Five Time-Travel Cliches to Avoid Like a Cursed Child

Oh, cliches! Everyone tells you to avoid them in your writing, but how do know which are cliches and which are archetypes? Which are cliches and which are reverend time-honored anchor-tropes?

The real proof  of a cliche is that dull thud with which it lands in the mind when we read it. It happens because a cliche was never really resonant to begin with. It was always lacking, accepted for a time simply because it was new.

Here are five time-travels situations that are quite dull. And why they thud so.

I. And Now I Had Never Been Born!

I shouldn’t have to explain this one, but just to hear myself talk, I will. If you changed the past so much you no longer exist, who existed to change the past? If no one existed to change the past, it wasn’t changed and you do exist. Wait – doesn’t that mean it’s logically impossible to change the past so much you don’t exist? Yes! It does!

To write a story in which a character changes the past so much he deletes his own existence is to write a story in which you inadvertently undermine the logical foundation of your own fictional world. Unless you are trying to portray a paradox – a situation in which logic doesn’t apply and consistency is shattered – you’ve just insulted your reader’s intelligence.

What about one character changing the past so much that another character doesn’t exist? Still logically inconsistent? Well, it depends. Did the deleted character play a deciding role in getting the Time-Traveler to take off? Then yes, still logically inconsistent.

If not, then what you have may not be logically inconsistent. But you should still ask, is this boring? Because the whole interest of a story is in its characters. If they never existed in the first place then what do the other characters owe them? (Not existing is different from dying.) And what sustains the reader’s interest? And why do the existing characters remember them? (We’ve circled back to logical inconsistencies, now.)

Hear all those dull thuds? Quick – turn down the lights and shove in a dance number with magic wands!

II. Time Traveler’s Plans Never Work!

Oh no! Your character, having traveled to the past to stop his world-class pianist fiance losing her pinky in a sausage-making accident, has stepped on a crack in the sidewalk – a sidewalk he shouldn’t have been on – and now in the present his mother has broken her back in that sausage-making accident and can’t even walk! Oh, laws! People should never, ever time travel and change the past! Phew! What a valuable lesson we’ve learned.

Dear writer, if the conclusion of all stories about time travel is that people shouldn’t time travel, then truly, you’ve undermined your reader’s reason to read time-travel stories (or watch time-travel stage plays.) Besides, isn’t life already just as dangerous the first time around? Doesn’t your conclusion imply that humans shouldn’t be alive because it’s too dangerous?

A better version of this might be the conclusion that it is sneaky, and bad sportsmanship to sneak behind your opponents’ backs to a time they can’t come and undo their actions. Or that it leads to an endless contest of revision, like Wikipedia articles about politicians.

Further:

A. The Nature of Drama.

What is drama, dear Writer? It is a fabric woven of warp and woof: human passion and human action. Passion refers to fate: human beings being acted upon; the things we suffer and undergo due to other actors or to past choices. Action refers to intentional movements: human beings becoming willfully active within our own surroundings and circumstances, and changing them.

This profound and complex fabric is the only possible backdrop for glory, grandeur, tragedy, humor, and hope. It is the only thing that makes drama gravid. Its illustration is the point of drama, and its purpose is to remind human beings what they are.

The Eternally Frustrated Time-Traveler cliche undermines this tapestry, because it is all passion and no action. Nothing is accomplished. It sets up a fictional situation in which the warp is a meter thick and the woof is a spider’s silk-thread. It is undramatic.

If you can’t think of a way to write about time travel with artistic proportion, don’t bother, please. Because we can always go and watch reruns of Doctor Who if we want really good time-travel fiction in which Time-Travelers actually accomplish things.

B. The Nature of Good and Evil.

Why does an author not allow a character to change an evil circumstance without a worse one appearing in its place? It’s a philosophical viewpoint known as “The Best of All Possible Worlds.” In the popular understanding, this viewpoint says that the only reason God allows evil is because it was the best he could do. Everything happens for a reason, and if we knew the reason we would be grateful for every evil thing we now want to change.

This is a shocking idea; it is the idea that God, or the Universe, or even victims, need evil. That the greater good cannot be accomplished without it.

The orthodox view (i.e., the one in which good people prefer to believe) is that it is right moral agents should be allowed to exist and make choices, and that however evil the resulting circumstances, good can still come out of them.

Evil is necessary? Or Good relentlessly works itself out of the results of Evil? That’s a big difference, dear Writer.

And the same is true of the author, who plays the role of God in her fictional universe. If God can work with evil, how much more can he work with good? If you are going to allow your character to time travel in the first place, then what’s wrong with allowing your character to improve the circumstances with which you can work to steer your story back toward the right outcome?

III. The Butterfly Effect! or, Time-Traveler’s Plans Work Too Well!

Oh, Joy! We’ve gone back in time and saved Buckbeak the Hippogriff! Let’s dash forward 20 years to check nothing untoward has come of our act.

Oh no – why is Hagrid suddenly the Minister of Magic? Is it our fault he’s now placed the entire wizarding community under an Imperius curse, forcing wizard-kind to live in harmony with enormous slavering Liver-Eared Gore-Kittens?

You don’t remember reading that part of the story? That’s because J. K. Rowling had too much sense to allow outsized outcomes from minor changes. At least back in the 1990’s, she did.

Remember artistic proportions? Right. Good. You can keep that little tidbit in your moleskin bag.

This cliche reveals a shallow understanding of the origins of events and situations. No hurricane is due to the flap of a butterfly’s wings; at least, not without lots and lots of other and much bigger things contributing. That hurricane would still be there without that first butterfly. And Ron and Hermione would still get married without a specific instance of jealousy.

IV. Alternate Timelines

This is what ruined Steins;Gate, which was otherwise fantastic. Arguably, this isn’t really time travel, but rather is just timeline hopping. It opens up the horrific possibility that people you love are living horrific lives endlessly in endless horrific iterations. It tells you that your hero is fine with that, as long as his loved ones are happy in his timeline – bad hero! Bad storytelling, bad science, bad morals, bad theology.

Only if it’s clear that the alternate timelines come into and go out of existence with time-traveling action is this acceptable. Otherwise, we just have horror disguised as sci-fi.

V. Killing Alternate Timeline Characters

Your protagonist from the future has saved the day; but now, the timeline he came from ceases to exist, so he must fade away. The reader, however, is smarter than you think he is. He realizes that killing off the main character is killing off the main character, regardless of whether the author considers it a disposable iteration of the main character.

He curses you as stupid and moves on to a new author.

VI. A new cliche: Time Travel Sequel as Authorial Self-Justification

This is the “instant cliche” of using time travel plots that change nothing to justify an author’s previous plotting choices. How cool would it have been if a Potter and a Malfoy actually saved Cedric Diggory’s life in The Cursed Child, without turning him into a Death Eater and changing Harry’s destiny and having to be undone… marking our heroes forever as the boys who chose to kill another boy rather than let him have free will? What if the Malfoy kid confronted his dad as a kid, and this is what actually led to Draco’s inability to kill Dumbledore? Wouldn’t this be more interesting?

Or get this: Imagine if Potter’s kid started a secret tradition of Harry’s descendants going back and testing themselves by facing Voldemort? What if each generation, one by one, saved one of Harry’s friends? What if eventually, Voldemort were so frustrated and overwhelmed by Potters popping up and confronting him, that he dwindled to a minor boogie, and only the keepers of time-history and the Potter family (and of course we as readers) knew the true and full and multi-temporal story?

Not only would something like this have been more interesting; not only would it have created the foundation for an endless cyclical heroic saga; not only would it have given real meaning to the children’s efforts (a dignity bestowed on Harry but not on his son;) and not only might it have cultivated a sprawling tribe of super-wizards; but Rowling could have avoided slandering the previously untouched reputation of one of her nicest characters.

The time travel sequel should never simply answer the question, did the author write so good a story that it can’t be changed? Because ultimately that’s telling the readers a story about the writer’s writing process and there’s nothing more boring and pointlessly experimental than that.

What other fallacies anchors this device?

Sometimes it’s the reader’s assumed preference for an unchanged timeline: the wish that everything one has vicariously lived through should not be for nothing. However, authors should have the courage to work with this wish, not tremble before it. They should surprise readers with new solutions.

In my opinion, writers should take a specific approach to reader’s wishes and expectations. On the one hand, reader’s wishes are often an excellent guide to what not to do. Readers in general seem to unerringly sense the fault in an author’s misstep. On the other hand, I don’t think authors ought to use reader’s wishes as too literal a guide to what should happen in a story.

There’s a reason readers are readers rather than authors. They enjoy the passive role; they are looking for literary leadership. They don’t want to be mishandled, but they do want to be handled. Be an authorial Giacomo Casanova, not an authorial Marquis de Sade. Satisfy them if that’s the best you can do. Surprise and satisfy them at once, if you can.

Then again, this device might be anchored by the author’s own wish for an unchanged timeline. Ick.

So how would this work in Cursed Child? Let’s say they save Cedric, but because he died in the original timeline, he is magically unable to stay there. Now they have to bring him back with them… perhaps just in time to see his dad before he passes away. Dad Diggory finally forgives Harry. Now Cedric has to adjust to and live in a later world; finish school behind his original peers; becomes best friends with little Potter and little Malfoy…

…it’s all so interesting, and I came up with it in 5 minutes!

(WHY? WHY? WHY? Is some moronic aid or intern doing her plotting for her? Or has she just gotten old and rich and coasty?)

If you do want to write a time-travel story:

Here’s a suggestion to stay fresh and solid: ask real questions about time-travel. If you aren’t curious about it, don’t write about it.

For instance:

Is there a master timeline?

Does eternity bound time?

Or does super-time bound time?

Or does non-time bound time?

Are there anchor events and changeable events?

Does the time-traveler encounter a hard and unyielding past; a foggy and indistinct future?

Is the past in some other way experienced differently from the present or the future?

Do people experience time-travelers as different in some subtle way?

Do people and objects move through time as through “an ever rolling stream”?

Or do people and objects generate time?

Is time travel a magical way of keeping a person static while processes rewind around him?

Or is time-travel a miraculous way of experiencing angelic modes of existence?

Or is time-travel a scientific way of manipulating the fourth dimension*?

Should time travel really be forward and backward? Or might there be such a thing as sideways time-travel? Pocket time-travel? Side-along empty timelines which can be traveled, and from which prime reality can be entered and exited?

If people were made of light, would time-travel be natural to them?

Are there natural eddies, currents, and folds in time?

Does time have characteristics that mirror space/matter’s gravity, extension, and compressibility?

Must time be traveled in a machine? Or might there be other methods, such as the angel who carried the prophet back 100 years in time by his hair?

Does hair have something to do with time? If so, what other objects might have some hidden relationship to it?

  • Orson Scott Card satisfactorily played out one variation of this possibility in his Ender novels.

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