Taking Time-Travel To Another Dimension

Taking Time-Travel To Another DimensionFour Tips to Writing Time-Travel Screenplays that Sell

In my experience reading and evaluating screenplays, I’ve noticed an obvious trend amongst so many science fiction and fantasy writers:  You really love time-travel!  As a genre fan whose written a few scripts myself, I always found time-travel to be one of the most daunting subjects in speculative fiction.  So much research and thought must be put into an exciting time-travel story that makes sense to the audience, just thinking about it makes my head spin!  Which is why I’m surprised so many young writers insist on jumping into the complex dimensions of our space-time continuum. 

Here are four tips all future science-fiction writers must consider if you're hoping to sell the next Terminator or Back to the Future.

  1. Know Your Setting

If your script takes place in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, don’t open with the description “the jungle has begun reclaiming the land.”  You may not live in Los Angeles, but as any filmgoer who’s seen Chinatown can tell you: Los Angeles is a desert community.  It would take a meteorological shift the likes of which has never been seen in human history for a forest or jungle to “take back” the desert. 

I don’t expect everyone writing time travel stories to have a degree in climate science and ecology, but there are some basic facts you just need to know if you’re going to set your story in a real place.  And, if something has changed the Earth’s climate to such an extent that the desert has now become a jungle, make sure we know how this happens.  (This rule applies to ALL futuristic sci-fi set on Earth). 

  1. Establish Your Rules

Time travel is a concept that’s kept the minds of philosophers, physicists, and –yes- speculative fiction writers’ wheels turning for centuries.  Don’t just have a scientist stumble out and declare “We have a time machine: have fun!”  The audience and you –yes: you- need to know what they’re dealing with before the characters embark on this journey. 

There are many different theories for time travel, and you’re going to need to settle on one before you get started with your script, or else the whole thing may unravel. 

  1. Know Your Rules

This seems self-evident: After establishing your time travel rules you need to follow them.   Unfortunately, I have found this isn’t always the case.  Too often I have read a time travel script that begins with the spiel from some head scientist explaining how the machine works and what will happen if you mess around with the timeline, then the characters actually make the jump and all those previously established rules go out the window. 

You not only need to know how the time travel mechanism works, you must be able to account for as many questions about this technology as possible.  Will you appear in the same place you started or pop up on a whole other side of the world due to the Earth’s rotation? What does the effect of time travel have on the future?   If you meet yourself in the past will it cause an irreparable paradox in the space-time continuum?  The audience wants to know, and so you’d better know what kind of time travel script you’re writing, which leads us too…

  1. The Three Standard Models of Time Travel

Surfing the web and seeing what others have written about on the topic of time travel I’ve found that most are in consensus that there are three distinct concepts of time travel that get repeated time and time again.  If you want to write a time travel script, these are all dependable models.    

  1. Unchangeable: Favored by philosophers, and hard science fiction, here it doesn’t matter what our time traveler does: Events will play out exactly the way they originally did, one way or the other. (See: the French short film La Jetée and its feature-length remake 12 Monkeys)
  2. McFly’s Timeline: Great Scott!  Following the Back to the Future model, you are free to change the outcome of events, but you should probably avoid messing with things too much, lest you accidentally keep your parents from meeting.  This is a sort of middle ground where time has less elasticity than your first option, but still offers the dangers of paradoxes
  3. Multiverse: Go crazy! It doesn’t matter what happens because, by traveling through time, you’ve created an alternate reality separate from the one you departed from!  This is the easiest method to use if you just want to write a fun story and avoid the messy business of time paradoxes.  This is a good model if you just want to explore an alternate timeline, and the means behind time travel typically isn’t the primary focus.  An example of this is 2009’s Star Trek where time travel is used to reboot the franchise in such a way that all the familiar faces return, but mixes events up so that they don’t unfold in the same manner as the original TV series. 

There are other, more complex types of time travel stories dealing with matters like universe-imploding paradoxes and fractured timelines that, as a screenwriter and not a physicist, I am unsuited to summarize for you.  If you want to tackle those concepts, you’re going to have to put in the research.  But, regardless, time travel is going to require you, the writer, to create the science and establish the rules your world must adhere to.  You don’t have to be a world renowned theoretical physicist to write a solid science-fiction, but you do have to abide by the rules of your world.  If you can do this, I won’t guarantee a Nobel Peace Prize or honorary degree from MIT, but I can guarantee you’ll have a solid time travel movie with an audience invested in your characters and their journey from start to finish.    

Keep writing, and I’ll look forward to seeing this year’s submissions!