How to Write Time Travel in Film and TV
Time travel is one of the trickiest things to write. So how did the masters get it done?
Since HG Welles sent us back and forward in time with The Time Machine, time travel has been an incredibly popular motif in popular culture. Film and television have always asked questions about what it would be like to move backward and forward... in time. (We're gonna say "time" a lot, so buckle up.)
But every time that questions is asked...it comes in a different way.
Yes, much like time travel, there are rules, causes, and effects when writing it into your story.
Today I want to look at a few different time travel elements to help your screenplays. There are no short cuts, but there are lots of things you need to ask yourself while working in these modes.
Check out this video from MinutePhysics and let's talk after the jump...IN TIME...
How to Write Time Travel in Film and TV
Okay, so you want to write some time travel screenplays. We have a course you can take to learn the basics of screenwriting, but if you want to learn about time travel stay right here. Or go into the future. I'm new to this. Or am I?
Time travel comes in lots of different shapes and sizes. From movies that try to do it realistically, like Ender's Game and Interstellar, to stories about different timelines and changing the future, like Back to the Future and Hot Tub Time Machine.
You even have shared past and future movies like Looper and Prisoner of Azkaban.
If all this is confusing, you're not alone! Go back in time and watch the video, I told you it would help!
If you refuse, the only thing that can help your time travel story is CLARITY.
Be clear about the rules of your time travel scenario. It's what made Avengers: Endgame so epic and easy to understand. For those who casually love time travel, they understand that the narrative is used to show how actions and changes cause reactions to the future.
But not every movie does it the same.
Let's look at a few examples.
How to Write a Time Travel Movie Like Groundhog Day
Take Groundhog Day.
In this movie, Bill Murray always travels back to the same point in the past. There is no hard science attached to it, so what are the rules? Every morning his character wakes up in bed. If he lives? Same result. If he dies? Same result.
There is no clear way to move into the next day, though at the end we realize that the love of another and selflessness allows him to move forward.
While there's no clarity in the rules, we have clarity in what happens as the movie moves forward. This is a film about change. So, while the rules of time travel don't matter, the rules of the world do. This informs how Murray's character is written. We see him arc and change by exploiting these rules. His memory of the day stays intact while other people's memories do not.
So, what do you do if you want to write something like Groundhog Day?
I would decide on the theme first. It's what drives the story and what winds up making all the threads work in the end.
But Groundhog Day is an outlier in time travel. Like A Christmas Carol, it's not totally science fiction.
So, let's dig into a couple of other examples to learn how they handle story.
More Time Travel Movie Examples
I'd venture a guess that most people get excited about time travel after viewing Back to the Future for the first time. A classic and perfect movie, this story takes on the most popular storyline within time travel.
Can what I do in the past change my future?
So let's talk clarity.
If you want to write something similar to Back to the Future, you need to decide on two things:
- Is there any overlap with past and future versions of yourself?
- Will there always be one consistent future?
In Back to the Future, the goal is ALWAYS to get back to where you belong. You can run into past iterations of yourself, but it's advised against it. Every action causes a reaction that changes the future.
In the first movie, Marty's goal is to restore the future when he alters it. Then he accidentally makes it better.
Over the course of the trilogy, his journey back to his present allows him to both avoid himself, meet his ancestors, and change the world for the better.
If you want to write a movie with similar rules, you need clarity.
Start with your logline: What's the character's goal?
Once you have the goal, outline your story through time. Clarity comes in your characters' actions. We need to know what they do and how it affects the future. Then work on what it takes to put things back to the way they belong.
The Realistic Approach to Time Travel
Finally, I wanted to take a look at something that was steeped in realism. I almost picked Primer, but it's so complicated that I dreaded breaking down all the rules. Instead, let's look at Ender's Game. And let's ignore that Orson Scott Card is an asshole.
Time travel in Ender's Game is fairly simple.
Characters that experience time travel slow things down, so while others age around them, their progress of time is normal. They cannot change the past or influence people, but they can see the future and stop/avoid things from happening to change the present.
Clarity here is also simple, characters have sort of a premonition of what's likely to occur, and act based on that. Like playing a game.
You see these time dilations in movies like Interstellar as well.
As Space.com puts it, "One feature of Einstein's equations is that time passes slower in higher gravity fields. So on a planet orbiting close to a black hole, a clock ticks much more slowly than on a spaceship orbiting farther away"
So when we travel in time, the people left behind age at a factor, depending on how far we're traveling.
Yeah, the more realistic you get, the more complicated. We have a whole infographic on Interstellar. It's wild.
When writing something realistic, clarity gets way more muddled. You have to explain the science, motivation, and consequences of any journey. That means sitting and really diagramming the rules of the world.
It breaks down a ton of time travel in film and TV and can help inspire you with your script. Happy writing!
What's next? Use our Beat Sheet to outline your script!
A beat sheet can help you pick moments that keep your narrative thrust moving forward. So why aren't you using one?
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