would have been smart.
.yrruh a ni er'uoy esuaceB [drawoH]
[Mary] Oh, we are so doomed.
[Brandon] Okay. Well. Time travel.
[Howard] Dan, alternate history you is way smarter than...
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon. They're arguing.

[Brandon] Time travel. Let's first... The first thing we want to do is actually break down the different types of time travel you can use in your stories so that we have a common vernacular to use for dialogue.
[Dan] Awesome.
[Brandon] These are not actually the names for them. There are scientific theories for these. You can go to Wikipedia to find those. We're just going to name them after movies.
[Dan] We're just going to make up our own. I'm going to start with my favorite, 12 Monkeys-style time travel.
[Brandon] What is that?
[Dan] In which the past and the future are set. You can travel into the past, but your actions won't actually change anything, because it's already happened that way.
[Brandon] Yup. It's one of the easiest ways to do time travel without having to worry about paradoxes. So it constructs some pretty good stories for that reason.
[Howard] Then there's the alternate timelines one, where every time you travel back in time, it branches.
[Brandon] Yeah, it creates a branching map. It's kind of the quantum theory of the different possibilities all potentially could exist. You create a path where it does exist. I think usually Star Trek is using this one a lot. But it's also... We're going to name it after Doc from...
[Dan] Doc Brown.
[Brandon] Doc Brown because he explains this theory in the Back to the Future movies.
[Mary] Then there's the theory where you go back in time, and you... To make changes and they're reflected when you get back to the future.
[Howard] It's the Sound of Thunder.
[Brandon] Sound of Thunder.
[Dan] From the famous short story where a guy steps on a butterfly and destroys our times.
[Brandon] Turns the US communist. I believe that's what happens, isn't it?
[Dan] That was a very...
[Howard] Well, he comes forward and none of them speak the same language.
[Brandon] Yeah, they don't speak the same language, and there's communism... It's weird. It's a cool story if you haven't read it.

[Brandon] Okay. So let's talk about... Actually, before we do what I said before the podcast we were going to do, let's talk about the advantages of these three and the disadvantages of these three. Why would you use one over the other?
[Mary] Well...
[Dan] Well, you hit on this a little bit when we talked about 12 Monkeys-style is that it prevents paradoxes and allows you to set up interesting puzzles or very cool tragedies.
[Brandon] Right. I think with 12 Monkeys the whole argument is there might actually be a point in time that is still flowing, where changes can be made. If you go back in time, you can gain information. Jump back to the point that is still flowing forward, and from there, change the future. But conversely, if you're not using the Doc Brown or the Sound of Thunder one, you can't actually have paradoxes, and paradoxes are often what time travel stories are about.
[Dan] That is true.
[Howard] Yeah. I... Why tell any sort of a story? Because it's interesting. Because there's some sort of a conflict. If time travel is used, just as a MacGuffin, to save the day, then it's not particularly interesting. When I used time travel in the book Schlock Mercenary: Resident Mad Scientist, a lot of people complained that I was using it as a MacGuffin just to save the day. I was using the... I've already forgotten what we called it. I call it the save point. Where you go back to your save point and everything after that is lost.
[Brandon] Right. Sound of Thunder. You can go back and change things.
[Howard] Sound of Thunder. You can go back and change things. That's... What I wanted to point out was that everybody who poured all of their time and effort into sending this time traveler back to... Changing the future was essentially destroying themselves. Their whole universe. Everything that had been experienced for the last 40 some odd days or longer was being lost. There was supposed to be a real sense of loss at making the decision to change things.
[Mary] Actually, Doctor Who just played with this. I cannot remember the name of the episode, but there's a... I don't know why I referenced it.
[Brandon] Well, this is also...
[Mary] Can we go back in time and...
[Brandon] Basically what's done in Terminator, right? Though, one of the issues, and I'll go ahead and take us here... Time travel is a sticky thing for a writer to get involved in, because there's such a history of it, so many aspects of time travel have been covered, that it's very hard to break new ground. One of the big issues is that a lot of the editors and a lot of the long time readers have read all of these different stabs at it. So doing anything new with time travel is so hard.

[Mary] Yeah. A lot of what you have to look at is what it does... What time travel does... Allows you to do with the character. Because time travel as a geewhiz factor is...
[Brandon] Yeah, is basically gone. This is where we get into a story like Doomsday Book by Connie Willis which is basically the 12 Monkeys sort of thing. She's not changing the future. She uses time travel therefore to send the character back to the bubonic plague era, and show us what a modern person would go through living in that time and how horrible it would be and all of that. It's a character thing.
[Mary] I have a story called First Flight in which I send... I posit that you can only go back as far as... Until your birth. You can't go back past that. So they...
[Dan, Brandon] Quantum Leap.
[Mary] Yep. So they recruit the oldest possible people to time travel. I modeled the main character on my grandmother, who is...
[Brandon] Oh, that's clever.
[Mary] Well, she's 107 right now. So...
[Brandon] Awesome.
[Mary] So...
[Brandon] Wow.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Brandon] So if you found something... I'm sorry, I'm going off, but guys, here's a great story prompt for you. Something's wrong deep in the past, and you need to send a bunch... A team of centurions... What's it called?
[Dan, Howard] Centenarians.
[Brandon] Centenarians back in time.
[Dan] And you have to do it quickly.
[Brandon] Quickly.
[Dan] Before they get any older.
[Brandon] So it's like Old Man's War meets Terminator.
[Dan] Well, we have our writing prompt, then.
[Mary] Yeah. We've already jumped to... It is like time travel, we jumped ahead to the writing prompt.
[Brandon] Right. The writing prompt is first.

[Dan] Let's jump back. I really loved what Mary said about using time travel to delve into the character and what it does to the character. One of my favorite time travel stories is actually a Deep Space 9 episode where Captain Cisco is sent back in time to Earth before the civil rights movement, as a writer of pulp science fiction. It did this very cool kind of character-centric episode where he's dealing with all of these older problems. What he gains is a new perspective on the current war that he is fighting in this intergalactic future. So it was a way of teaching him with the past about his present.
[Mary] Yeah. The Doctor Who episode that I still can't remember the name of, the idea is that there are two time streams running parallel to each other, and Amy gets stuck in one that's running faster. So she winds up spending like 40 years of her life...
[Howard] Oh, yes, that was wonderful.
[Mary] It was wonderful. It's this very, very tightly contained story, but she spends 40 years of her life waiting for them to rescue her. When they rescue her, there's this... The moral dilemma in there is do they go back and rescue the Amy 40 years ago, which means that this Amy's life didn't happen, or do they try to rescue this Amy? It's an interesting moral dilemma, which they explore, I thought, very nicely.

[Brandon] Excellent. Let's stop for our book of the week. Mary, you were going to deliver for us...
[Mary] The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. In this, as you can guess, it's about time travel. The main character is... Has a genetic disorder that causes him to randomly jump to different points in time. It's a love story between him and this woman that he has known for her entire life, but because of this thing, they... Their paths are always intersecting at different points. It's really interesting. It's all told in first-person, so it's also an interesting narrative structure. I loved it.
[Howard] Okay. Well, hop in your time machine and go over to -- we're always looking for new ways to get you out there, and this was the opportunity to use that. You can support the podcast by kicking off a 14 day free trial membership and downloading a copy of the Time Traveler's Wife which you can listen to for free.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] That is read by Fred Berman, by the way.
[Mary] No, there's two people. There's a second reader as well.
[Dan] Oh, is there? Cool. It's not listed in mine. But, Fred Berman and friend.
[Mary] CD someone.

[Brandon] All right. Time travel...
[Howard] I want to come back to the Time Travel's Wife really quick, because what you described, and after having mentioned Doctor Who... One of the things that the recent few seasons of Doctor Who have provided us, which is a fascinating character excuse for time travel, is the story between the Doctor and Riversong, who are meeting at different points in their lives. It's not the same as the Merlin show, where Merlin's going backwards and what's her name is going forwards. It's a case where they're just... They have to keep notes. Has this happened, has this happened? It's fascinating, and fun.
[Mary] Yeah, that was actually one of my favorite things. Early on, before they introduced Riversong, there was a moment where the Doctor sees someone on the street and they say something, and then they stop and pause. You've never met this character before. She says, "Oh, you haven't met me yet." I'm just like, "Oh!"
[Howard] That's wonderful.
[Dan] Yeah. One of my favorite lines of Doctor Who is actually from a Sylvester McCoy episode where he's in... I don't even remember, it wasn't even ancient England. But somebody called him Merlin. He kind of looked askance at them for a minute, and then he just kind of slid into the role. Later the companion said, "So have you been Merlin?" He said, "Well, not yet." But this has happened enough that he can kind of roll with it, and go.

[Brandon] Problems with time travel, meaning narratively? Issues that our listeners need to watch out for, or cliches that have been done to death?
[Dan] Okay. Here's one of our big ones. If you make time travel possible, you have to consider the ramifications. Our huge example for this is Harry Potter. I think it's the third one.
[Brandon] Oh, boy.
[Dan] Where time travel, which is arguably the most powerful magic in this entire world, the only thing they ever use it for in the entire series is helping Hermione get some better grades.
[Brandon] It's one of the best books. Yet it comes up time and time again, it's people's biggest complaint about some of these books. Things that we could use time travel for -- saving Harry's parents! There's whole lists on the Internet of like 50 things...
[Dan] Yeah. That's like the classic Internet thing, is if you have time travel and you don't use it to kill Hitler, you're an idiot.
[Brandon] There's a great story on about that, by the way. Time Travelers' forum. We'll find it in the liner notes. It's not actually called that. But you should read it. It's delightful.
[Howard] Another problem that I see is when you're using the 12 Monkeys model, that the paths to the future are...
[Brandon] Are set.
[Howard] Fixed, or set. People will often... The narrator or some character in the story will often say that, "Oh, you can try to change it, but the time stream works to fix itself."
[Brandon] Right.
[Howard] Okay. If you want me to believe that, you have to show me the mechanism by which that happens. Don't just make it be like Oedipus Rex. Oedipus Rex is fundamentally a time travel story in which he tries to change the future that he's been prophesied to have. You need to do something more interesting than that. At least in Oedipus Rex, we could believe that the gods were at work, pulling the strings.
[Brandon] You're pointing out that there have been time travel stories for the last 2000 plus years. So...

[Mary] Actually, this brings up a pitfall of time travel, which is time travel into the future. If you look at HG Wells Time Machine, he travels into the future. The reason I think most people don't do it is because it's very easy for your stories to become dated very quickly because...
[Dan] Since we're not mollusks and butterflies...
[Howard] Well, we're not Morlocks and butterflies, and we don't have hoverboards. We are fast approaching...
[Dan] That was one of my favorite days to be an Internet user, was the day that we caught up to Back to the Future 2.
[Brandon] We haven't yet.
[Howard] We haven't yet. It's 2015.
[Brandon] 2015.
[Dan] That's right. That's right. There was some other thing. Anyway...
[Brandon] If we hadn't corrected you, our fans would've, so I'm glad we caught that.
[Dan] Man, they would've. They would have nailed me. I don't remember what hoverboard day was then. I don't remember what that was about.
[Mary, Brandon] Maybe the day it was invented?
[Dan] Could have been. Yeah. Now we talk about the perils of time travel. I want to use a bad example from Doctor Who. I'm sure the fans are going to rake me over for this one. But one of the very early Christopher Eccleston episodes has the companion saving her own father's life...
[Howard] Oh, that one. Yes.
[Dan] Then the monsters come out, because "you've screwed with the timestream, now we have to eat you." That's a cool episode. Except that that never ever happens in any of the other episodes...
[Mary] I know.
[Dan] Where they screw with the timestream all the time. So again, you have to be consistent with your usage of time travel.
[Howard] Well, the one justification for that is that I don't know that they've ever screwed with the timestream that they've already screwed with.
[Dan] Within their own lives.
[Howard] Within their own lives.
[Dan] That is arguably an excuse for it.
[Mary] No, it's not, because they have. It annoys me no end.
[Howard] Well, there you go.

[Brandon] What are the time travel cliches now? Becoming your own parent?
[Mary] Becoming your own parent.
[Brandon] Yep. That's a very big one.
[Howard] Killing your grandfather and then dying.
[Brandon] Killing your grandfather.
[Mary] Going back to kill Hitler. Saving Lincoln.
[Brandon] You becoming a specific historical figure. Which is still fine, but realize it's a cliche. That you were Abraham Lincoln all along!
[Mary] There is actually a really interesting science fiction story that does that, where they... But they looked in the past, and none of the major historical figures were there. So there's an agency in the future that just goes back and populates the empty roles.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] That's awesome.
[Mary] It's actually really interesting.
[Brandon] A lot of these things can be done well. We just wanted to warn you of a few of the cliches that editors have seen time and time again.
[Dan] Like we said at the beginning, your editor... Odds are very good that they know the genre better than you do. So you need to make sure you're well versed in it, before you start messing around.
[Brandon] You can go find these things, though, and give your own spin on it. I wrote a story about a camera that can take pictures of the past. That has actually been done before. I hadn't realized it. I talked to my editor. He said, "Here's a story that's done it. Go take a look at this and make sure that you're adding something new to the dialogue." Which I went and did.
[Howard] I loved Larry Niven's take on time travel, which was where he said, "If time travel exists, and it can't, then the story must be about magic." So the time traveler goes back in the past to get a horse, and comes forward in time with a unicorn. It's story after story, of this guy leaving on the far... Leaving the far future to go collect things for the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who is apparently a retarded child because government has gone so far downhill, and he keeps coming forward in time with fantastical mythological and magical things.
[Mary] One of my favorite time travel series we haven't actually talked about is Kage Baker's The Company. Which is... The way she posits it, that you can change things. But you can't go back and travel forward again. You can... So what you have to do is like if you want to have a treasure in the future, the way to monetize it is to have someone take the treasure and bury it in the past and leave notes for the people in the future to dig it up. So what she says is you can't change recorded history, which is, I think, a very interesting way around it.

[Brandon] Interesting. Yeah. All right. We are completely out of time. So we're going to leave you with the writing prompt that I gave you before, and dare you to write the story before one of us does, because we may actually do it. That is, only... You can only go back in your own time, and they find something catastrophic has happened a hundred years ago. They need a team of...
[Dan] Super old dudes.
[Brandon] Super old...
[Howard] Dudes and dudettes.
[Brandon] Probably dudettes, statistically. To be trained like as Navy SEALs and go back and stop it.
[Mary] Yeah. I should say that this is a novel I'm working on. Thanks, Brandon.
[Dan] That exact one? Okay.
[Mary] Close.
[Dan] Then do it differently than Mary.
[Mary] I'm kidding, because even if they write it exactly the same, it'll be a different novel.
[Dan] They have to grant sentience to one of those giant turtles because they're like 300 years old.
[Brandon] You're totally out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: character, cliche, conflict, macguffin, paradoxes, spin, time travel
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