The other day I gave myself a massive headache, all because I neglected to pay attention to how quickly my time moved in the past compared to the present when I started The Schoolhouse Disappearance. I’d meticulously plotted my story, but I hadn’t paid close attention to the relationship between time in the past and time in the present. Over the course of the story I needed roughly four weeks to pass in the past compared to just three days in the present. As I started writing the first time travel scene, I set up my “guidelines” for how much time would pass in the present while Abby was in the past, but didn’t think much more about it. I continued writing, and a few chapters later my protagonist goes back for the second time. I applied the same “math” to this visit and had a major panic moment as I realized it totally, completely, utterly (enough adverbs for you) did not work! I then pulled out my outline and applied my math to the rest of the scenes and found that nothing worked. What was required to make the time travel successful was some careful time management replotting.
Why does this matter? Can’t you just fudge it? Is anyone really going to stop and figure out if you were consistent? Maybe, maybe not. In my case, I had to know because my protagonist actually figures out how much time goes by in the present while she is in the past, and I used this as a plot aid. In the end, you might not let the reader know all the nitty gritty details about how your time moves, but that doesn’t excuse you from not knowing them yourself. You can compare it to a character sketch. Every writer develops a character, learning all about them. Despite all the prep work we do to define these characters very little of our character sketches actually end up in the novel. I might know that Abby despises peas, but that little fact has never been revealed to the reader. They haven’t needed to know, but as the writer I do; that little fact helps me make Abby more three dimensional. Same rules and concepts apply to time. You need to know how it moves, because having time behave consistently adds to the believability of the story, even if the “rules” are never revealed to the reader.
Time management and plot are interdependent. You can’t deal with one without the other. Understanding your time will give you flexibility in your plot, and your plot will shape how your time moves. Together they can present new ideas and possibilities.
There are four scenarios you find used in time travel novels:
1- Time in the past moves at the same rate as time in the present.
2- Time in the past moves faster than time in the present.
3- Time in the past moves slower than time in the present.
4- Time in the past moves forward but time in the present freezes.
Different situations will lend themselves more readily to one over the other. Unlike in The Schoolhouse Disappearance, where Abby goes back and forth between the past and present several times, in my second novel, Destination: Calistoga Depot, the children go back in time and stay there until they’ve completed their goals. When they return to the present, almost no time has passed. If I’d had them go missing for a week in the present, it would have created problems with “adults” that wouldn’t have added anything to the story I was trying to tell. My solution was to have little to no time pass in the present while they were in the past.
In The Time Travelers, by Linda Buckley-Archer, time moves at the same rate in the past as in the present. What this meant was that grown ups played a large part in this story, as the author had to deal with how the parents reacted to the disappearance of their children, since the children were unable to move back and forth in time. This created a much more complicated plot and forced the author to use many different viewpoint characters.
On the other hand, in On Etruscan Time, by Tracy Barrett, as in The Time Travelers, time moved at the same rate as the present, but the protagonist was able to move back and forth between times. He was never missed long enough to cause worry among the adults. This created a very different plot with a very different set of problems.