There's a fine line between art and nonsense

This is a massive rant about an itty, bitty, tiny, insignificant topic that, nevertheless, has bugged me for a long damn time.


The timing for this post is inspired by it being Friday the 13th, and from there thinking “horror”, and then thinking “Jack the Ripper”, and then thinking about one of my favorite movies in which Jack the Ripper appears, Time After Time, and the construction of the plot.

This rant is about a pet peeve of mine, one that I really would like to address to the universe at large just once in my life, so that I can move on.

This is about creative writing and plot hooks as much as it is about anything.

There is, within fiction, a frequently used theme or plot hook.

Time travel.

I have long had a secret fascination for, and love of, time travel stories.

The basic concept of a time travel story is changing history. As I read once in a DC Comics story, some members of the Legion of Super Heroes had come back in time from the future. One of the modern heroes turned to another, and in describing the time travelers, said, “We need to watch them. There’s only one reason anyone goes back in time. To change things.”

How well put.

In my opinion, the main reasons time travel is brought into a story are to explore themes of second chances, or dealing with the consequences of actions, or of adapting to sudden and dramatic changes in world views and preconceived expectations. 

The nuts and bolts of how people use time travel are seemingly endless, but there are some techniques of story you see over and over.

You have stories where the characters are in the present, everyone knows how things have originally happened to this point, and then someone goes back in time and makes changes. In this kind of story, you see the results of those past changes happen in the future. 

Sometimes, characters in the present have time to see the affects of the changes, and then go back and try to set things back to the original. One prime example of this would be Harlan Ellisons’ classic Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever“.

Sometimes, the whole story revolves around making changes to get the eventual result you hope for. An example of this I love, is “Lightning” by Dean Koontz. And if you haven’t read that one, a truly brilliant tale, and I spoiled it by mentioning time travel, I am sorry.

Sometimes, when someone has gone back and made a change, the story revolves primarily around dealing with the irrevocable consequences of these seemingly inconsequential changes. A brilliant example of this kind of story is “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury, the classic originator of the Butterfly Effect concept.

Sometimes, the character from the present goes back in time, but finds that events force him to follow a seemingly predetermined destiny, leading to questions of what is free will and chance, and what is foreordained. One of these I love is Terry Pratchett’s “Night Watch“.

You have other stories where the characters start in the present, an event takes place in the present, and the characters are shown what the consequences will be in the future, and they are returned and given the chance to decide if they are going to try to do things differently the second time around, or simply try to make amends for what has already been don. A classic example of this is of course “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. And I cannot in good conscience fail to mention the greatest example of being forced to do a “do over”, “Groundhog Day“.

And you have still more stories, where the characters themselves have no idea that the way things originally happened have changed. These stories are commonly called “alternate history”, and are written for the benefit of the reader, who, knowing their history, can appreciate a well written “What if?” One of my favorites in this genre would be “The Guns of the South” by Harry Turtledove. Being a comic geek in my youth, I also loved all the “What if?” comics Marvel put out.

Seriously, there are so many, many ways to use the concept of time travel in stories, and I love them all.



If you are going to use time travel as part of your plot, as a hook, as a means of telling your story…

Please, dear lord, do me a favor, and take the time to actually complete your concept for how the time travel theory you are using affects the world around you, determine the rules, and be consistent in using them throughout your story.

I don’t care what concept you run with.

Just use it consistently.

Lemme ‘splain.

Say that you want to write a story along the classic lines of time travel. Your characters have access to a method of traveling backwards in time. Someone travels back, and changes are made. Those present in the future may, or may not have time to be aware of it.

Traditionally, the person coming forward to what they thought was their time is the only person that remembers how things used to be, because they were actually in the past when the future was changed. Sometimes, the people in the present from which the time traveler came have some, er, “time” to recognise that things are changing from what was known, enough that they can themselves try and go back to fix it.

Think about this for a moment.

You want to write a story, perhaps a thriller. The bad guy goes back and changes something. This threatens to change all of history. The good guys in the present need to be able to recognise that something has happened, and be able to respond by themselves going back in time and fixing it, confronting the bad guy in a battle across time in the process. So there needs to be a delay before the changes take full effect, or the good guys are screwed. If changes happen globally and instantly, then there is no ‘response time’.

Fine. We can do that.

We can theorize that time travels much like a very thick, highly viscous fluid. Place a rock in the stream, and the stream will flow around the rock. Left alone, the stream has adjusted to the presence of the rock. It flows around the rock. The nature of drag from the rock causes the stream to flow past the rock some distance following the same shape or channel, before the stream rejoins.

So, we can say this; a person, or rock, can be plucked from his or her place in the stream. For a time, the stream will continue on the same as before. Then, it will slowly begin to flow back in to fill the place the rock used to be. If there were several rocks close together, then the other rocks would have time to see the changes in the stream, and perhaps action could be taken before the stream had competely rejoined.

Further, if that rock that had been picked up were to be carried upstream and placed once more in the stream of time, then there would be an immediate affect. A new channel would form around the drag of the rock, and that channel would head downstream, affecting the stream as it went.

But as stated, it would take time for those new changes to filter downstream. The changes would start where the rock entered the stream. Eventually, the channel formed by the drag would close over, and the stream would return to normal. If the original rock placement was close enough to the new placement, then the channel would directly impact the original stream, wouldn’t it? And changes would slowly take place in stages, not all at once, or everywhere at once.

This theory, as I said, is very common in fiction. It considers that any action taken is based on the earliest point of change introduced into the time stream, and it states that each rock has it’s own, internally consistent sequential time, but is subject to changes made upstream while it is actually IN the stream, but that there is enough resistance to change in the stream itself that changes can be seen to ‘seep in’ to the world around you, and if you have the means, you can travel through time to get upstream of the changes, and maybe introduce a new change that will cancel out the first.

To the rock that was removed from the time stream, it is still moving forward the same as before. It’s just been moved elsewhere in the stream.

Likewise, it addresses what happens in changes, like the grandfather paradox. You go back in time, and kill your grandfather before your father was born. What happens to you?

Well, in this theory, the stream flowed to you, from your grandfather, you left the stream, went upstream, reentered, and then made a change. From that point, where you are now, the changes flow will downstream. When they reach your original point of departure, that origin would be erased as the changes in the stream reach it, conflict with the old channel, and then override it.

If you were to travel to the future, then you would not be entering the same stream. You would be entering a stream that reflects what happened when a new rock had been placed in it. You were never born. But you, yourself, would still exist because your own sequential time was, for part of the event, outside of the stream and unaffected by the changes flowing down.

Timestream splits can add complexity, by theorizing that the timestream is highly resistant to change, more rigid plastic than molasses or mud.

Change would still cause a new drag channel to form, but there would be a very strong resistance to new changes. Strong enough that the theory pretends that the stream of time would, indeed, overflow the banks, widening to encompass both streams side by side for a while, until the pressure causes one to collapse into another, eventually settling down into one new permanent stream. Parallel universes where both the original event, and the change, continue on until some point where either the change is canceled out (say by a meteor destroying the earth, rendering the issue of you killing your grandad kinda meaningless) and things rejoined into one, or where the change was massive enough that it would never rejoin, resulting in two compete seperate universes.

If you want to worry about conservation of energy and where all that matter would come from if the universe were twinned, or where room would come from to fit a suddenly doubled universe, or if you want to develop a theory for your story that each parallel universe takes the same energy of one but spreads it out evenly, making each universe weaker, or however you’d like to approach the fun, it’s a nuts and bolts thing. You have the power to think about and decide these things if it’s important to your plot.

As you can see, there are many, many levels of complexity you could add to just this one, simple theory, and maintain consistency.

This doesn’t even go into the predestination (time cannot be changed) theory, or the theory of simultaneaty that cause and effect are not linked, but that all events happen simultaneous to each other, and many more.

My point is, if you’re gonna step up and introduce time travel into your story, step up and THINK IT THROUGH, damnit!

Determine how you intend to use time travel in your story or plot, and then think, seriously think, about what the consequences mean for your story. Don’t worry about anything that is irrelevant to your story, but the most basic idea you need to get straight is, can time be change so that events change, or not?

Free will or destiny? That has to be nailed down.  And yes, you can have both, but you need to nail it down!

Theory changes in mid story done right.

Terminator 1 and Terminator 2.

What happened?

Terminator 1.

John Conner is fighting like hell. Beating the evil Skynet. Skynet tries to fix this shit by sending a Terminator back in time to kill John Conner’s mother before John is ever born. Classic temporal paradox resulting in a change in the timestream. Skynet clearly hopes that John Conner would vanish from history, and things would change so that Skynet ended up coming out on top.

It wouldn’t be the same Skynet, or the same universe… but to Skynet, the eventual outcome would be the victory of *A* Skynet, and as a digital sentience, presumably Skynet was okay with wiping itself out as it existed in order to change the rules and let a younger version of itself grow up to win. Kinda, taking one for the team, so to speak.

But what happened?

Kyle Reese was sent back by John Conner. Why? A photo. A photo John gave to Kyle, given to him by Sara. Kyle fell in love, volunteered for the mission, went back in time to rescue Sara Conner, romanced her, fathered John and then went poof. At the end, a photo is taken while Sara is thinking wistfully of Kyle, and in the future that photo would be given to Kyle, who would wonder what Sara had been thinking about when it was taken, why she seemed so sad.

A perfectly well thought out story of time travel, using the theory of predestination. Everything in the future Kyle came from depended on Kyle going back in the first place. I was delighted and entranced. I intentionally ignored thinking about why Skynet did not have records of Arnie blowing up the police Station on camera. Any number of reasons for the loss of that data could be come up with during the long years of war.

But the fact is, everything was predestined. The end result was fixed. From the perspective of Kyle Reese, everything, right down to the photo, happened to him before he ever went back in time. His presence did not change time, it preserved the continuity of events.

So what happened with Terminator 2?

They changed the theory to fit the story they wanted to tell.

The reason Skynet came into existence in the first place was research performed on the brain chip left behind from the crushed Terminator in #1.

That’s good and bad both. Good, because according to destiny from #1, the events were pre-ordained. John Conner would not have existed if Kyle had not gone back. Skynet would not have existed if the Terminator had not gone back. It’s a perfect circle.

But then, you get Sara meets the second Arnie, and begins spouting some bullshit about time being what you make of it, and nothing being fixed in place. She goes out to take down everything associated with creating Skynet, and begins asking questions of Arnie’s history to verify that she is actively changing historical facts, that she is making changes that would prevent Skynet from existing, based on what Arnie knows. And it seems to work, right down to Arnie destroying himself to remove the last vestiges of future technology.

A complete reversal of everything we were shown in the 1st movie.

Was T2 a good movie? Yes, I liked it a lot. And when viewed from future films in the series, you could even make a case that predestiny was intact, and that Arnie only knew what Skynet told it, and was simply following a deeper Skynet plan. You could cover.

But it didn’t take away from the fact that they changed which theory of time travel rules they were going to use, to fit the story they wanted to tell, and had to cover it later.

They wanted to change from a story of star-crossed lovers yearning for each other across time, destined to be together, to a story where the horrible fate we know lies in store for us in the future could be averted by heroic actions now, because we’ve been given a second chance to set things right.

It couldn’t have been an accident they did it, and that’s why I forgave them. They thought about it, and at least each movie was consistent within itself, if not in the greater continuity of the series.

That’s irritating, but it’s okay.

But it’s still an example of how important thinking through the consequences of your decisions can be to a consistent plot. Assuming you care about such things.

My rant, my loathing, my true irritation is directed at writers who just blow it.

The example I present to you today, winner of the “stupid lazy sci fi writer” award is the movie “Kate and Leopold.”

“Kate and Leopold” stars Hugh Jackman, an actor I particularly love to watch. His performance in this film, especially, was riveting. He was meant to portray the young Duke of Albany from the year 1876, coincidentally the inventor of the elevator (not true, there was a real Duke of Albany, he had nothing to do with inventing elevators, it’s a plot twist thing.)

So, let’s see if you can recognise the theory of time travel as used in this film.

Moron scientist discovers that portals open between two temporal periods. The portals appear fixed in position relative to each location, they provide travel from time to time, not place to place. So, if a portal will open on it’s own 500′ above the Empire State Building, that is where the corresponding portal will open in the future or past… whether or not the Empire State Building exists at the destination time period.

Fine. Whatever. So you’ve got to go find the portal, and of course it will be almost but not quite impossible to reach, inconvenient to get into, and amusing results will occur when you go through the other end. Har, har.

And of course he goes back in time by jumping in a portal, to 1876. He takes a camera, so he can acquire “proof” of his visit in the past.

That right there should send big warning flags up. A picture, taken by any camera, used as proof of anything.

While he is in the past, making sure he changes nothing because that might change the flow of time he acts weird… the Duke of Albany is intrigued, follows him, and ends up going back through the portal with him, which promptly closes, resulting in the Duke of Albany of 1876 being in our present day.

Hilarity ensues, I’m sure.

So, from this point… the Duke of  Albany, and don’t forget the inventor of the elevator, has left his proper place in time, the elevator yet uninvented.

These people are now in our present.

Immediately, the following change takes place.

All elevators in New York vanish.

The elevator SHAFTS, however, are still there. And everyone remembers elevators, and the use thereof. The elevators themselves are just gone.

And moron scientist, absentmindedly of course, opens an elevator and walks into the empty shaft, plummeting down to bust some bones and be dumped in a hospital, leaving good Duke Leopold lost and adrift in the modern New York, the only person knowing the truth of his time travel origin being locked away.

I’m sorry, I could point up other problems, but… I can’t go on.

The inventor of the elevator vanishes, so all elevators vanish. But the shafts are still there. And nothing else in the city is affected by this sudden loss of elevators, except warnings about elevators vanishing. 

At that point, my brain quietly packed it in, popped some metaphorical popcorn in the metaphorical microwave, sat back on a coach, cracked a metaphorical (sadly) beer, and watched without attempting in any way to follow this blithering idiot’s stupid plot.

Just enjoy the acting, I said to myself.

And I did! Hugh Jackman just rocked. Almost as great as his performance in “Someone Like You“.

My point here is, the movie could have been very good. Quite a few people liked it.

But to me, the utter crap of the plot holes, based as far as I could see on a writer’s inability to think, was, ahem, a “slap in the face” for my science fiction sensibilities.

If you don’t give a shit to get it right, or even to be consistent within the one story you are telling, then why should I give enough of a shit to watch it?

Please, if you are an aspiring author, don’t let this be you. If you want to use time travel, then do! I love those stories.

There are few things that annoy the hell out of me quite so much as a story based on time travel, that fails to actually think about time travel before throwing scenes of people in fancy costumes and outlandish sets onto the screen or page.

Thank you for your time, and I appreciate your patience. I now return you to the post on Raid for the Cure I am writing, now in progress.

18 thoughts on “There's a fine line between art and nonsense

  1. On Kate & Leopold: I knew to turn off higher brain functions when the presenter in 1876 started talking about space/time. Eighteen-freakin’-seventy-six. Yeah. I suspect he got that wrong, too, but I was too busy nerdraging over a guy addressing a crowd in 19th century America assuming familiarity with a controversial and revolutionary theory from the 20th.

    On bad time travel, another way to go wrong is to have events mutable, but for it to be impossible for things to have gone wrong without having first, well, gone wrong. Star Trek: Voyager, that paragon of bad scifi writing, has my favorite example:

    The Voyager comes across a devastated planet, and since everybody’s dead they can take a look-see without going all Prime Directive at the natives. A first look tells them that, strangely, Federation technology was involved in the disaster. The away team goes down, plays with the anomaly that made things go boom, and end up in the planet’s past, just before the boom happened. Wacky hijinks ensue, and the folks stuck in the past eventually realize that what they were about to do to get back is what caused the population’s destruction, don’t do it, and time resets. Epilogue: Voyager spots a pre-interstellar culture, invokes the Prime Directive, and continues on its merry way.

    Yes, that’s right. They only went to the planet because… in an earlier loop they went to the planet. Which if they hadn’t gone to, they’d never go to. Yeah. Another example of ST: Voyager‘s favorite early plot: wring your hands over a horrible problem, wait fifty minutes doing nothing effective about it, and discover that the horrible problem wasn’t.


  2. As BBB will tell you B5 is my favorite SciFi..period. One of the things I enjoyed was the rationality of the technologies involved. Sure there were a few oooweeeooo moments but the time travel, weaponry and ship tech was very believable.


  3. “The Guns of the South” was great.
    “Pastwatch – The Redemption of Christopher Columbus” was also great, and even dealt with how to “prove” OTHER time travelers existed.

    My wife gets frsutrated when TT stories come up. She starts overthinking the “if XX didn’t happen, then why would ZZ have gone back in time to change AA”? I’ve tried to walk her through it, but no luck so far.

    I think one of the best uses of TT in television was in Babylon 5. First “something” moves backwards in time. Years later our heroes are responisble for that something moving in time. Only to discover that it had all happened already (in a predestination type situation). In fact, some of the most important parts of Babylon 5’s history only exists BECAUSE of the TT. Very well done, and very cohesively told.


  4. I wanted to love Kate & Leopold so much. I am a sucker for rom coms with a bit of a fantasy twist (Enchanted anyone?) and who doesn’t love Hugh Jackman? I didn’t spot the time travel plot hole as I spent the entire movie fuming at Meg Ryan’s character being such a nasty piece of work as well as wondering how on earth such a lovely guy as Leopold could be even vaguely interested in her. I guess I look at different plot holes… 🙂


  5. Superb article and great examples. I enjoy reading & watching Sci-Fi (guess it’s now SciPhy… lol) and have the same ‘logical’ response to visually fill in the pieces. I get really pissed-off when I get into something that is loaded with inconsistancies that are merely there to fit the story… that’s just plain lazy shit. I mean… you invest so much time in a book or show and then, “wtf?…. no…. those lazy f’ers”… My wife will tell me “it’s only a movie” as my pissed-off meter is at max (I get heated, honestly). Even worse is when a TV series you kind of get into goes on laze… ugh, I’ve watched 12 – 15 episodes… these people act a certain way and science/magic behaves a certain way… then “bam”… you get screwed by lazy writing.

    Ah, rant over. See you guys online.



  6. Very fun read. I myself always have issues with how movies books and shows do time travel. When it’s done badly, it’s really evident. Of course, I never caught the inconsistency thing in Kate and Leopold. If I remember correctly, I thought that elevators were just breaking, not disappearing… which might fall under the “taking time” while people notice a difference.

    Oh, and when you mentioned time travel and Jack the Ripper, I immediately thought of the Time Scout series by Robert Asprin and Linda Evans. From what I remember when I read it, time travel was again through set portals, but nobody knew where a portal went until you’d been through it, and you could never occupy the same time as another version of yourself. If you did, you just went poof. i.e. if I went through one portal to April 1st, 1981, and then came back to the present, and then later took a portal to March 31st, 1981 and stayed for more than a day, I would cease to exist at the point my past self entered the past for the first time. Paradox was not allowed. Anyway, I recommend the series.

    Time Scout series

    * Time Scout (1995)
    * Wagers of Sin (1995)
    * Ripping Time (2000)
    * The House that Jack Built (2000)
    .-= gmazeroth´s last blog ..Hallow’s End Ball =-.


  7. The best story I’ve ever read about time travel was Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog”. It’s a light-hearted story a 21st century historians stuck in Victorian England, with all it’s quirkiness. And oh yeah, he accidently prevented Boy X from meeting Girl Y, which means the Germans will win World War II unless he and his partner can make them fall in love. The physics are very detailed and well thought out, and the dog is awesome.

    She has another time-travel story, “The Doomsday Book”, which I also recommend. Here though the time travel is only minor part of the story, with global pandemics being the main focus. Much less light-hearted, what with the Black Death and all, but still an excellent story.
    .-= Ratshag´s last blog ..Gone Fishin’ =-.


  8. One of my favorite time travel books was Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus

    I heartily recommend it if you like time travel stories.

    I have 2 separate time travel stories rolling around in my head that I will eventually write.


  9. Wow. Most of the time I’m an idiot when it comes to plots and things like that. I’m a programmer so story telling isn’t even close to a strong suit of mine. I’ve never seen Kate and Leopold, seemed too much like a chick flick to me, but even I would have caught that and thought it didn’t make sense. This writer much be a moron.

    I do like reading your blog. It’s nice to read what’s on other bear tanks minds and even get more knowledge so I can do it better.


  10. A) If I stopped playing WoW tomorrow, I’d still read your blog for posts like this.
    B) I really believed I was the only person on earth who read and enjoyed “Guns of the South”. Tell me you liked “Spelljammer” too?
    C) “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman is another great time travel book
    C) Concerning the new Trek film. Previously we were told that time travel had never occurred in this Star Trek universe — a feeble attempt to make what happens in the rest of the movies at least vaguely coherent. But if this universe had never experienced time travel, how did Nero derive the equations and understand the variables involved in something ultra-complex that no one had ever done. Not only that but there are multiple examples from the original series of time travel, and even Time Travel in “Enterprise” staring the dude from Quantum Leap that is supposed to predate Star Trek.
    D) The biggest problem with time travel is that you don’t need to JUST need to move through time,but through space as well. The Earth is hurtling along on the band an arm of the milky way, rotating the center of the galaxy. The galaxy itself is hurtling along through space. So if you wanted to go back to 1989, not only would your time machine have to take you back through the time stream, but you’d also have to move physically from where your time machine leaves to where the earth was in 1989.


  11. Hey, I LIKE “Someone Like You”!

    There are many days where I’ll be sitting in the break room, or listening to a discussion between a couple of guys, and the genius of the “New Cow” theory of men just seem so fricken apt.

    Plus… Hugh Jackman was hilarious.


  12. A couple of things:

    a) Time Quake – a great book by Kurt Vonnegut about how time “jumps back” 10 years. But because everything has already happened, it can’t be changed. Thus, people go through their lives reliving every moment for the last 10 years. The good, the bad, it all gets relived… but what happens when time catches up with itself? OOOooOOoOoOOOhhhh…….. O.o

    b) Back to the Future – More time travel fun, as I’m sure you’re aware. I remember it being somewhat “accurate” with the sci-fi part. And yes, I’m also trying to forget BttF 3.

    c) Someone Like You – You actually watched that? I’m so, so sorry for your loss. 🙂


  13. Off topic, but I think this is where it’s most likely to be read. Or maybe it’s not that far off the time-travel topic, going back to a previous entry & all:

    As of the time I write this, 47 people have donated at the Raid for the Cure site, and donated enough to exceed the goal BBB set. That is awesome. Seriously. Awesome.

    118 people have responded to the poll saying they’ll attend the in-game march.

    If 70 more people were to donate just $10 each, we would raise double the $1000 goal.

    You know . . . just sayin’.

    Sorry. Back to time travel.


  14. I’m surprised you didn’t include star trek 4 (whales) in your listing..

    The funniest bit about that movie was the “modern past” san fancisco and how little attention was paid to extra terrestrials and people acting wierd..
    (I’ve been to SF and it is a great place to visit, i just found that bit of the movie funny, even more so after the visit)
    .-= Kattrinsaa´s last blog ..How to handle guild drama =-.


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