Did You Mess Up the Timeline? Incorporating Theories of Time Travel in Fiction

Posted on Oct 2, 2014 by   12 Comments | Posted in Blog · Uncategorized

 696629072bd5cf7cdcea3a2506602ca8   By Angela Quarles 

Did You Mess Up the Timeline? Incorporating Theories of Time Travel in Fiction

I write time travel romance, and so I thought it an appropriate topic to explore here. But first, does anyone else get that warm, buzzy feeling in the back of their head when they read mind-bendy stuff like quantum physics or time travel theories? It’s a very weird sensation–I’ll be reading along, trying to get my brain wrapped around a concept, and then the back of my head near the top seems to get ‘heavier.’ Just me? Never mind then.

We FF&Pers write some imaginative stuff, from creatures that stalk our nightmares or fantasies, to alien worlds, to fantasy worlds. Or we explore the past via either magical or scientific time travel. In all cases, we strive to entertain with the powers of our imagination. Today, I wanted to talk about the theories of time travel in fiction, and its challenges, with using my debut release as a cautionary tale.

But first, a DISCLAIMER: I am not a physicist, nor do I even remotely resemble anyone of the scientific persuasion. I was a liberal arts major and so this post is my boiled-down simplified interpretation of other people’s arguments. I can’t argue with you on them, as they’re not my theories. And this also means I’m not going to get in depth, as I’m not trying to write a scientific treatise. Things will be left out, and glossed over, for the sake of length, just sayin’.

There are actual scientific theories of time travel where physicists argue different theories and possibilities. If you’re writing a straight up science fiction romance, these theories would come into play in your story. Since I don’t write hard science fiction (my time travel novel appears to use magic, but in later books it’s revealed to have some scientific quantum basis, but it’s still a bunch of “hand waving”), I’m not going to get in depth here, but if that’s an area you want to explore, you can check out thatsection on Wikipedia to spring board you to their sources for further information.

Regardless of how you have your character travel back, either via a scientific method or via magic, the writer needs to address how the character affects the timeline, and so I thought it would be fun to explore these different theories, some of which are based in science, others are philosophical or literary constructs. All of them are an attempt to deal with the problem of causality, the most famous example of which is the grandfather paradox.

Another DISCLAIMER: Breaking these down into lettered Types is purely for organizational purposes in this post, these are NOT the official names for these. Many thanks to the editors on Wikipedia’s Time travel page for breaking most of this down. Visit that page for a more detailed explanation and for examples in fiction. I’m also in no way implying that these are the only ways to deal with causality. And I also humbly submit that I could have misinterpreted these theories.

Type A – A Fixed Universe

  • Subtype 1 — in this universe, Novikov’s self-consistency principlecomes into play and your time traveler is part of his own history, meaning that any change he does in the past was the cause of the events in his history (thepredestination paradox). In effect, s/he’s in a closed loop.
  • Subtype 2 — in this universe, new physical laws come into play that prevent your time traveling character from changing the past (like making you disappear and reappear in your present).
  • Subtype 3 — in this universe, Novikov’s self-consistency principle comes into play but existing natural laws get in your way and make it so things still play out like it should (if your time traveler is trying to kill Hitler, his/her gun jams, etc.) The more important it is/the harder you try, the more improbable the events that prevent the traveler from changing it.

Type B – A Flexible Universe

Typically in these scenarios, the people aren’t aware that history has changed; their memories are altered each time it changes.

  • Subtype 1 – in this universe, changing history is easy and paradoxes can be dangerous. This could lead to the death of the time traveler if s/he does something that either prevents him/her from being born, or makes it so time travel isn’t invented. The grandfather paradox here is explained away in some storiesby having the third and subsequent passes done by someone else. For instance, if the traveler goes back and kills his grandfather before his/her parent is conceived, s/he just erased themselves. Since the grandfather paradox would then postulate that that then precludes him/her from going back in time, it’s explained that someone/something else would then kill the grandfather.
  • Subtype 2 – in this universe, smaller events are flexible, but the more important the event, the harder it is to change. In some stories, this is explained by having the timeline heal itself so the time traveler cannot accidentally kill themselves or prevent the time machine from being invented in the first place. For instance, maybe your time traveler was successful in killing Hitler, but someone just as monstrous takes his place.
  • Subtype 3– in this universe, events can be changed, even major ones, but not anything that would prevent the ability to time travel or make the purpose of the trip no longer valid. In this scenario, Hitler could be killed, but only if it didn’t prevent the ability to invent time travel the way it unfolded and it wasn’t the purpose for the trip back in time.

Type C – A Parallel Universe(s)

These are based on American physicist Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics, which, overly simplified, means that any possible reaction/action that can happen spawns a  parallel universe, like a branching tree. So somewhere out there are multiple versions of you playing out alternate decisions you’ve made. Weird to think about, huh?

  • Subtype 1 – in this universe, when your time traveler goes back, s/he’s jumped to an alternate history timeline spawned by their going back and which lives parallel to the original timeline s/he came from. The original timeline stays unchanged.
  • Subtype 2 – in this universe, your time traveler can jump to any already existing parallel universe
  • Subtype 3 – in this universe, your time traveler is already in an alternate history they created and so are in a closed loop, like Universe A.1 This is the one I used in Must Love Breeches.This is not outlined on Wikipedia’s page, but I based it on the fact that Stephen Hawking said that if the MWI were true, “we should expect each time traveler to experience a single self-consistent history, so that time travelers remain within their own world rather than traveling to a different one. [source]” It’s possible he didn’t mean it this way, but I took creative license.


timetravel (1)


Incorporating into your story

Since we’re writing fiction to entertain, and not a quantum physics paper, you can do any of these, or even one you create, as long as it’s internally consistent and you explain any possible paradoxes.

I mentioned that this is a cautionary tale, because my debut novel uses a lesser known theory and so I’ve had reviewers think I had my timeline wrong. [Spoiler: she goes back in time in 1973 and uses a cellphone, which of course weren’t around in ourtimeline in 1973. However, the cellphone is round and brass, unlike ours. This is possible because she’s in a C.3 type universe–she’s born into the alternate universe she created by going back in time and helping Charles Babbage, which thus ushered the Computer Age a hundred years earlier and accelerated the technology timeline] Just be aware that some won’t get it as you have to be fine with that.

Explaining some of this can also pose a challenge if you’re writing in Deep POV, like I did, as the character doesn’t know any of this and so can’t explain it to the reader like you could if writing in Omniscient POV.

Wrap Up

I ran over suggested article length, sorry! But this is also my excuse for why it’s missing fuller explanations and other permutations of how timelines can be affected.

Have you written time travel? Which type of universe did you use? What challenges did you face? What theories would you add? What did I mess up/misinterpret? Do you get that heavy, buzzy feeling in your head?

angela quarles About Angela Quarles 

Angela Quarles is a geek girl romance writer whose works includes Must Love Breeches, a time travel romance, and Beer & Groping in Las Vegas, a geek romantic comedy in novelette form. She has a B.A. in Anthropology and International Studies with a minor in German from Emory University, and a Masters in Heritage Preservation from Georgia State University. She currently resides in a historic house in the beautiful and quirky town of Mobile, AL. You can find out more about her at: 

Website | Blog | Join her mailing list | Twitter | Facebook | Pinterest

About Must Love Breeches, her latest release: 

She’s finally met the man of her dreams. There’s only one problem: he lives in a different century.

“A fresh, charming new voice” – New York Times bestselling author Tessa Dare


A mysterious artifact zaps Isabelle Rochon to pre-Victorian England, but before she understands the card case’s significance a thief steals it. Now she must find the artifact, navigate the pitfalls of a stiffly polite London, keep her time-traveling origins a secret, and resist her growing attraction to Lord Montagu, the Vicious Viscount so hot, he curls her toes.

To Lord Montagu nothing makes more sense than keeping his distance from the strange but lovely Colonial. However, when his scheme for revenge reaches a stalemate, he convinces Isabelle to masquerade as his fiancée. What he did not bargain on is being drawn to her intellectually as well as physically.

Lord Montagu’s now constant presence overthrows her equilibrium and her common sense. Isabelle thought all she wanted was to return home, but as passion flares between them, she must decide when her true home—as well as her heart—lies.

Learn more by visiting her Must Love Breeches book page 

Also the author of:  \”Beer and Groping in Las Vegas\” w/Secret Cravings Publishing


12 Responses to "Did You Mess Up the Timeline? Incorporating Theories of Time Travel in Fiction"

  1. Jami Gold
    Comment by Jami Gold
    October 2, 2014 11:40 am

    I get that buzzy feeling in the back of my brain too. There’s a reason we’re friends. 😉

    I have to admit that when I got to the first part of your story’s ending, I was like, “What? No, that doesn’t make sense.” But then as I read more and saw all the things she HAD changed from our history, I realized it would make sense that her “present day” timeline would have been affected too.

    I thought it was cool! But then again, I like that buzzy feeling as I try to grasp ideas. LOL! Thanks for being a geek writer. 😀

    • Comment by Angela Quarles
      October 4, 2014 9:52 am

      Yay, glad I’m not alone in the brain buzz thing!!

  2. Comment by Melissa Jarvis
    October 2, 2014 1:33 pm

    Great article! I too was a liberal arts major, and did a crash course in quantum physics while writing my Lineage time travel romance series. The premise is that early time travelers screwed up the timeline (flexible universe theory) and it’s up to agents of the Lineage to correct those anomalies, which range in severity and usually occur around turbulent moments in history (i.e. the French Revolution, etc.) As a sci-fi nerd, I wanted to add a little of that element to romance. It also incorporates the river flow theory and Einstein’s bed-sheet space time travel. I agree though, it’s a delicate balance to not make your head explode, or your readers. And I won’t even get started on the butterfly effect. I will check out your book!

    • Comment by Angela Quarles
      October 4, 2014 9:53 am

      Hi Melissa, your series sounds really cool! I’ll check it out, thanks for commenting!

  3. Comment by Jean Lilienthal
    October 2, 2014 3:33 pm

    Hi Angela,
    Loved the post! Thanks so much for your explanations. I read and loved your book, but came away with the exact question about 1973. So, now I know and it makes perfect sense. I write time travel as well, and it’s because I am a huge fan of time travel stories. Your story is at the top of my list.
    Thanks for the post.

    • Comment by Angela Quarles
      October 4, 2014 9:54 am

      Aw, Jean, thank you! Glad you loved it!

  4. Comment by Nicola Layouni
    October 2, 2014 4:18 pm

    Hey Angela.

    Good post. I self-pubbed a TT story earlier this year, and I have to say, I didn’t go into too much detail.

    [spoiler] My MC falls off a stepping stone into a river… Boom! Bye-bye C21! In book two, I introduce a character who has encountered ‘Travelers’ before, but he’s rather vague about the whole affair. That’s basically it.

    So far, *touches wood* I haven’t had anyone riding me about the mechanics of the actual TT.

    Kind regards

    A fellow CC-er. 🙂

    • Comment by Angela Quarles
      October 4, 2014 9:56 am

      Oh cool, a fellow CCer! *waves* If you’re using magic as your TT they shouldn’t ride you on the mechanics of the TT (since it’s magic). Some writers choose not to worry about how the traveler affects the timeline, though, and that’s okay. Just depends on the kind of story you want to tell. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Comment by Paula Millhouse
    October 2, 2014 6:48 pm

    Hi Angela,
    Wow – you did so much research for this post. My head’s kinda hurting too. 🙂

    It sounds like your Type B Universe is the theory the Back To The Future movies were based on. Marty makes changes there which could ultimately erase his existence once he returns to the future.

    When I wrote Dragonstone, my Lunchbox Romance, I apparently used your Theory C – the Parallel Universe – (unknowingly) 🙂 My elf prince Kort travels to what I called a different dimension with the assistance of a wizard’s magic, and when he brings Mia and Magnus the dragonlet back home, his universe remains unchanged.

    It’s fun as a writer to think about the science behind time-travel/dimension travel. Even as a child my friends and I conjured up alternate realities. Who knew we were dabbling with the Time Line even back then?

    One of my favorite movies that seriously messes with the Time Line is JJ Abrams Star Trek. Old Spock/Young Spock. I liked the way that story was woven.

    Very cool post!
    Good luck with Must Love Breeches.

  6. Comment by Angela Quarles
    October 4, 2014 9:59 am

    Yay, another brain buzz victim 😉 I agree, I totally loved Abrams’ ST–great way to reboot the series too, as old-timers wouldn’t know what ‘should’ happen, since it’s all new again.

  7. Comment by Michael A. Burstein
    October 20, 2014 10:38 pm

    This is a great post, one that clearly lays out the different types of time travel possible in fiction.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: