How to Use Different Methods of Time Travel in Fiction


by Stephanie O’Brien


If one of your characters is a time traveller, there are several factors you have to account for to make sure the story stays plausible and to avoid holes in your continuity or character motivation.

Time travel also creates a variety of opportunities for character drama and an unusual set of dilemmas for the protagonist.

In this article, I’ll explore three different models of time travel, as well as ways to use these models to improve or complicate your story, things to watch out for, and ways to avoid common problems associated with time travel.


Model 1: Physically traversing a single timeline

In this model, there’s a single timeline, and the time traveller physically moves back and forth across it, usually with the help of a machine.


Ways to use this method of time travel in your story:

1. Because they bring their body back with them, the traveller can meet face-to-face with their own younger self, or even team up with themselves to solve a problem too big for either to solve alone.

2. Taking the above to its logical extreme, if they repeatedly travelled to the same point in time, they could actually create an army of themselves, albeit briefly.

If the mission is dangerous, they would have to be careful to ensure that none of the earlier iterations died, because that would instantly erase any later iterations of them, and drastically reduce their numbers.

3. People in the traveller’s present might remember seeing them in the past and ask about it, forcing them to either dodge the question or explain themselves.

4. The time traveller could get frustrated by not being the “main” version of themself in the past scenario in which they find themselves, especially if their hindsight tells them that their past self is screwing up.


Things to watch out for:

1. Because they are separate from their past selves, their past self doesn’t inherit their knowledge of the future. That being the case, it’s important for the time traveller not to erase their own original motivation for going back in time, or they’ll undo everything they’ve accomplished.

That problem can be solved by having the traveller split off from their own main self and timeline upon time travelling, thus becoming a second version of themself whose memories and motives aren’t affected by their “main” self’s development.

In that scenario, even if their past self never experiences the events that caused them to time travel, the traveller and their actions will still exist.

2. If the point in time to which they travelled is recent enough that they and their past self still look similar, the traveller will need to avoid being seen with their past self, or doing anything that they wouldn’t want their former self to be implicated in. Unless, of course, you want to cause problems for Past Protagonist.

3. Related to the above, if the time traveller WAS seen doing something noteworthy, avoid having the other characters implausibly fail to question why Past Protagonist was doing something like that, or why they were seemingly in two places at once.


Model 2: Sending their soul, but not their body, back in time

With this method, the time traveller’s body does not go back in time. Instead, their soul goes back and enters their body at an earlier point in the timeline.

This visit to the past can be either temporary or permanent, and each option has drastically different implications for the story.

If the backward travel is permanent, the time traveller must cope with having irrevocably lost all the accomplishments, relationships, and shared memories from the future.

If it’s temporary, the younger self must continue to exist, or the body would be left as an empty husk after the time traveller left it. In this case, the writer must establish how much the younger self is aware of external events during the cohabitation, how much of the future soul’s memories and emotions are transferred, which soul is dominant, and whether the two agree on the actions the more knowledgeable version of the time traveller wants to take.

Either way, the time traveller will probably experience some frustration and loneliness from remembering relationships, shared experiences and conversations with other people, while knowing that their family and friends have forgotten those events entirely.


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Ways to use this method of time travel in your story:

1. This model can allow you to explore the same scene from multiple angles. For example, you could have the traveller meet the same person for the first time twice, and have a very different mindset and reaction in each meeting.

2. Because this model allows the time traveller to retain their memories of the way things originally went, you don’t have to be as careful to avoid removing their original motive for time travelling. Therefore, your alterations to the sequence of events can be much more drastic than they can in model one, without sacrificing plausibility.

3. If you want to add extra drama and conflict, then instead of having the future soul overwrite the past soul, the traveller could end up competing with their younger self for control. This could get especially complex if they travel repeatedly, and end up with multiple different iterations of themself in a single body.

4. Because this method can basically act as a form of “save scumming”, your character can experiment, and act in ways they wouldn’t if they knew that every action had permanent consequences.


Things to watch out for:

1. If you do choose to write the same scene repeatedly, both before and after time travelling, be sure to highlight the differences between the two. How has the traveller’s mindset and personality changed from one iteration of that event to the other? This will help you avoid being repetitive and boring.

2. I recommend including some form of limitation on the number of times they can travel, the length of time they can traverse in a single jump, or how frequently they can use their time travel, or adding some sort of cost to their ability, to prevent them from becoming overpowered.

3. Other ways to keep things from being too easy are to either make the primary source of conflict challenging enough that they can’t defeat it simply by trying repeatedly, or to show how reliving the same sequence of events over and over is starting to wear down their mind.

4. You’ll want to establish whether the future continues to exist in its former state, unaltered except for where the time traveller changes their actions relative to what they did the first time around, or if it’s erased entirely, and must be rewritten from scratch.

This will affect whether the traveller can return to their home time, or if they must relive their lives from the point to which they travelled.


Model 3: Moving from one timeline to another

In this model, instead of moving back and forth along a single timeline, the time traveller creates or enters a new timeline every time they travel.

As a result, the timeline from which they came continues on without them, and the original series of events remains intact, which fixes the problem of needing to avoid altering the events that motivated their original time jump.


Ways to use this method of time travel in your story:

1. If the reason for the time travel was a disastrous event that the protagonist wants to prevent or escape, abandoning their original timeline to enter a better one can leave them with a case of survivor’s guilt. They’ve left their friends behind in a terrible situation, while they themselves try to create and enjoy a better future.

2. They might try to gather information or resources in the new timeline that would allow them to return to their original timeline and alter it, or try to return only to find that that’s impossible.

3. If time travel creates alternate timelines, as opposed to transferring the traveller to an existing alternate timeline, this might harm the time-space continuum in some way that could cause significant plot implications, and limit their use of time travel.

4. In each new timeline, things can either be the same as the original timeline until the point where the time traveller starts to interfere, or, if you really want to mess with your protagonist, they could be different enough that the traveller finds themselves in new and confusing territory after each jump.

5. Another possibility is to have people from other timelines invade the protagonist’s timeline, or for them to have to hunt a fellow time traveller from one timeline to another.


Things to watch out for:

1. If you choose to make each timeline different from the rest even before the time traveller’s interference, make sure the differences are plausible.

2. If the time traveller can bring objects from one timeline to another, make sure that any really powerful objects are sufficiently foreshadowed, difficult to obtain, or logically available. You don’t want to turn your alternate timelines into deus ex machina dispensers.


Are you writing a story that involves time travel?


Do you have any tips for your fellow writers?





Stephanie O’Brien has been writing novels since she was twelve years old and has published three of them on Amazon’s Kindle. When she isn’t writing novels and running her marketing business, she’s usually creating comics, music videos, and fanfiction. If you’d like to get more writing tips, or to check out her books, art, and videos, you can visit her website. You can also connect with her on Facebook or on Twitter.

Image source – Pixabay License.




6 thoughts on “How to Use Different Methods of Time Travel in Fiction

  1. Some alt-history stories can be fun. But they are fun for the same reason time travel stories are: it is childish wish fulfilment, as in “make it didn’t happen!”

    Larry Niven, fifty years ago, said that you don’t need to be a good writer for time travel stories; you just need a history text.


  2. Oh wow, fun discussion. All the more wild when my writing friends and I have been debating the subject the last few days via email. 😀

    As cheesy as it may sound, most of what I’ve learned about writing time travel comes from comic books. It’s a trope there, and you can find tons of lessons on how to do it right and wrong. The whole time travel creates an alternate reality theory, along with time travel via projecting one’s consciousness both were used back in 1981 in the X-Men’s famous “Days of Futures Past” storyline. Not sure if that was a first for exploring those theories, but it certainly popularized them both.

    What I’ve learned over the years is that if you’re going to have a McGuffin like time travel in a story, you have to carefully plan out or consider all the intended and unintended consequences of it. Not just how monkeying with A will change B and onward (and perhaps have unintended consequences), but also how to keep the whole McGuffin under control going forward.

    Let’s use the loose idea of the X-Men scenario as an example; The hero goes back into the past and changes the dark future (assuming they can ID the keystone event in the first place, another issue entirely). What’s to keep the villains from doing the same thing in order to reverse what the hero did in the first place? The the time travel is a magical place or piece of technology, or even a specific character’s ability, they can all potentially be captured. You’ve potentially got an endless loop of hero and villain traveling back to undo each other.

    DC’s “Flashpoint” highlights multiple other issues here. The Flash is capable of traveling through time and tries to save his mother from being killed by his archnemesis. He does so and creates a nightmare alternate reality. First, DC never truly explained how saving his mother set up a cascade of events that changed things so completely. Good way to alienate detail oriented readers. Flash eventually does save the day and resets the timeline, although some small differences are seen, but again never really explained. However, with the can of worms open, Flash resetting the timeline when the Justice League gets WAY in over their head has been used a few times now, AND there have been characters popping up from the alternate realities as well, such as the Flashpoint Batman.

    Part of this is just bad writing on DC’s part. They quickly gave into fan pressure because even darker Batman was COOL, and didn’t think out the logical consequences of their storylines. Then again, The Flash’s time travel is now a “Get out of bad plot free card” for them.

    In a fictional world where ultra tech and metahuman powers are common, it’s easy to muddy the water like that. Things are *a little* easier with “real world” settings, but not always. Let’s take the ubiquitous “kill baby Hitler” scenario. What if it’s done and somebody worse rises up to fill the void after the allies financially punish Germany to the point of economic collapse after World War 1? What if instead of a German despot, their leader reaches out to Russia and Germany becomes a satellite state of Russia without World War 2 starting? Does that lead to a spread of Stalinist communism all across the continent as the US remains isolationist, never having been drawn into a second world war?

    If you’re writing a single novel, it’s easy to set aside exploring potential long term consequences. A series though… Things can get much more complex if you really consider the long term implications of a character’s time travel.

    Use world changing McGuffins like this one carefully. 😉


  3. This is an interesting post to find after reading my favorite author for the bazillionth time. Anne McCaffrey uses this often in her dragon series. I had to laugh, this time as I read Dragonflight, I suddenly realised when F’lar sent F’nor back in time 10 years so a couple of clutches of dragons would be mature to fight the deadly Thread in 3 days time…it wouldn’t work!!! If the dragons matured, so would the people and the people didn’t seem to. Later, in her series, she jumps time as an author. In one book (White Dragon) scenes happen that also happen in Renegades of Pern and the characters act slightly different or are married in the same scenes in All the Weyrs of Pern. Yet, it didn’t seem to muck up her readership!!! And, as I said, I didn’t notice and I first read Dragonflight, quest, and White Dragon when I was in junior high…way too many years ago! Tend to read her books every February because they are chock full of relationships.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Time travel is definitely one of my favourite tropes. My preferred mode is the very non-scientific variety a la Midnight in Paris. My first novel involves a time portal in the basement of a Paris mansion and my second sees the MC slipping into the dreams of another resident of the crumbling chateau she is holed up in. See a couple of patterns forming there… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love time loop stories, but I feel like it’s much harder to do well in prose as opposed to film. Both can end up feeling repetitive, but the written word seems more likely to come across that way. Does anyone know of any good examples of books with time loops that work?


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