Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Storytelling Is Time Travel

This is why there is so much construction
on the freeway of my daily commute.
I'm the last person who would tell somebody how to write stories. But I was (sort of) asked. So here goes:

We're already 10/365ths (or 0.027397260 for you math whizzes) into the new year. So most of the yearly future predictions have already been predicted (December is that magical portal in-between the "Top-[insert number here]" lists of what has already happened and the "Top-[insert number here]" of what might happen - the internet loves lists even more than usual at this time of year.) How does this possibly relate to writing stories, you ask?

My thought is that all storytelling is essentially about time travel. It doesn't matter if it is a literary classic from Sophocles or Shakespeare or Hemingway or genre tales from Tolkien or Stephen King or the latest important "literature" you must have on your new Kindle or Nook. The story is all about one question: What happens next?

No matter what style is used to present the story, the most important thing is the emotional progression the reader goes through on their journey through time as they follow along. It's "A real page turner," right? Like the fine print in an investment sales pitch, "past performance is not an indicator of future returns." So we have that mystery of what the future of the story will hold, despite (or maybe because of) our expectations from what we have read so far.

Hmm, I won't use any more terms like "emotional progression" (for that, you need to listen to a real writing expert,) so instead, I'll use what I think is the best example of good storytelling: it's called "real life." Despite a prevailing healthy dose of boring-routine-rat-race angst, we really don't know what will happen in the future. (See Flying Cars, Jetpacks, And Video Phones.) Tomorrow, something unexpected can happen, ranging from the bad ("Gee, I wish I had looked both ways and seen that bus before I stepped into the street,") to the good ("Wow, I won the lottery!")

Of course, there's always the possibility of a Twilight Zone-ish twist in the next real life chapter: "That's right, kids, I met your mom when she pushed me out of the way of a speeding bus!" or "That lottery ruined my life when I blew all my winnings and previous life savings in Vegas and then owed money to Big Bubba and ended up living under a bridge."

Our memories are our time machines to the past (as are history books and 99% of Google.) To get to the future, all we have to do is wait. The future, though, is always full of surprises. Science fiction writers may seem to have the living-in-the-future market cornered, but they also end up with a lot of Zeerust. It's the small details that nobody realizes will end up important that help make the future so mysterious.

Back when I was playing Chess on a TRS-80, I don't think any SF stories were predicting that if you could one day connect all the computers in the world, you could type a few words and instantly find out almost anything about anything. No sci-fi hero was using their phone to take HD video of the villain's secret lair. Back then, CSI would have been sci-fi, not police drama.

Storytelling is about time travel, because it is those little details that surprise the audience, but were there all along. They saw them, but didn't realize how important they were. But when they do realize it, they remember and go "Aha!" They have traveled back in time in their memory, then return to the present (which used to be the story's future,) and it all comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Or, it's not quite done yet, and they will hopefully be eager to see what else will happen next ;)

That's my "storytelling is time travel" theory, anyway. What do you think?


  1. Hi, Jon! I really enjoyed your explanation of storytelling as time travel. It makes a lot of sense, and it really does happen when we read.

  2. Thanks, Alesha! Now all we need is the TARDIS type of time travel ;)