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What Tomorrowland taught me about writing YA dystopian time travel literature

For the last few days I’ve been hitting 5000+ words a day writing fiction. It’s exciting to think what that kind of habit will mean if I keep it up for a few months. But there are times my brain hits a wall and I get stuck. This is probably especially true because the book I’m focusing on right now is about time travel (well, sort of; more like prophecy or seeing the future).

So I got distracted and started watching Tomorrowland, which seemed like a cool sci/fi fantasy with YA dystopian elements. Some friends had warned me off, saying it was a dumb kid’s movie.

But I disagree. There are elements in it that deserve consideration. And I had no idea how much it would help my fiction writing.

Imagine if all the creative, genius, brilliant, artistic people got together and actually decided to CHANGE the world? Where could they even do something like that? They’d need a secret place, free from politics, bureaucracy, greed… a place where they could build anything they were crazy enough to dream up.

That’s the premise behind Tomorrowland.

But they were too brilliant: they built a machine that could tell the future, and it foretold destruction, with 100% probability.

Until a robot programmed to find genius discovers one special girl, who looks at all the proof and decides she doesn’t care.

“If you could know the time of your death, would you want to know?”

“Yes. But… believing in it may cause it to happen…”

So she changes her answer.

“I would want you to tell me, but I wouldn’t believe you.”

“You have to believe me.”

“Why – can’t we change our own destiny and stuff?”

Bam! Probability drops to less than 100%. She has changed the fate of the world – by choosing NOT to believe in the imminent destruction.

Why her? Because she hasn’t given up. So the movie is about hope in the face of impossible odds. And this micro-scene is a mirror for the whole story: the prediction of the apocalypse is actually causing people to give up and lose hope, thus causing it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So they decide to blow up the machine.

But then there’s the bad guy speech. 

And he’s not exactly wrong either.

He tried to warn everyone.

The end of the world was coming. Nobody would believe him. So he started broadcasting it, thinking that fear of the end of the world would make people change their ways.

“How do you think they responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up. It could be repackaged and enjoyed as video games or TV shows or books, movies; the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalpyse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon.  Everything is going to shit but you won’t do anything about it; you dwell on this terrible future, you resign yourself to it, for one reason, because that future doesn’t ask anything of you today.”

What I learned about writing time travel books

These are the same problems and frustrations I was dealing with. But actually, it gets more complicated, if you think about it. Why didn’t the characters see themselves destroying the machine? In fact, why did they have to do anything at all – rather than just looking at what they’d already done… and copying their own actions? How could there really be any conflict or plot at all?

Here’s the book I’m working on, Prescient. And I was stuck because, once your characters get to the point where they know the world is ending, how do they respond? Obviously, with doom and gloom, and feelings of hopelessness and loss. But then what?

One: Hope for Change

You need one character who is blissfully irrational, like Casey in Tomorrowland. Who knows the world is ending but chooses to totally suspend reason and decide it isn’t happening. The trick is spinning her as hopeful rather than stupid.

time travel YA romance

Two: Don’t Give Away Everything

There has to be the possibility to change the future; even if it’s a hail mary. In my story, the problem was – if she went into the future and really looked around (not just flashes or images from a crystal ball, but old newspaper clippings, talking to people about what really happened) then she’d soon discover exactly what went wrong.

And then, the book is kind of over, because she knows exactly what to do or who to kill. So I’m going to have to modify my story, so that she doesn’t have all the answers right away, so that the plot can be extended. The end of the world is coming, but the first step should be trying to figure out how it happens, and how to stop it. There’s a good 5 chapters in there, which can be beefed up with character development, action, relationships, minor high school drama, etc.

A book can’t just start with a vision of the future and the protagonist knowing exactly how to stop it.

Three: The Choice to Believe

Plots go quickly if everybody is smart and rational and they work well together. But that usually doesn’t happen in real life, or in good fiction. So even among friends, there must be division. Just because she can see the future, doesn’t mean anybody believes her. Just because she knows what she needs to do, doesn’t mean everybody agrees with her. Many chapters can be filled with her trying to prove that her visions are real to her friends; and then also with their gang trying to make the rest of the world listen to them.

Even if you know what’s going to happen, how can you stop it if nobody will listen to you? And then what: do you blow something up? Assassinate someone? Try to force answers out of the CEO of a company (when you’re a 16 year old high school kid?) How do you do all of that when you’re juggling homework and volleyball practice?

What if your boyfriend’s dad is the CEO you need to kill? What if killing him means that your best friend will die? You need to tie everything together, and give every action consequences. There can be no easy choices.

Four: The Resolute Antagonist

In the real world, if you could prove the world was going to end because some CEO did something stupid (like genetically modifying human beings to make them resilient to a future calamity) you might think you could just talk him out of it.

But what if he’s seen the future too? What if he needed to do it so that the human race would survive? You corner him and tell him “the truth” – but he won’t change his actions. He knows you’re right; you both have all the information, but you disagree about the moral implications.

You think you should “save the world” now even though it will lead to total annihilation in a few years. He thinks it’s better the majority of the human race become monsters if it means a few survivors will be preserved to continue the human race.

In other words, you need the antagonist to have solid reasons for opposing the protagonist. He has to really believe in what he’s after, not just be a stupid douchebag. So in the final conflict, the fight is real and the stakes are high. It probably won’t end without somebody dying. It’s nothing a conversation or argument will fix; it has to be the clash between competing (but equally valid) worldviews.

Five: Untruths and HalfTruths

The other thing you need to consider, is that not everybody has to tell each other the whole truth all the time. The people the protagonist meets in the future, or in the present, might be lying to her. Maybe they knew she’s come visit and they fed her false information, so she’d go back with the wrong mission (and of course they would!). Maybe she doesn’t tell everything to her friends, wanting to protect them. Maybe she thinks she’s doing it for the right reasons (and maybe her friends pay her back, in the future, but not telling her the truth). Different characters can have different personal motivations for lying to each other, even those they care about. This will stretch the novel out and add intrigue.

Six: A Big Revelation

Sometime toward the end, probably in the final conflict with the antagonist, the protagonist is going to learn something big. That she’s been wrong the whole time; that she isn’t who she thinks she is; what really happened to her missing father or mother. She’s going to be beaten. The antagonist is smarter than she is. He played her. All her friends are dead or captured. There’s no hope in a successful “victory” – at least not that she can see right now. But she sums up the strength to fight anyway. To resist, anyway. Even if it’s futile, pointless, and can’t possibly make a difference… she fights on, even if it’s a marginal symbolic gesture of defiance.

And that’s usually when she gets unlikely help, turns the tables, and wins the day.