Time Travel as a Plot Device

Originally Posted on

This is another rewrite or edit of a previous post of mine. Back in 2019, a discussion with my small writing circle led to the the idea of using time travel as a fix for plot issues.  It came up during the conversation that time travel is seen by some as a weak plot device that’s used when an author is out of ideas and wants an easy fix.  Given as this is a writing blog, I thought we could explore the idea here.

There’s no such thing as a bad technique, only a bad time to use it


This is true of any tool.  Some are specialty items that will get used on rare occasion, some get used constantly.  I view time travel as one of those rarely used specialty tools.

Time travel as a plot device gets a bad rep precisely because it’s been abused by writers, with some specific plots getting used over and over until they’ve become cliche.  I can even tell my readers EXACTLY where this all first started: X-Men #142 in February of 1980:


This comic book issue was the start of the ubiquitous time traveler from the future coming back to the present to prevent their future from occurring.  It was even the plot of Avengers: Endgame. In this issue of X-Men, we find out U.S. Senator Robert Kelly had been assassinated by mutant terrorists, leading to ALL mutants being declared a public danger, hunted by the government and either killed or put into concentration camps. 

Sound familiar, movie fans? It should. It was also the plot of 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past“. VERY similar to the #142 issue of X-Men Comics

This comic book is also where the cliche of the time traveler being the child of two current protagonists comes from.  The X-Man sent back in time was Rachel Summers; daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey.  And for once, a comic book cover didn’t lie about everybody dying also.  The time traveling child gimmick was even used in CW Network’s “The Flash”, with Barry and Iris’s daughter coming to the past to try to prevent Barry from disappearing in the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event.


Is There a Good Use of Time Travel in Fiction?

History lesson aside, what’s the right way to use time travel?  First, it has to fit the genre.  If you’re writing a regular romance story (vs a paranormal or fantasy setting one), the only way “time travel” would likely work is as a dream sequence.  Something along the lines of the movie “Peggy Sue Got Married”.  If you’re dealing with a world with powerful magic, advanced science, or metahuman powers, time travel becomes more feasible.  It can work in other genres, but you need something very creative to establish suspension of disbelief in your readers.

Suspension of disbelief is key to ANY plot device:  Does what’s happening feel real within the context of the story and it’s reality?

Using time travel too cheaply weakens suspension of disbelief.  Remember what I said about it properly being a rarely used tool?  Sometimes authors are afraid to make their characters work their way out of a situation or deal with consequences of actions that the author didn’t think out.  Other times, an author wants to create an “epic” story line and tries to come up with the most dramatic situation possible.  I’ve written before about the failings of the constantly bigger villain or disaster in ongoing stories.  It’s caused Marvel and DC to reboot their universes several times.

Think about the likely long term consequences in your story’s world for anything you write, even if you’re a ‘wing it’ kind of writer.  Also, make sure you’ve got a good reason for your characters to muck with the time stream beyond “I want an epic cool story”.  If that’s your only reason, what will you do for an encore?

Use time travel as a last resort or for a well thought out story.  Readers will appreciate a well thought out solution where characters fight through a problem more than another time jump to fix this week’s mess.  The 80s cartoon Silverhawks literally got that bad too.  They introduced a team member named ‘Flashback‘ whose cybernetics let him time jump.  Every time the Silverhawks got in over their head after that…  *poof*  Mistakes corrected.

So there you see another issue with the abuse of this plot device; you also lose the dramatic tension necessary to drive your plot.

The Law of Unintended Consequences:

One way to add some drama to the use of time travel is to add in unintended consequences to the results of the characters’ actions. First, there’s the long standing comic book rule that time travel doesn’t change reality, it just splits off a parallel “alternate reality” that’s similar. Anybody who has watched Loki season 1 on Disney+ knows the issues there.

The next issue is best illustrated via discussion of DC Comic’s “Flashpoint” crossover event. The Flash time traveled to the past to save the life of his mother. Doing so (for some unexplained reason) caused drastic changes to the lives and origins of several heroes. Bruce Wayne was killed by the alleyway mugger. His father became Batman instead, and his mother had a mental breakdown and became The Joker, etc… It’s a fairly drastic example, but makes the point about unintended consequences. Preventing some situation may change other events that result in a character never meeting an important supporting character, or allows some other bad event to take place, etc… Use your imagination here. Just make sure that unlike Flashpoint, you can construct a plausible causality chain for your readers.


The biggest problem with time travel is the cliche factor.  You want your readers to be on the edge of their seat.  If they yawn and say been there, done that… you’re doing it wrong.  Star Trek, for example, has done a pretty good job with it’s time travel stories over the decades.  The only ones I found grating were the trapped in a time loop episodes.  Don’t do the time traveling child trying to change the future thing unless you can put such a unique spin on it that it’s barely recognized as copying the X-Men template.  Instead, think more along the lines of Star Trek 4 or Star Trek: First Contact.

Remember to put some real thought into those long and short term consequences of any time travel as well. It’s the unintended, never considered secondary consequences of events that bite people on the rear. True in real life and fiction.

Leave a Reply