For related tropes, see Time Travel Tropes.
A time travel story can simply use time travel as a vehicle to get the hero to the Adventure Towns, or the phlebotinum involved can be a key plot driver. No matter what story type the hero is going to need a Time Machine or Time Master to get around. Time Travel stories seem to fall into several categories:
- You Can't Fight Fate: When the first journey involves going into the future. They must get back to their own time and prevent the future from going horribly horribly wrong. Sometimes they can't, in which case they've just created a...
- Stable Time Loop: Characters go to the past! And in the past, they turn out to be responsible for the events that led to their "present." In other words, You Already Changed the Past. This is similar to You Can't Fight Fate, but now in the past's present instead of the future.
- Includes cases of the Wayback Trip.
- Set Right What Once Went Wrong: When the first journey is into the past. Again, this is usually to fix things - that is, the characters' 'present'. It can involve correcting a Temporal Paradox. Remember, Hitler has Time Travel Exemption. Of course even if time travel does get invented, let's not demand perfection.
- Set Wrong What Was Once Made Right: Of course, fixing anything in the past always seems to go awry and result in worse problems such as a Bad Future, an infestation of Clock Roaches, or The End of the World as We Know It caused by a Time Crash. The inevitable course of action is go go back again and undo all those changes you worked so hard to make.
- Make Wrong What Once Went Right: See above. But... not to fix the present or future. This is the job of the bad guy, who has selfish reasons that favour themselves or their employer. It can create a Bad Future, but it can also cause the...
- Terminator Twosome: Both of the above at once; a villain goes back to change the future in their favour, and a hero follows to put a stop to it or correct it.
- Temporal Paradox: Now it gets complicated...
- Characters go to the past! In the past, they change history: If they do so by accident, it well may end the story with a Karmic Twist Ending; alternately, it will set the real plot in motion by requiring the characters to Set Right What Once Went Wrong.
- On the other hand, they may have set out to change history intentionally, so that the events that create their future/present — and, thus, the conditions that prompted them to go back in time — never happened; basically the same set up as above, but without the initial "accident."
- Characters go to the future! Upon returning to the past, they are able to fight fate and prevent the events of the future (seeing which prompted them to try to prevent the events of the future in the first place) from occurring.
- Reset Button: The characters go through a world of crap, or somebody "changes history", and they resort to time travel to prevent it. If they succeed, the time-line fixes itself and the characters awaken having no knowledge that anything was ever different. Occasionally, only the time-travelers remember — at least, the ones who were alive at the point of fix. If they don't succeed, the series has just received a Retool or Story Reset.
- Trapped in the Past: The characters are stuck in another time with no way of return (a.k.a. forced to take The Slow Path) and must choose between quietly living out their lives without changing history or working to change the world to their (and the natives') benefit. Or they might just rely on You Can't Fight Fate and its relatives, and let history get on with making itself.
- Alternate Timeline: The characters' time-travel has split their universe in twain. There's the future they're in (that they've "changed") and the future they're not in (the "old" universe that wasn't changed). They will probably never be able to return to their old universe.
- Timey-Wimey Ball: When any of the above can be invoked to suit the plot.
No matter what the variation, if there's a scientist or scholar in the group, he'll be giving warnings about the Temporal Paradox risk. And every trip risks an encounter with the Butterfly of Doom or accidentally leaving behind a Timeline-Altering MacGuffin. Because Our Time Travel Is Different, the time-traveler can experience a variety of experiences when travelling in time. For example, the three major types treat time as the fast-forward or rewind buttons on your remote, a tunnel that you or the machine travel through, and instantaneous (temporal) teleportation.
Time travel is also a very large source of Mind Screws. This is because the human mind is used to one-way time; cause and effect requires it. In two-way time, the entire human logic system has to be thrown out. Note that the Stable Time Loop and Alternate Universe (when done properly; i.e., the time-traveler(s) can never get back to the first universe) resolutions are the only ones even slightly logically consistent with typical ideas of causality, so stories wishing to be more "realistic" should favour these.
Stories not wishing to be "realistic", of course, can just ignore the whole Temporal Paradox thing for some reason. Maybe the time-travelers have Ripple Effect-Proof Memory or otherwise get to ignore their own pasts making them immune to changes in the timeline - although theoretically seeing as they've just been subjected to the impossible, their bodies and minds might be different anyway now. After all, it's not like we actually know what will happen, right? Right?!
Even less sensibly, time travel may run on San Dimas Time or display a "Groundhog Day" Loop. See Temporal Mutability for the very tricky problem of how (or even if) you can change the future or the past. Also see Meanwhile, in the Future and What Year Is This?.
Examples of Time Travel in Fiction:
- Anime & Manga
- Comic Books
- Live-Action TV
- Video Games
- Web Original
- Western Animation
- Other Media