It’s a super-power. It’s a tragedy. It’s a second chance. It’s even an entire sub-genre.
Time Control: the most powerful plot device.
Yes. Yes way.
What is so engrossing about the concept of time? Mainly, it’s inevitable, consistent, and the frame of not only our lives, but all of history. To us real people, it is simply fact. It exists. It’s there. Our entire lives consist of the question, “What can I do with the time I have?” We can only work to fill the frame of time with events, hopefully of our choosing.
But what if the frame could be manipulated? Enter fiction. Enter Time Control.
Granted, “time control” is still pretty vague. I think the phrase time manipulation functions better for what I’m talking about—but it’s much less catchy, right? I’ll try to stay on the highway and run through the key points so that we can drive the “most powerful plot device” argument home before dinner.
Time…for me to exclude a couple of branches first. Waking up after a long cryogenic sleep to skip hundreds of years, or far-future harbingers arriving to proclaim imminent doom—here’s a statement: those things are boring. There is so much more opportunity for excitement when the times visited also contain the same characters and stakes as the time left behind.
Within the leftover, vast realm of time control remains three primary elements. Like the primary colors, these three elements come in many combinations of flavor and levels of intensity in fiction, sometimes overlapping territories with one another. The trifecta: speed, foresight, and the second chance. Pay special attention to that last one.
Speed includes freezing or slowing everything else down for time to think and move. This is the same as a character moving more quickly—there’s simply more time. Solve a puzzle. Redirect a bullet. This stuff is mucho fun to watch on screen.
Examples: Flash. Quicksilver. Cyboorg 009. Sonic the Hedgehog. You get the idea.
Foresight is granted by a visitor, or vision, from the near future. This can be used both to foreshadow and convey destiny. Having been there already—or knowing someone who has—is often tantamount to perfect prediction. Even if not always. (See ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ on Google.)
Examples: Terminator. Continuum. The Fates in Hercules. The Matrix. The freaking Bible.
The second chance is where the title of this post stems from. Groundhog Day. A video game player, many times, has the strongest superpower there is, wherein he or she can save the game to protect against future mistakes. Reliving a moment, or day, opens up a world of possibilities.
Examples: This stuff is everywhere. About Time, Edge of Tomorrow, Hermione’s hourglass, Doctor Who, Doctor Strange, Click, Flash, Source Code, Stein’s Gate, Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day.
The second chance is time control’s bread and butter, and the primary reason that I argue time control is the most significant plot device that one can conjure. Why? Because head-on, it faces the most powerful theme that exists, i.e., humanity’s bane.
The most powerful theme is regret. There it is.
When I say powerful, I mean that regret is the most emotionally impactful, thought provoking, and altogether useful theme that a writer can use. It’s like a Swiss Army knife to our souls. Regret is a motivator when it causes vengeance or resolution, but it can also cripple us to future possibilities with fear. It can either enable or disable us.
Regret. It’s the reason that many TV series go out of their way to dedicate a season, or episode, to catching the hero in a time loop or dream of the future. Even shows that aren’t about time try to at least skim over the plot device, whether through a dream or a hallucination—it’s too intriguing to pass up. Through trial and error, the theme amplifies humanity’s real-but-terrifying game of avoiding an ultimately regretful life. Not only does this “game” develop the character for the audience or reader, but it also matures the character in a path of self-discovery as he or she finds the result they sought all along. Whether time is under or beyond control, this favorite element of mine combines foresight with the excitement of actually experiencing the possible alternate outcomes with the character(s), without cementing a future plot.
In other words, when used properly, regret is the most impactful driving force for a character because of the effect that it has on us real-life folks. To some extent, we can all understand it because we can all relate. What if I had told him to take a different road home? What if I had said the right words? Would he still be alive? Could we have gotten married? I should have stayed in school. I should have practiced more. I should have said yes. I should have said no.
Regret can haunt real people for the rest of their lives. It can change who they are, what they want to become, who they feel pressured to avoid, and how they view the world. The craziest part? It’s in the past. It’s unchangeable. It’s engraved in the stone tablets of time.
This is the greatest, most powerful aspect of fiction’s time control. “If I knew then what I know now…” Well, now you do. What are you going to about it? It’s the chance that no one in the real world has—changing regretful results from mistakes of the past. I’m not saying that, as people, we can’t learn from the past to change the future. I’ve only just restated the obvious in flowery terms: We can’t change the past. Our only option, when it comes to interaction with the past, is to observe it.
If you’re looking for some real-life application for this, I really didn’t have one when I started this. However, I would like to share some (paraphrased for effect) advice that I try to live by. This is from the movie About Time (2013), told by a character who could very easily control the events of his life through time travel:
“Try to live every day as if you’ve deliberately come back to this one day to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of your extraordinary, ordinary life.”
Alright. The most powerful plot device is Time Control because the most powerful theme is regret. There it is. I’ll get off my soap box now.
Go forth and read, my minions.