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Rules for Writing a Time Travel Novel

While doing research for my time travel novel, Always Agnes, I found a list of rules for time travel. No rules for writing time travel, but for actually traveling through time. I was impressed. There was a list of six rules for something that, as far as I knew, didn’t exist, and yet the rules made sense. Here they are.

Rule number one. Traveling to the future is easy. We’re all traveling to the future all the time, second by second. To travel in time, we just need to find a way to go faster and not die.

Rule number two. Traveling to the past is hard. Think of time as a river. Downstream is the future. Upstream is the past. Going with the flow downstream to the future is easier than fighting our way upstream to the past.

Rule number three. Time travel is like space travel. To survive the journey, you would need something as sturdy as a spaceship. Astronauts are considered time travelers because when they’re in space, they’re outside the earth’s orbit and aging at a different rate than the rest of us.

Rule number four. Things that travel together age together. Your clothes don’t age faster than you when you time travel.

Rule number five. If something happened, it happened. You can’t go back to the past and change things. The past is the past. It already happened and can’t un-happen.

Rule number six. You can’t break the Grandfather Paradox. The Grandfather Paradox says you can’t go back in time and kill your grandfather because then you wouldn’t exist. Somehow, he will always survive.

In Always Agnes, I broke three of the rules and didn’t feel bad about it at all because time travel novels almost always break some of those rules. Like the rule that says you can’t go back to the past and change things. That’s the best reason for time traveling. I believe that most people, if they had a chance to time travel, wouldn’t go back in time to change history, like warning Abraham Lincoln not to go to the theater or travel to the future to see if we finally get flying cars à la George Jetson. They would go back to fix a moment in their life when they felt they did something wrong. That moment usually involves words spoken or actions taken that hurt someone they love, and they never stop regretting it. I’m haunted by memories of times when I said the wrong thing or didn’t do something when I should have. However, given the opportunity, I wouldn’t go back in time and change anything because then I would lose the lessons that I learned from making mistakes. But I can’t help imagining what it would be like to go back armed with hindsight and do things differently. Those are the time travel stories I love, the ones where someone goes back with the intention of getting a do-over, a chance to get things right.

Here is a set of rules for writing time travel. Some I made up, and some I found from other writers.

Rule number one. There are no rules…except for the ones you make up.

Rule number two. Once you make a rule, you have to stick to it. For example, I couldn’t say Agnes created a time machine on her own and then later say she stumbled across alien technology that showed her how to build a time machine. That would have been inconsistent and confusing.

Rule number three. Make your world believable. The goal of any science fiction or fantasy story isn’t to make the world you create real but to make it believable. Real is something that truly exists in our world. Believable is something that could exist in another world.

Rule number four. The time traveler will change something in either the future or the past that will change reality in a way the time traveler didn’t anticipate. This is a variation of the butterfly effect, the theory that a small action can affect a larger one. For example, a butterfly flapping her wings could ignite a series of events that lead to a typhoon. I liked this rule because it gave me a chance to explore unintended consequences. In Always Agnes, Agnes changes the future in ways she didn’t anticipate. But while her actions dramatically change her life and the lives of those around her, she learns there are some things she can never change.

Rule number five. Be a plotter, not a pantser. For those not familiar with the terms pantsers and plotters, it has to do with writing methods. A pantser writes by the seat of their pants, making the story up as they go along. A plotter plots their story first before writing. They do outlines, research, and character studies. Time travel novels are too complex to make up as you go along. I did extensive timelines for Always Agnes. I had to keep track of her life in the present time and in the past. Then, I had to adjust the timelines to show how her actions in the past changed the future. I also had to do a timeline for Agnes’s mother, Agnes’s fathers (she ended up having multiple fathers, but not at the same time), and even a red sportscar owned by her first father. I wrote the timelines on large sheets of paper and taped them to my office wall. If they hadn’t been there, I would have gotten hopelessly lost.

Rule number six. The reason why the hero is a time traveler is more important than how they time travel. Figuring out how Agnes’s time machine worked and how she changed history was a fun brain teaser, but time travel was just the vehicle to tell a story about the relationship between a mother and daughter who are willing to make huge sacrifices for each other.

Now that you know my rules for writing time travel, feel use them or break them. However you decide to write it, your time travel story will be unique because no one can tell it

like you do.

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