Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 14 books, 97 plays and musicals, and over 100 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through Fiction Writers Connection. Her latest book, a humorous essaycollection called "IT'S NOT ME, IT'S YOU and Other Tales of Romance", isavailable at www.zeus-publications.com
Inklings: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
FREQUENT FLYER FICTION - Time. Who among us hasn't longed for the ability to speed it up, turn it back, or make it stand still?Even the concept of a 'virtual vacation' holds mass appeal--the chance to view ancient or futuristic realms through contemporary eyes. Until technology makes such options available, of course, we have the power of the pen and the availability of three distinctly different genres--romance, fantasy, and sci-fi--to make time travel an enjoyable escape.
SOME COMMON THEMES
Timeless Love: Hero or heroine meets their soul-mate in another century and must deal with the dilemma of debating whose era is better.
Saving the Planet: Protagonist needs to prevent global destruction, recover a magical object from pesky trolls, or thwart an arch-villain-scientist-power-mogul.
Accidental Segue: The lead character didn't intend to go anywhere that day but it's always fortuitous he/she did.
Crime-Busters: Any premise that involves going backward to resolve a past wrongdoing or jumping forward to pursue an enterprising antagonist.
LEAPS OF FAITH
Foreshadowing is a critical component in any time-travel story, regardless of which genre you select for expression. It not only provides the protagonist with valuable clues (lightning will strike the old clock tower at a specific hour) or imbues the audience/reader with dread (pennies left in pockets can cause major time-suck). It's also important that whatever conditions are present to initiate the journey need to be replicated in order to finish it.
Even though you're writing in a surrealistic vein, certain elements of your plot need to be grounded in logic or at least plausible explanation. For instance, how did your characters get there (wherever 'there' is)? Can they get back on their own or do they need outside help (witchcraft, electrical storms, plutonium, etc.)? Does time, as they know it, stand still in the present or does it progress at the same pace, thus necessitating an excuse for being gone 3 years and not paying the rent?
Included below are some examples of particularly bad time-travel writing:
A heroine who discovers a shrinking "time-hole" in the countryside and conveniently steps back and forth whenever she needs lip gloss or clean lingerie from her apartment. (Do not succumb to the contrivance of letting your characters 'visit'; plant them somewhere and make them cope accordingly.)
A romance in which Lancelot and Mordred are transported to the 1990's. Lancelot starts to age and grow weak; Mordred doesn't. (Whatever parameters are set for your characters need to be consistent.)
A despondent futuristic cop goes back ten years, prevents the death of his pregnant wife, and returns 'home' to find his wife and ten year old son cheerfully asking how his day at work went. (Shouldn't his memory banks have adjusted upon re-entry?)
A Scottish laird quickly sheds 700 years of brutish demeanor and brogue in favor of turtlenecks, tight jeans, a Walkman and cool phrases like, "How should I know? I'm not a scientist," and "I'll have another latte." (How does this stuff get published?)
YESTERDAY v. TOMORROW
Regardless of direction or destination, time travel presents a trio of mental challenges to the writer:
1. Knowledge of history,
2. Social consciousness,
Unless your story takes place in a totally fabricated realm, you'll need to bone up on the dates, places and events that shape your plot. While it would appear that writing about the past would be easier than speculating about the future, you need to remember that much of the history we've learned was interpreted by subsequent generations who put their own spin on its significance and value.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are sci-fi's that paint an idyllic or dark view of our destiny. In spite of this advanced state, however, the core conflict necessary for reader identification still needs to hinge on social concerns that have plagued mankind for 5,000 years--hunger, freedom, crime, prejudice, and singles bars. Even in fantasy novels, there exists a defined pecking order of power and limitations on individual liberty.
Last but not least is the writer's own sympatico with the time traveler's plight. Traveling backward would be akin to a city dweller being forced to go wilderness camping; the awareness of what she was missing in terms of civilized amenities like blow-dryers and voice mail would either force her to learn to live without or to invent workable substitutes. Traveling forward might be likened to being plopped into a strange, foreign-speaking country; everyone around her seems to be functioning just fine but how-oh-how can she find the library or order a piece of toast?
DR. LIVINGSTON, I PRESUME?
Time travel provides an intriguing forum for your book's fictional characters to interact with real people and/or fictional ancestors. Such scenarios, of course, are replete with complications. Take the film, "Back to the Future," in which young Marty McFly becomes an unintentional rival with his nerdy father, thus threatening to erase his own existence.
Entanglements also ensue with a protagonist's specialized knowledge--and accompanying frustration--regarding events to come. Although the historical facts themselves can't be altered, you can have fun hinting that your characters had input in the development; i.e., "I know you've got your heart set on doing the next battle in Parma, Ohio, sir, but have you considered Gettysburg as a possibility?"
WILL THAT BE ONE-WAY OR ROUND-TRIP?
While all three genres pose the question of whether your characters will return to their own time, fantasy and sci-fi are more likely to address time-travel as "just part of the job." The quest completed or humanity saved, they amble back to whatever they were doing at the start. In romantic time-travels, however, the journey is invariably precipitated by loneliness, betrayal, or boredom with one's place in life. If he/she thought they had problems before, what do they do when the age difference with a lover spans eons? And how do they decide where to spend Thanksgiving?
In books and film, the resolution of such long-distance passion has been handled in a variety of ways. In "Time After Time," HG Wells' girlfriend decided his stodgy century could use a little enlightenment about women's lib and hops in the time machine to go back with him. "Knight in Shining Armor" by Jude Devereaux used the device of a look-alike descendant to reunite the heroine with the man of her dreams. For Elise and Richard in "Somewhere in Time," it took death to finally bring them back together. Diana Gabaldon's imaginative "Outlander" series has the heroine go to the past, return to the present, then orchestrate a second journey to save her beloved Jamie's life and tell him about the daughter she had conceived in Trip #1.
Whatever route you choose, it's paramount that the resolution be emotionally satisfying in terms of sacrifice, compromise, and whether it's credible that a warrior whose only talent is skull-bashing could be happy with a nice desk job in Manhattan.
Postscript: My latest time-travel novel, THE SPELLBOX will be released this summer at Hardshell.com. The book has also been optioned as a feature length film by Iceberg Productions and will be shot on location in the Scottish Highlands.