Written by Connor Campbell.
As a fan of science fiction, I love a good time travel movie.
They force you to think and bend your mind as you attempt to figure out the timeline of the story. Ultimately, there’s always something that will forever remain a mystery. But that’s okay, because it’s time travel. It doesn’t always have to make sense.
Due to the fact time travel is (as of now) fictional and cannot be done, it makes perfect sense when a time travel film does not make complete sense.
The problem is when those films try too hard to explain everything that’s happening and the complexities of time travel. Trying to make sense of something that’s currently impossible becomes a waste of time and the story suffers because of it.
Messy, Messy, Messy
One particular time travel film that keeps it messy, but still tells an interesting story is the 2014 film Predestination, starring Ethan Hawke.
As the story unfolds, the audience is slowly made aware that everything is connected in strange ways, with each connection becoming seemingly more and more unbelievable.
But when the film comes to an end, all of those pieces actually make a lot of sense. So despite being confusing individually, the overall story still works.
What this mess does is keep us, as the audience, from focusing solely on the specifics of time travel. It keeps our attention on the story, using time travel as the driving element in the plot.
But don’t immediately mistake the messiness for a cover of a bad story. While this does happen every now and then, good time travel movies make use of the mess to help their story along and keep the audience intrigued and engaged.
Look at Rian Johnson’s 2012 film Looper. There are definitely some inconsistencies throughout the story, but are you ever pulled away from the actual story being told? Despite the messiness of time travel in the film, the story takes hold of the audience and keeps us captivated. This is a great example of how messy time travel furthered the story rather than masking flaws.
Playing By The Rules
One vital aspect of writing messy time travel, however, is stick to the rules you’ve created. What this means is, once you’ve established something in your story (a rule), do not break that rule.
A film that does this extremely well is Edge of Tomorrow, which stars Tom Cruise and is directed by Doug Liman.
Yes, this is a variation of a standard time travel film, but it’s still time travel.
Very early on, the film establishes the rules of how the time loop works. For example, Tom Cruise’s character has to die everyday in order to reset and keep the “ability”. We also learn that a blood transfusion will result in loss of the ability.
Once these rules have been set, the film sticks to them and then follows through. Tom Cruise’s character dies everyday and always resets to the exact same time.
Later in the film, Cruise’s character has someone else’s blood put into him, which results in him losing the ability to reset.
While this may seem like an obvious thing to do, stories dealing with time travel don’t always seem to take it into consideration. I beg of you to keep to the rules you establish. And that’s not just for time travel, but all stories, especially anything science fiction.
An important note with all of this, however, is do not dwell on the rules you have established. Continue to keep the story messy. If the focus shifts to the rules of time travel, your film can quickly become quite boring and repetitive. Finding a balance between these aspects will help your story stay consistent.
Consistency is so important when it comes to writing in general. For time travel specifically it helps keep the audience captivated by the world that has been created. If your story begins to contradict itself, the audience will quickly notice the inconsistencies and pull out of the story.
So to say it simple: play by the rules.
Back To The Past To Save The Future
One of the most common time travel stories is a protagonist who is sent (or goes) back in time to prevent something from happening in the future.
This general storyline has brought us some of the best science fiction stories films in the last forty years. The Terminator and 12 Monkeys are two films from that list.
Knowing time travel is (currently) impossible, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear this type of storyline causes even more debate on the specifics of time travel. The biggest argument against these films is The Grandfather Paradox.
The Grandfather Paradox states that if you were to travel back in time to kill your grandfather, and therefore prevent the birth of your father or mother, you would cease to exist. But, if you didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have been able to travel back in time in the first place. So therefore, nothing would actually happen and the timeline would be unaffected.
There are numerous theories on how something like this would play out, but either way the going back in time to save the future storyline will always be debated for its inner-workings.
But that’s not the point. Regardless of how the writers decide to treat this particular element of time travel, the main focus is still the story. Time travel is the driving plot point.
If you start down the rabbit trail of trying to explain away theories like The Grandfather Paradox, you’ll basically end up poking even more holes in your story. The reason for this being time travel doesn’t make complete sense to anyone.
Establish early on in your story how traveling back in time and effecting the past works and then leave those threads alone. Leave the specifics in the mess and focus on your story.
If your film does this well and doesn’t delve into the complexities of time travel, the story will have a much better shot at shining through.
These are just a few things to keep in mind when writing your own time travel stories. These elements help you stay on track and keep your focus on the story.
Time travel is a great plot device, but shouldn’t become the alpha and omega of your story. This would be falling into the trap of spectacle over substance.
I hope this helps you in all of your endeavors, whether you’re writing time travel fiction or not.