Somewhat, not really related.

In my young adult story, the main character has a mechanism that allows her to pause time, and do things while everything is frozen. I have no problem 'magic'ing the power of this machine.

But I would like to explain in more depth the effects of this mechanism.

If she turns on a light, she's drawing electricity which is coming from a coal power plant, no? A car frozen going downhill is stationary, but if she rolls a ball across the room it continues to go. Why does the sun not stop warming her? Etcetera.

She has stopped universal physics (except for herself), and yet physics still works. I don't want to leave this explanation out, but I don't know how to explain it. What are the boundaries to things that stop? I'd still like her to be able to get up to mischief.

EDIT: This is intentionally NOT a hard-science tag. This is a worldbuilding request for the best way to describe the strongest boundary where physics must give way to 'magic'.

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    $\begingroup$ AFAIK, all the time freeze effects in fiction suffer from major problems with physics which are not fixable using scientific explanations. How does the character even see for example? So is what you are looking for just something that is self-consistent i.e. a time-stop-like effect with limits that sort of work if you don't think too hard? $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2015 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ Clockstoppers reasoned it with having the body's molecules sped up to a degree to which everything around them appears to be stopped because they're going so fast (and talks about relativity). Your solution may end up needing to be similar in the fact that it's not truly stopping anything. $\endgroup$
    – Rein S
    Nov 18, 2015 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ @kojiro It's clear he's freezing the people. Things, like drinking fountains, continue to work during those time freeze periods. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Nov 18, 2015 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ Do you really need the explanation? As much as you want to give one, have you considered choosing not to? Given that physics simply says "you can't do what this ability claims to do," and attempts to work around it are notoriously fraught with issues, you are firmly in the realm of magic. Sanderson's first law would be the best boundary: "The author's ability to resolve conflict is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to the readers understanding of said magic." Can you just convince your readers to understand it without a physics based explanation? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 18, 2015 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon: When world-building for a story, it is often helpful to go beyond what you explain in the story, and have something consistent in your head. Hidden and consistent depths can give you verisimilitude, and you can at the same time preserve some mystery. Although many good sci-fi stories also do take time to cover explanations in depth as well, and depending on the author/style can be better for it. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2015 at 8:32

25 Answers 25


None of the below has any scientific basis, but it can potentially be made compatible with a (mostly) scientific fictional world, and a magical world that interacts with it within limits.

The character doesn't stop time, but shifts to a place outside of the universe's time, in a kind of shadow world to the real one. A different dimension of time flows for the character in this place, allowing them to act. In this place they can move freely between shadow places in the real world, but not forward or backwards in time with respect to it.

The character needs to have a way to perceive objects. The shadow world may have it's own equivalent of photons that interact (without transferring energy) with the real world. This could look very different to vision in the real world if you wished to get descriptive.

To have any impact in the real world, the character needs to be able to interact with objects. Whatever mechanism transfers the character allows them to select objects - or parts of objects - to transfer into the shadow world where they can be moved or manipulated and then placed back into the real world (the fact that this might immediately displace some air could lead to a tell-tale "pop" sound).

With this mechanism there is no particular reason why any real-world objects are tangible/solid for the character - i.e. they could fly, move through objects, etc. But they may want to limit what they do in that regard if they are not fully in control of when (in the sense of their activity time used whilst everything else is frozen) they return to the real world. So it would be a huge risk of injury or death to move through solid objects, or even liquid if it could not be displaced.

All this setup gives you an answer to the original question:

In this variant, the character cannot make objects draw power, or roll a ball along the ground. They can merely teleport things around by manipulating them into place one at a time.

You can add more limits to how much effect this has by making staying in the shadow world take effort or amount of action allowed be unpredictable. Likewise manipulating an object could cost effort or total shadow-world time depending on its mass. A very simple premise could be that the character cannot breathe, there is no air in the shadow world, and all the real world's air is frozen in place of course, so entering the time freeze is a bit like free diving.

In terms of story effect and how much risk such a character is ever exposed to, it might be wise to add some constraints to a time-stop effect, otherwise it can become a "solve anything" ability which drains away tension from a story.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Couldn't the time person just phase shift air from real world into shadow world (directly into his lungs). Also, I hope shadow world has some fluid; humans don't do well in a vacuum. $\endgroup$
    – PyRulez
    Nov 19, 2015 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ @PyRulez: maybe shifting air doesn't work, for same reason that shifting objects to where they would displace air does work? The shadow world obviously has different ("magic") physics, so whether or not there is fluid is perhaps a detail for the OP to figure. I quite like the free-diving analogy, including how it might look and feel, yes I was imagining that there was some "astral fluid" to push against in order to move about even. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2015 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ Even regular water would work. $\endgroup$
    – PyRulez
    Nov 19, 2015 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ @NeilSlater - I'm accepting this answer: I know that you can't exist in physically 'frozen' time, but I wanted a way to explain it, in a science fiction / magic way, more than just complete hand-waving (or foot-waving, which is a new term I like from Frostfyre) $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Nov 20, 2015 at 3:27
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    $\begingroup$ The ability to stop time is powerful even if you can't interact with anything. It could provide you with (what appears to the outside observer to be) super-senses and super-fast thinking when in fact you're just walking around the astral projection of a place. Resuming time will snap you back to your physical body. A slightly more realistic setting would slow down everything to a crawl without freezing it completely. Slowing down the caster's body (but not thinking) is optional. Think: V.A.T.S. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2015 at 10:04

Um...everything? Time freeze is unfortunately not logically consistent with reality.

Think about it this way: If you freeze time you are stopping things from changing.

Time and change are fundamentally linked. If nothing changes does time pass? Logically, maybe it does, but the basis of time is change and vise versa.

In short there is no way to explain the system you mention within the bounds of physics etc.

If air molecules don't move can the unfrozen person pass though them? If energy is not moving through the air (sunlight) would the unfrozen person be able to see, or hear?

There is no method beyond hand-waving or magic (fancy hand-waving) that will allow for such a scenario to occur.

In response to the bounty posting:

If you stop time and yet want things to happen, *for anything to happen physics must immediately give way to magic. The only thing you could do without violating that is to think hard (while suffocating).

In short the boundary you are asking for is any action your protagonist takes.

There is no subset of actions that would be allowable under physics. You can't stop time AND do stuff without magic. With the exception of thinking really hard for however long you can hold your breath.

You kind of just have to give in and say: Magic (jazz hands will spice it up)

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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, magic may not require hand waving. It could be done with foot waving. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Nov 18, 2015 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre i.imgur.com/GB3zX9j.jpg $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2015 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre Hand waving is going to be hard if you stop time around you. Your hand is going to bump into lots of air molecules that cannot move. Essentially air becomes solid, which is really inconvenient. $\endgroup$
    – kasperd
    Nov 18, 2015 at 22:46
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe time just moves really really slowly. Though even then, air friction would be significant, it would be difficult to breathe, etc. etc. Also, OP mentions "turning on a light" - in the real world it takes a little under 1/10th of a second for an incandescent light to turn on, which in this case would be an eternity. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2015 at 0:32
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    $\begingroup$ @James agreed! I would NEVER tag this as hard-science or physics; the correct answer addresses "how is she able to xyz," in a worldbuilding context as opposed to, "how in today's physics is she able to do xyz." While having a little more explanation than just "it's cuz magic," (which is where I am right now). $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Nov 19, 2015 at 2:39

Time is relative.

Instead of freezing all other time, just have your character speed up her own. From her perspective all other things will have effectively stopped. This concept is explored in Treason by Orson Scott Card. Obviously, Card is a master of young adult novels and explaining how things work. He also explored this (ad nauseam, in my opinion) in his series Pathfinder.

In Treason, when the character speeds up his own time flow he must be careful not to touch other people, because from their perspective they would be struck at very high speed and might suffer broken bones or bruising.

In Pathfinder, instead of changing the flow of time, the characters skip in time. I only recall them speeding up their time by skipping forward. But I imagine a similar effect could be used for slowing time. She might skip backward in time 0.999 seconds per second to perceive time as being slowed.

This skipping method is probably the way to go, it's like pulse width modulated time. It might be easy to describe it as how LED lights are dimmed, it's not through getting less bright, but really is achieved by being just as bright for shorter periods of time. If your character is walking around while jumping back in time for an appreciable percentage of the time she is moving forward in time (at the normal rate) then time will appear to slow down. It's important that the time travel paradigm is one where she can not meet her past self.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course, this still requires massive handwaving. For example, it's just about impossible to make the airflow work without choking you, stopping you in place, or causing horrible compressive heating and shockwaves, and light causes its own set of headaches. $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2015 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ @user2357112 Oh certainly, for the case of changing time flow. It's simply easier to stay "all that other stuff isn't stopped, it only looks that way to this character". It's honestly the exact same problems, but it sounds a whole lot better. For the other case, skipping in time, the problems are reduced, or at least quite different. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Nov 18, 2015 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ @user2357112: Well then you just take a page out of the DCU: Introduce a "speed force"-like-thing that fixes those issues. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Nov 18, 2015 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ Downvoter care to comment? $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Nov 19, 2015 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ The downvote wasn't me, but i suspect calling OSC's views "shameful" had something to do with it. $\endgroup$
    – user13985
    Nov 19, 2015 at 6:03

Try not having sharp edges between paused and not. That sharp edge creates all sorts of funny weird behaviors and demands all sorts of handwaving. Instead, treat it as a speed up effect which emanates from the caster. Things that are closer to the caster move faster than things that are further away. This avoids funny issues like "does my clothing move with me when time is paused?" Since the clothing is close to you, it will move almost freely with you.

This also opens up the door for some hard-magic style thinking regarding the shape of the field. A novice might be able to create a spherical field, so that those who are close to them move fast, and far away things move slow. A skilled user might be able to shape the field to conform more to their body, so that they can move through tight fits between two frozen individuals.

Indeed you could go so far as to solve the question of what happen if someone pulls the cord on a lamp. If a novice does it, the lamp may be "on" but not light up, because the electrons in the wire are not moving fast enough. A professional may be able to shape the field to include enough of the electrical system to allow the lamp to light up. This might require some extreme motion, such as shaping the field to include all of the wires all the way up to the power station, but somewhere along the way you should be able to start handwaving it because someone with that much control would be very special and do all sorts of really neat things.

  • $\begingroup$ Good idea, although that about the lights wouldn't work - you don't just need the wires, you also need the power station itself, and if you power up the station without its surroundings, it will probably explode. :-) Also, if you are n times as fast as the sun, then the sun will seem n times less bright and its light will be frequency shifted so you can't see it. So you probably need to speed everything up which you want to see, including the light source. Would be a scary world, all black and cold. $\endgroup$
    – Nobody
    Dec 7, 2016 at 23:45

Alternative model which might achieve what you are trying to do with less trouble: Time doesn't stop, she just becomes extremely fast.

From her point of view it appears as if time became so slow that most things just don't appear to move at all. But from the point of view of the rest of the world, she became amazingly fast.

The problem with that is that she also became amazingly strong. Let's say the time dilation factor is 1:100. When she throws a rock with 10 m/s, it actually moves with 1000 m/s. It will have enough kinetic energy to pierce through a concrete wall. It will seem to her as if the whole world is made of wet tissue paper. She will have to be very careful to not cause any damage. Even the air she displaces by walking around and breathing might cause dangerously strong storm gusts.

  • $\begingroup$ A thrown rock traveling at any speed won't pierce a concrete wall. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Nov 19, 2015 at 4:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Samuel Sure it can. All you have to do is throw it fast enough: what-if.xkcd.com/1 (For some definition of "pierce" meaning that most of the molecules of the rock are beyond where the vaporized wall was) $\endgroup$
    – Patrick M
    Nov 19, 2015 at 5:25
  • $\begingroup$ @PatrickM Ha, alright using a definition of pierce as a mixing of the resulting gasses, sure fair enough. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Nov 19, 2015 at 5:32
  • $\begingroup$ Isn´t the result of very fast moving trough an athmosphere a very hot one? The Friktion of the Air is the problem why the Spaceshuttles are such a bad way to send people back to earth - a human running at a Speed where it can express a time stoping would just burn to the ground. Also the air in front of the human would be compressed so hard that it would start a Thermonuclear reaction. xkcd.com had one question like that. $\endgroup$
    – Fulli
    Nov 19, 2015 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Fulli: Maybe there could be a... thing... that hand-waves this away. Let's call it the Speed Force which protects the character and the surrounding environment from the effects that this speed would normally cause. $\endgroup$
    – Ellesedil
    Nov 19, 2015 at 18:01

What if the universe only functions when watched by an intelligent observer?

What if changes in state (or motion) are a function of those observer's perception? The Schrödinger's cat thought experiment seems to imply that that might actually be the case. And if it is, how would we ever know? We cannot know a thing until we look at the thing, so if our looking influences the results, we are skewing the results every time we inspect them.

Now in this perception dependent universe, all a person would have to do to stop time, is diminish the authority of everyone-else's perception to a level beneath the intellectual threshold which insights motion. Once this is somehow done, your unstopped/undiminished heroine can enjoy the godlike power of being the only animating force in the universe. What she sees or interacts with, functions normally; Balls that she kicks, roll while she watches them. Sunshine strikes her face because she believes it should. Air molecules move out of her way, because not moving would defy her expectations. Meanwhile, all around her, the rest of the universe remain static and unchanging, just as all the gold-watch stories which she's read, suggest that it should.

Other people are a bit of a challenge to this answer. The classic time-stop scenario has other people standing around like Mannequins. But if motion in the universe is driven by your heroine's perceptions and expectations, then the people she sees should re-animate as she looks at them.

So what if her gaze does reanimates other people's bodies, but not their minds, not their motivating source. If she looks at someone who was falling, they would continue to fall. But if prior to the time-freeze, she hadn't seen them falling, they would just stay where they were, with no new motion starting from within them. Similarly, non-falling people would be technically animate, but un-moving because their minds, which the heroine cannot understand or predict, remain frozen with time. They might even have a heartbeat and blood pressure, but no will of their own.

This opens up some interesting plot opportunities involving intimacy and love. If she looks deeply into a frozen person's eyes, she might be able to see their souls like a frozen fire; and in seeing them in this way, come to understand them, at least well enough to reanimate the minds. Such people would become alive in the frozen world, at least until she looks away.

Similarly, people, whom the heroine already knows closely and/or loves, might be immune to the time-freeze, since her knowledge of them is a permanent part of her perception and understanding of the world. She might find that she is not as alone in this static reality, as the stories suggest that she should be.

-- this is a heavily edited version of my original answer which included some scientific assertions which didn't survive peer-review. --

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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't this also mean any people she sees continue to move and act while she can perceive them? That would go against the basic idea. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Nov 19, 2015 at 4:09
  • $\begingroup$ You're right. I didn't think of that! ...but, I like it. Let's imagine that her gaze reanimates other people's bodies, but not their minds, not their motivative source. If she looks at someone who was falling, they would continue to fall. But if they weren't already in motion, they would just stay where they were, with no new motion starting from within them. They might even have a heartbeat and blood pressure, but no will of their own. Then, if she looks deeply into their eyes, she can reanimate their minds and they would come alive, at least until she looks away. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2015 at 6:06
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, this isn't really true. We have observed changes in space-time and measured their differences in the flow of time. Read up on relativity. Things "change" relative to the flow of time in the space-time location where they are. "Change" slows down, relative to the outside observer in faster moving space-time and vice-versa. So your initial claim, that we do not scientifically have evidence for such a thing, is mistaken. We have as good as evidence that if time stops "change" stops as about anything else we have gathered about the nature of the universe at this point. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2015 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ The effects you mention are the macroscopic ones that humans can partake in, at microscopic levels we've observed particles at over 99.99999% of the speed of light and seen the massive relative effects. For example, pi mesons which normally only last millionths of a second, are FAR more long lasting when at near light speed: i.e. when time is running much slower relative them than it is for us, the outside observers. And the math behind relativity has been proven over and over again. The difference here is only matter of scale. So yes, if the movement of time becomes 0, so does all change. $\endgroup$ Nov 20, 2015 at 6:15
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    $\begingroup$ In fact...the relationship is so true that we even use rate of change as our measurement system for time, measuring the change of cesium atoms as our base for the time unit "second". $\endgroup$ Nov 20, 2015 at 6:16

A simple way to explain how she is free to move about while everything else is seemingly frozen, is the conduction of time (like conduction of heat). Time moves rather slowly for everything else, with the pace sped up by absorbing time from the protagonist (like heat transferring from one object in contact with another).

The air around her has so little mass, it immediately gets enough time to move normally (though the farther away from her it goes, the more diffuse time gets, so thicker air seems to be). Rooms would get hot and stuffy as the air in it doesn't ventilate much, so suffocation and body-heat dissipation might become worries if she doesn't keep moving about (so don't sleep in this state).

This explains why the things she is wearing are not immovable barriers as they have been in contact with her long enough to equalize time with her. Things she picks up might seem slightly stuck and resistant to moving at first (like a rusty hinge), but start to shift more as she is in contact with it. Larger objects like doors might be very difficult to move, as so much mass would take a while to get up to a practical movement speed. She could probably walk over a swimming pool (run at least) as it takes a while to get moving (just as it would take a while to heat it up), but a cup full would be easy enough to drink (though perhaps with the consistency of syrup when she first picks it up).

While she is holding a ball, it keeps getting enough time to keep it reasonably normal behavior, but if she rolls it away from her, time will dissipate from it, slowing it more and more the longer it has been out of her hands.

She can breathe, she can eat and drink, she can move about completely normally, and even manipulate objects (though larger objects seem exceptionally heavy), but otherwise things around her seem frozen (even though they are just moving too slow for it to be visible to her). If she isn't looking at something fast-moving, she might get surprised to see it having changed position over time if she wasn't aware that everything wasn't completely stopped. The world may seem a tiny bit more dim, but the apparently slower speed of light is still so fast that it isn't significant.

She would need to be very careful about touching anything living - having where she touched running at a different pace as the rest of it could cause serious damage. Likewise complicated electronics might pose an issue - lights would work (though even an incandescent bulb would take a little warmup time), but anything more would not (minor allowance for hand-held devices).

  • $\begingroup$ This is a good approach - time stop simply doesn't work in a physics sense, so don't even try - call it magic and set some constraints on how the magic works - like the ones outlined in this answer - and just go from there. $\endgroup$
    – Sobrique
    Nov 20, 2015 at 12:39

One possible and rather fun concept is to play a little bit with the concept of 'time' allowing interactions the character hasn't had yet to unfold in the future, propagating the fact that they must have happened back to the present..

That's a very unclear sentence. If we consider an example using light: When time stops, So does the light, right? This means our heroine is unable to see. But what if the light that's going to hit the heroine eventually 'knows' this ahead of time, and keeps moving anyway? That's not inconsistent with some theories of how photons operate.

But of course: there was something that produced this light, wasn't there? Fusion in the sun needs to make the light (I know it's not technically accurate, but shush), so that can't stop either. Essentially the fusion process knows ahead of time that it's going to do something that will materially affect the heroine, so time restarts for it at just the right time (relative to the heroine) to push out a burst of energy in the right direction to bounce off a motionless body to hit the heroine's eye. The rest of the light, heat and the heavier elements made by the fusion process remain stuck, however, unless they're needed to kick off another process that eventually affects the heroine. Now, given the way the sun works this eventually leads to most of the sun being 'on', but with any process that doesn't directly affect the heroine paused.

When it comes to objects, light switches etc, all the physical processes required 'know' ahead of time that they will be required as part of a causal chain leading back to the heroine. It's like anything that has or will touch her acts as a conduit to deliver 'time' back to all the things that support it. If the heroine rolls a ball, and the ball continuing to roll (not just seeing the ball roll) will have a future effect on the heroine, then the ball keeps rolling. If not, it freezes again.

People become a trivial case. Is it the person that had an effect on the heroine, or just the light that bounced off them? If the latter, the person remains frozen. If the former, they have to start moving, and will stop again once they stop changing something about the heroine.

This needs handwaving in two places:

1: What defines a future interaction for the heroine? Luckily: Plot!

2: When time restarts there are going to be a lot of processes out of synch with the rest of the world. Mostly they won't be noticeable, but lightbulbs will pulse brighter and burn out as all the photons that were never destined to reach the heroine but had to be made anyway start moving again, things that may have heated the protagonist will get hotter or possibly even explode, pretty much anything electrical would suffer horribly, and there will be violent implosions as air the heroine has displaced but hasn't replaced equalises...

Ok, maybe it will be noticeable. But if you can handwave away the trail of destruction near the protagonist, you're golden! Even if you can't the chaos can be used as an interesting plot hook.


Well, off the top of my head I can think of many limitations.

For one, you need to allow photons to continue moving. We see because the photons hit our retina, and our optic nerves relay that information to our brains to process. You stop photons, you're now blind. You'll also have to allow other waves like sound waves if you want to hear.

In fact, you'd have to put the entire electromagnetic spectrum back into action.

You also need to allow atoms to move. If they can't, then your character will freeze to death. If there's no movement in molecules then your character will then be in a close-to-0 degree Kelvin environment and without some hand-waving they can't survive.

With some very strange physics and magical hand-waving, you can survive with your influence being the only catalyst for any event in the universe. Air molecules will have to be allowed to move when you create a low pressure environment in your body, allowing you to breathe.

That being said, this has to be a very peculiar set of laws of physics. Given the current laws of physics, it's an impossibility. You violate a lot of fundamental constants, like c.

If you are faster and can observe the universe at a slower rate, that leads to other issues, like your body becoming extremely hot because of your atoms speeding up.

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    $\begingroup$ I understand fully that this cannot happen in reality (thus the Magic and Sci-Fi tags). I think you're on to something, but I'm not looking for limitations - just storybuilding answers in the realm of worldbuilding. Of course this could never happen - I just am asking for where the borders between physics and fantasy are. I don't know the answer. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Nov 19, 2015 at 2:42
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand what you mean. You wrote "What are the boundaries to things that stop?" but then you write "I am not looking for limitations." What, then, do you mean by the word "boundaries"? Could you please clarify, because that is what I wanted to convey in my answer. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2015 at 17:57

If this is not hard-science, then an alternative would be that your device has, per se, nothing to do with time stopping, but with dimensional travelling.

Imagine a 1-dimensional world. Objects in that world can only move forward or backwards.

Add a second dimension. In this 2-dimensional world, objects can still move forward or backwards, but now they can also move left and right in the second dimension, without altering their "first dimension" place in space

In our 3-dimensional world, objects can move forward, backwards, left, right, but also up and down in this third dimension, without altering their position in the other two.

Following this idea, you can say that, time being considered by some the 4th dimension, what your device actually does is to allow the wielder move into this "4th dimension", where objects can freely move and interact with everything else in the first 3 dimensions without altering their position in the fouth one. This way she can also "take" things into the 4th dimension and move them there without altering their "position" in time. She can still see and breathe as air and light particles/waves move to her dimension when she enters in contact with them; similarly, most physics still work the same, althought forces e.g. gravity could be a little harder to explain, as this logic could/should allow the wielder to "move into air" while she's in the 4th dimension. Yet I think there could be a way to explain this if necessary, or be left undetailed if not.

  • $\begingroup$ Ah so, she's still working her own dimensions, but selecting items to change in the 'time' dimension? $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Dec 23, 2015 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ Sort of. She can interact with everything in the 3-dimensional world. When she grabs or holds something she can move or change it in any of those 3 dimensions without altering the fourth one (time). If for example she changes a box from one place to another, other people would see as if the box had "teleported" instantly. $\endgroup$
    – Josh Part
    Dec 23, 2015 at 23:35

The main thing is that it's suddenly going to be very dark and you will have no air to breathe. If you extend out the "moving time" field a bit and carry a flashlight (or just your mobile phone) then you could make it work.... although even then pressure is going to start dropping as air molecules leave the area around you and get "stuck" in the frozen time. Equally the flashlight will not be able to illuminate anything outside the edges of the time field.

Basically the movie/TV thing of everything standing still while you walk around and see things normally is ignoring a lot of problems with that scenario.


If you've played the game Braid, there's a ring that slows everything down proportionally to how close it is to the ring. So what if it did the reverse? There was a smooth gradient such that the closer things got to the main character the faster they moved. Then from the main character's point of view, everything slows down that's far away. Now this sort of violates conservation of energy as things coming in would be gaining energy, but things leaving would be losing energy, so on average energy would be conserved, and perhaps deviating from the energy conservation requires effort and thus it is hard to maintain these fields. Indeed it would be harder to maintain the stronger the field was and the more things passing in and out of the field.

If the field was centered on the brain you could do things like just make a small focused field to think really fast (till you ran out of oxygen)

As for the ball, you could roll it but as it moved away it would slow down and return to normal world velocity so to other people it would appear to roll just as fast as you rolled it.

This formulation fixes things like not being able to breath or see, being insanely strong, and allows limited interaction with the world. It also provides limitations so the protagonist isn't godlike. For example flipping on a light switch would turn on the light, but you might have to go over to the light (or expand your field to get it to turn on in a reasonable amount of time.


The problem with any sort of time stop/extreme time slowdown is that you end up with things needing to move a lot faster than they would normally.

If your body is working at the 'normal' rate, then it needs air at the normal rate. But because time is slowed, the flow of air in cubic meters per second - increases, and if it's a complete time stop - it becomes infinite.

This problem gets worse for things like light - (low) time means no luminous flux, which means it's dark.

You could perhaps treat it as if it's a 'field enclosure' - imagine a sort of spacesuit (or forcefield) that creates an isolated pocket, within which everything moves 'normally' - this pocket generates it's own power/food/water/light internally. As long as it doesn't move, then everything is fine.

This field 'bubble' that takes care of the little things (like breathing!) and isolates your protagonist from consequences along those lines. It's a very local 'fast time' pocket, with an elastic boundary that serves as a shock absorber for the worst of the 'hit a wall at a million meters-per-second effect'.

This would mean a 'running through a swimming pool in a spacesuit' effect caused by the slow time - she's feeling the drag from air moving out of her way slowly, and it's gloomier because there's less light 'per second'. Mobility would feel restricted and slow as a result - but the real benefit would be thinking vs. acting - bullets would move much slower, so could be dodged or batted out the way.

The 'bubble' would presumably be time constrained, because of limited resources (and it's 'elasticity' would require energy dissipation eventually).

Anyone who's there to observe may see a fast moving blur and 'jet engine' effect of displaced air - you're acting as a high speed piston, so might well create compression down corridors and the like.

But even so - your time-acceleration won't be particularly large - but neither does it have to be, given human reaction times - it's entirely possible to pick someone's pocket without them noticing in real time, and magic tricks practically rely on misdirection and illusion. That just becomes that much easier if you can see and react faster, and 'stand behind' someone as you see their head is turning.


One solution: what happens while world is frozen is not real (yet). It's illusion or simulation or dream of some kind. But any actions taken during that time will happen when time returns to normal. Set ball rolling, and it will start rolling for real. Open a door and it will begin opening for real. It could be some kind of a phantom force, which mimics what was done in the frozen time.

Of course simulation/dream would not be perfect, and the longer the frozen time, less accurate the phantom force would be, as real time diverges from it. So undressing someone might be impossible (it might happen in frozen time, but in reality it might end up resembling pulling victims clothes in wrong directions), but pulling their shoelaces open quickly would work. Opening a door or simple latch would work, but using a key to open a lock would most likely have the key missing the keyhole and dropping to floor (the lock might or might not still open, depending on the phantom force acting without the real key). Etc.

So how would the frozen time work then, is your actual question. I'd go with, what ever seems "logical" to protagonists brain. So things will be as she believes they would be if it was real time. It's up to you if things actually reflect reality, so she could open a sealed letter and read it, or if she would just see nonsense if he doesn't know what is written. And things would probably be frozen unless she actually touches them an wills them to not be frozen. This would give a lot of freedom to have things appear pseudo-logical in the frozen time, without stretching suspension of belief, when things would then happen realistically (apart from the existence of the supernatural phantom force) in the real time.


There's a novel by H. G. Wells, called "The New Accelerator". Mr. Wells thought quite well about the physics of existing in a world where everything around you is "stopped". But it didn't stop time, it speed heroes up to a point when everything around them seems to be stopped. It may be a lot more plausible explanation for you to use.

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    $\begingroup$ This has already been suggested multiple times before. Besides, it only really replaces the standard objections to time travel with a whole set of new ones. In terms of real-world plausibility, it's not really any better. I dunno whether the OP likes it any better from a fictional perspective. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2015 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ @underscore_d Well, actually, I agree with you. :) My point was that there's already a novel written which is built around this problem. $\endgroup$
    – hijarian
    Nov 19, 2015 at 11:01

If your setting allows a controlling entity (it's either in a computer simulation, or is actively supervised by an omniscient and omnipotent God), then you don't have to care much about physics: just like in a computer game, you can selectively stop events from happening, while still having access to all information about the game state (no need to interact with photons to see if they are also part of your simulation)

If you don't want to go that route, then sorry, your character will not be able to see, hear, breathe, or even move. If the speed of light becomes zero, that will be a pretty weird singularity, I don't even know if we have any answer to how physics will work in that setting. Instead of stopping time, you could speed your character up to an extent where the world seems to be almost standing still. Time still flows, but very slowly. This has the benefits of imposing a challenge upon your heroine: she doesn't have all the time in the world to do whatever she wants, she still has limits. However, you have to give her the required secondary powers, to keep her from burning due to the friction and compression of the air around her. you can take a look at the Fine Structure stories for a realistic portrayal of super-speed.


Since it has been pointed out several times that neither freezing time completely nor moving near the speed of light are survivable scenarios, let’s explore the Realm of the Mind. We cannot really explain how and why humans think on a self-aware level, therefore we may as well assume another layer (or level or dimension or sphere) of reality where the mind (and maybe soul) is located and time works differently, because there is no matter.

The protagonist had the unique ability to enter this layer consciously and while being there, time either stops or she can even rewind or fast-forward or both. She can do several cool things, most importantly hook into other minds. This kind of mind reading doesn’t have to include thought reading, but should allow her to read perception, so she can see what anyone else is seeing in this very moment. A static snapshot will work for vision and maybe taste, smell and touch, but not so much for sound (incl. spoken or thought language). Hopping from mind to mind she’ll be able to see much of the world at that very instant, but not from a totally free perspective of her own choice (which differentiates it from most stories of out-of-body experiences).

After experiencing and enjoying that kind of omnipresence for a while, she then might gain the ability to alter stuff either by mending perception to influence other people’s actions, by implanting thought commands to more directly control other minds or just by plain old telekinesis. Objects would only move after she has left the Realm of the Mind and returned to her old mind.

Later on, “ghosts” that only exist on this layer may be introduced and she may get trapped in foreign minds once in a while.


Simple answer: Everything--including yourself when you die from a lack of oxygen. If you wear a rebreather you get a bit more time before you die of overheating. (You can't simply wear an oxygen tank as the exhaled air has no place to go, you would quickly be crushed.) In what time you had left you would not be able to see or hear anything, nor could you move. (Moving a time-frozen atom takes infinite energy.)

Now, for something that actually might be useful, look at one of Larry Niven's stories whose title eludes me at the moment. It's a murder mystery involving a guy who has a device projecting a time-speeding field (anything in the field operates at a much faster time rate.) While obviously the field itself is handwavium he otherwise tried to do it with hard science--after all, it's a mystery, the reader should be able to solve it.

I do not recall him addressing the consumption of air in the field, though, I think he missed that one.

It's set in his Known Universe, early on, one of the Gil the ARM stories.


It sounds like what you want is to have the magical mechanism suspend the laws of physics. Don't know what you were thinking of in terms of how the character used the device, but I'm picturing something like a remote control with a stop, pause, play, rewind, and fast forward option. On stop, everything stops; the magical mechanism then creates an exception bubble for her, so those laws continue to apply to your character. She can then point her magical mechanism at any random item, and turn on physics for that item/person.

If wanting to do this on a macro-scale, have her point the device at a miniature of the universe or planet or kingdom...etc. She could pause an invading army from the north, then spend two weeks leisurely sunbathing on a lush tropical island, before recruiting a bunch of her friends to remove all weapons from the invading army and replace them with salmon. The restart time, and watch the hilarity ensue.

Obviously, something this powerful should have limits incorporated into it. Limits of power or range or influence will give you opportunities to create interesting obstacles for your character to overcome.

As a slight variation, you could always have her use a 'beginners' version of the magical mechanism, which doesn't include a 'stop' button because 'stopping' the laws of physics will have interesting and long reaching consequences which pausing does not. A mechanism with a 'stop' button, therefore, is for those with advanced skill/training/experience/common sense/wisdom, etc.


How does he see, etc? I came up with a solution for a related question here, 4 months before this Q.

The “simulation hypothesis” is the only way to make it work, and it works naturally.

Normally, physics is computed/rendered “as needed”, with shortcuts taken where possible. Intelligent minds, in particular, are the driving point and are always rendered in full detail with very fine time steps. Things in the immediate environment need to be driven to sufficiently high resolution, too. But if you look at a pool of water that has been unobserved for some time,

① it jumps ahead without realizing states in between. (See Greg Egan’s short story Dust that became expanded into Permutation City.)
② entropy and information content is used to deliver only what’s needed. There is no need to get every molecule of water in its exact position; an indistinguishable lot and bulk properties is all that’s needed.

For this case, consider a special case of my referenced answer where time passes for one person rather than only around people, which is the context of the older post.

Instead of being the result of bugs, it would be a real feature: an administrative mode capability. Just as we have tools to esplore the state of a suspended process, it would make sense to have this feature designed in for use by the builders.

A special token in-universe, which might appear as a gold watch, provides admisistrative access.



Also known as the plot device particle.

In short, you aren't speeding up insanely fast but still slower than light. You are speeding up infinitely by converting yourself into tachyons, the only thing in the universe capable of traveling faster than light. Due to a plot-convenient way to pseudo-science what happens when you go faster than light, while going the speed of light requires an infinite amount of energy from either side, going faster than light decreases the energy requirement until you get going infinitely fast as a tachyon requiring zero energy.

What does zero energy mean to you? It means you don't normally interact with the real world; if you got the conversion all the way, you are completely intangible to the real world and it to you. Of course, that means you are everywhere in the universe at once, so maybe it might be better to slow down just a smidge. And that smidge now means that photons can make an impression on your retina (and also that you don't lose track of where in the universe the Earth is). You might quibble about whether photons you ram with your retina are taken out of circulation so that you won't detect them the next time you pass through that particular location or whether you interact with them so weakly that only you notice them but they don't notice you; but either way it wouldn't affect normal time because unless you are soaking up every photon for a few million miles, the blip will be too fast for any human or most electronic eyes to catch.

But you know what? You aren't limited to going 1 mph short of infinite speed. Do you see a bullet making its way toward your friend's head that you think shouldn't be there? Well, take your time. As you slow down, your energy increases and you are increasingly able to influence the world. Lean against that bullet for a subjective hour, and I'm sure it will adjust its path to miss your friend's head.

I suppose gravity might be an issue with you going that fast, but what the weak interaction similar to the photon interaction doesn't do in that regard, the tachyon field sustaining you makes up for. It's a protective measure put in place to, again, keep you from occupying every point in the universe and losing track of Earth; if you get too far from it, the weakened field means you start to revert back to normal matter/time and feel the effects of everything all over again.

Good thing tachyons don't need oxygen!


I propose the device doesn't stop time, it changes the users nature and matter.
Turned into an inter-dimensional-energy-being the subject steps out of the third dimension and is able to stay in a single moment of time. Observing and interacting with a single state of the universe through new senses and capacities, not based on time-affected particles like photons or air molecules. Gravity and mass still exist, and your character can phase through matter or move it changing her own gravity, which is done instinctively in her new physiology. Doesn't need to breath in this state because her body is no longer bio-chemical.


The answer to this is simple, actually--you are over thinking it.

Anyone, anything not time stopped goes on as normal. Anything the person touches has normal physics applied to it, because their "field" of normal time is extended over the object.

Example: A ball was thrown at when time was stopped, now hanging in mid air. If a time stopper touches the object, you can have one of two things occur, either the object continues on in the trajectory it was thrown, or it simply drops, being "reset" by the time stopper's field, and when it comes into the field the normal time/space, it simply becomes a ball that's hanging mid-air, which now has gravity applied to it. Anything touched restarts.


  • The larger the object, the more "time" it takes to adjust to the "normal" field of the timestopper. So a car takes a little bit to work.
  • Touching people can restart them. However, if the timestopper has control over whether or not they can extend their field, this may be something that they can prevent as they figure out how it works.
  • Something like the internet may or may not work, depending on if the time stop is world-wide/universe-wide or localized. If it is local, then, there's a pingback to satellites in real time. If it is worldwide, then you have an issue. I think the same can apply to light switches.

Anything that interacts with the time stopper does continue on as normal--so photons move because the person perceives them. They can breathe because the molecules they have contact with are occupying their specific space/time.

EDIT: A comment regarding the sun has lead me to clarify here. Physical objects require touch. Photons require perception of the time stopper. So the sun still shines, once she sees it anyway--and once any other creature she'd brought into the bubble sees it as well.

In Doctor Who, the time vortex did not exist until they discovered it. Think about what that means (not that it's anything like your universe). It means that the perceptions of the time traveller have an impact on how things work, that understanding a concept caused it to come into being.

The kind of science applied here (although you aren't looking for it to be sciencey) is quantum mechanics and beyond. As long as it is consistent in nature, it should in narration. Why it works is not as important as how, as you will find in any time travel story.

  • $\begingroup$ @ThreeLifes It extends to anything she interacts with. Including photons. Some things, such as light, are covered simply by perception (there are different rules of physics for light anyway, and that's a way I'd handwave it) other things like physical objects require touch. I don't know if she stops the entire universe, the world, or her local area. $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2016 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ But as soon as she has interacted with the photons in her vicinity, they whizz by, and she needs new ones from a light source or she will be in total darkness. If all the photons she perceives activate, she could plunder the world in darkness by looking at the sun. Normal people could detect time stopping because of a split second darkness over the world. That's kind of cool... $\endgroup$
    – ThreeLifes
    Dec 2, 2016 at 16:16

Other people have already proposed that instead of actually stopping time, you just go really really fast. So how fast can one go?

Human neurons carry thoughts at 70 to 120 m/s. That means it take 1 to 2 milliseconds for a thought to go across the brain. The brain consists of 100 million cells, so that thought has to move past around 1200 cells on its way across the brain.

Lets say we create some kind of magical copy of a mind that can work at the very fastest possible speed.

The very shortest time in which something can happen is the Plank Time of about 10^-43 seconds (a trillionth of a quadrillionth of a quadrillionth of a second). If the thought could move from one cell to its neighbour in Plank Time, it would only take around a 10^-40th of a second.

This is so ridiculously fast that one would experience a billion years pass whilst waiting for a beam of light to cross a billionth of the width of an electron. For all practical purposes time has stopped.

Quantum mechanics would appear to prevent this, but there is a loop-hole which I'll get to in a minute.

Instead of eyesight, your perception of the universe is replaced by a ridiculously good mass sense. Mass changes the shape of space-time. It does not necessarily require direct sampling of anything within space-time to detect it. By "ridiculously good" I mean that you can even sense the implicit mass inherent in energy (E=mc^2). You can warm in sunlight and cold in shadow because there is more energy (and hence implicit mass) in the sunlight. You can read because the ink adds mass to the paper.

What about interacting with other objects? Well to make a physical change you need energy. The faster you use that energy the more power is needed. Changing something whilst experiencing time flowing at a hugely accelerated rate is just not possible. What you can do however is plant a spell that will make the change in the very near future. Changing the course of a bullet in Planck Time would require impossibly vast amounts of power. Giving a spell enough power to deflect the bullet over the next microsecond would be have much more reasonable requirements.

So - you can accelerate your cognition, explore your surroundings, and initiate changes that will occur in the very near future.

The only remaining problem is the power requirements for thinking this fast. As I said, there is a loop-hole: reversible computation is free. You only have to pay the price for what you take back to your normal flesh and blood brain. Try to remember the entire experience? Impossible. No memory at all? Practically free. A single blurry memory as a clue? Well that could be possible.


It's a fascinating ability to play with and one that I have used in short stories myself. The result I decided on is basically two-fold.

Interactions between energy and person are based on the person's observation. Interactions between matter and person are based on the person's physical interaction.

It meant that if you roll a ball, imparting kinetic energy, the ball impacts air molecules "unfreezing" them until it passes, until there is only potential energy left. So, if you pick up the ball, hold it still, and release then it will remain in place in the air.

The reason I expand energy into observation is that without it light would also freeze, every time you would freeze time the character would be placed into a soundlessly lightless abyss. Which isn't terribly fun to work with and not what you're after. To help you understand my model I'll answer your examples.

If she turns on a light, she's drawing electricity which is coming from a coal power plant, no?

It would yes, but can the character observe the coal plant? If not then nothing would come out of it. Note that if she could observe it, then the people running the plant wouldn't be unfrozen. Only the plant. Selective time stops can be dangerous. Additionally carry a flashlight :)

A car frozen going downhill is stationary, but if she rolls a ball across the room it continues to go.

The car has not been imparted energy by the character, however, if that imparted energy were to stop then the car would refreeze. e.g. a ball is on a hill, they kick the ball up the hill, the moment the ball is about to roll back down it freezes.

Why does the sun not stop warming her?

Because she can observe the sun, and thus, it remains.


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