Tuesday, February 22, 2022


ROB HART: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writing Time Travel

Develop a healthy fascination with the genre, laying the groundwork with stuff like Lightning by Dean Koontz, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Kindred by Octavia Butler, Timecop, Primer, and the fourth season of Lost. 

Get an actual idea for a premise. Like, you could visit an interactive theater experience (Sleep No More), and as you’re wandering the cavernous, circuitous space, think to yourself, “What if there was a hotel where you could enter a room and be five minutes in the future, or ten minutes in the past?” 

Open a Google doc, write “time travel hotel,” close it, do not open again for several months.

Decide: Now is the time to write a time travel story! This cannot possibly be a difficult task. Come up with a premise: a locked-room mystery, a hotel house detective on the brink of madness, financial shenanigans perpetuated by billionaires. 

Do a lot of reading in time travel and quantum physics, until you brain is bent into a literal pretzel and you realize we are but a speck of dust in a vast and uncaring universe

After the existential crisis passes, come up with your “rules” for time travel. How do you make it different than what came before? Can’t be hard, right? 

It is in fact very hard. 

After tons of notes and charts and ideas hastily scribbled on napkins, take your time travel rules and start outlining your story. Start with a linear narrative, then throw it into a box and shake it really hard and look at where everything ended up and try to figure out why you did this to yourself. It’s not a good way to write. 

Start again. Figure out how to lay breadcrumbs in a story where time is fluid. Decide what information you can tease the reader with, before revealing more later on, shifting their understanding and perspective. 

Keep exhaustive notes. Draw maps—it’s good to have a sense of space. 

Finish the book. Edit it over and over, and then send it to trusted friends, who will gently explain to you how much of it doesn’t make sense. Because all that time travel stuff you thought you figured out? Yeah, it worked great in your head, not so much on the page. 

Edit. Rewrite. Get your agent involved. He will also shrug his shoulders at you. Pull back and look at the big picture. Be ready to pivot and change how things work. -Find that if you did your research, and you’re passionate about your story, it’ll all be there. It’s an editing job just like any other novel: taking all the ideas on the page, smoothing them out, making them work in sequence (or, in this case, slightly out of sequence), and have faith that in the end, the story will shine. 

Give the book to your editor, who will deconstruct the entire thing and make you realize how much still doesn’t make sense. 

Sob softly into a beverage—alcoholic or non, the choice is yours. 

Take your editor’s notes, dig deep, and do the work. Eventually you will find that you managed to write what you meant to do from the outset: a story about grief, pain, and the impossibility of facing yourself, but also, there are robots and dinosaurs, because if you’re going to write time travel, you’re damn sure going to have a good time doing it. 


Rob Hart is the author of The Paradox Hotel. His last novel, The Warehouse, sold in more than 20 countries and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. He also wrote the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. 


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