Context: Short story about an antagonist who can travel backwards and forwards within time.

Problem: Struggling to explain a large plot hole in the written world.

If the antagonist can travel backwards in time to manipulate events to their control how can I maintain the reader's suspension of disbelief that history would not go completely astray a la the butterfly effect?

How can the antagonist successfully plot the course of history would unfold according to their history-manipulating event?

Edit to Add: Time travel is conducted in a single reality that once affected can be reset by going back in time and preventing the action.

Example: Antagonist returns 1775 to disrupt the midnight ride of Paul Revere alter the course of US Independence hoping that the outcome would affect the future in a way favourable to him/herself. Antagonist can go back in time AGAIN to prevent the Antagonist from disrupting the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

Final addition: I don't want to bike shed the time travel paradox. That is not the question. The question is specifically about holding the reader's attention in a way that ensure they don't ask "What if the antagonist moved a cup...which then led to World War 3 in the modern era" etc etc. It is a narrative method to keep the viewer within the sandbox of the time travel scenario.

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    $\begingroup$ Please elaborate on how your time travel works, exactly. There is way too many ways for it to guess what exactly you have in mind. Some ideas are based on splitting new realities, other on self-corrections. There are "loops". There are no better or worse answers, not now, with the way you stated your question. We don't even know what exactly antagonist wants to try, so how could we advise on this unknown action and its effects on history? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Feb 21, 2017 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ I suggest a quick, useful and delightful read of Dr. Asimovs' " The End of Eternity", an excellent story that both addresses one solution to your question, as well as laying the "foundation" for the entire "Foundation" series he wrote some years later. Please see note at : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_Eternity $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Feb 21, 2017 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Molot, I am not asking you to explain an unknown action and it's effect on history. That is not the problem I have articulated. $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2017 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ OK, my close vote retracted. Still not sure if it shouldn't be posted on writers.stackexchange.com instead, but it is less broad now (and that was my vote). $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Feb 21, 2017 at 16:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I've deleted some overly antagonistic comments from multiple users. Please keep things civil; there are ways to disagree with each other without using insults. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 21, 2017 at 18:15

5 Answers 5


Generally you don't have to worry that your readers will ask those questions. Especially not with small things like moving a cup which would be the butterfly effect.

If your timetraveler meddles with things that are important in our history, or if he does something stupid (like giving away modern technology/knowledge) the reader would expect, no matter what, a changed future. But this wouldn't be the butterfly effect anymore.


Your model of time travel appears to follow rules similar to those in the "Back to The Future" movies. In those movies, the writers used a photograph which warned the protagonist, Marty when his actions were endangering his future birth. The exact mechanism of why the photo got updated faster than Marty himself was never explained, but the idea can probably be adapted for your story.

Perhaps your time traveler is wearing a special outfit (maybe disguised as long johns) which protect him from non-causality. So if he accidentally kills his own grandfather or alters the future enough that his parents don't meet or performs any of the other standard time travel blunders, he himself is not affected. He continues to exist despite his never have been born. If he then carries a journal from his youth in a pocket or bag which is outside of the long johns' protection, he could use that journal to check on the future after each major action. If the journal becomes blank, then he has a problem but if it continues to contain writing, then that writing (being a description of new future events) can help him navigate from the past.


What you are looking for are points of stability in a chaotic system. They can be very hard to come by.

The first and most important of these is to become a stationary point yourself. Bad things happen if you can't keep your own timeline stable. The most important thing to do is develop a signal which your future self can give to your current self to say "stop it, you're going to break things." Then, you need to listen to what that future self has to say. This way you can at least engage in a continuous refinement of your plan as you see the effects.

The next step is persistence. You're going to change something, its effects are going to reverberate through the ages. The only way you can succeed at changing it without ruining history is to continuously go back in time by less and less distance each time. At each step you have to identify the reverberations and spend energy to undo them.

What's fun about this is that you can pinpoint the exact time at which you should make these changes by going back repeatedly. Eventually you should be able to find a "cusp" event right before the reverberations where just a little adjustment will prevent those reverberations from escaping.

This can obviously take a lot of man-hours... you'll need help. I recommend recruiting others to help capture the timeline and keep it from going astray with tiny nudges. You may also want a bunch of smaller and less intelligent nanomachines going to thousands of points in time to help you identify the best cusps to use.

This, of course, is not actually all crazy talk. What you are talking about doing is stabilizing a chaotic system. This actually can be done. The key to controlling chaos is to make large numbers of very small changes and observe the system inbetween:

  • OGY - Apply small discrete "kicks" to the system in carefully chosen places to maintain the desired orbit in the chaotic system
  • Pyragas - applies continuous feedback which gets larger the further the chaotic orbit is from the desire orbit.

In practice, we do this all the time. Timetravel just involves a larger quantity of chaos to deal with, but its the same principles. All of the steps I mentioned above are actually ways to implement those methods which take advantage of future knowledge to minimize the energy required to control the system.


Anything you do in the past, unless it contradicts established history, is simply an ordinary part of the past. It always was that way and is a necessary step that led to the present.

If you run into a man on the street, he falls in front of a car and ends up in hospital, why, it happened as it should! It always was part of the timestream, and ain't nobody can tell different.

Only if you purposely do something which is counter to what you know has happened, like if you kill Hitler (to use a staple), history necessarily has to change.


If your antagonist is messing around with time travel and manipulating important historical events, he will want to be very careful about it, for three reasons:

  • He won't want to accidentally run afoul of the grandfather paradox and potentially cease to exist.
  • He won't want to accidentally cause a change that will be detrimental to him in the future (i.e. he shoots a president, and his successor reacts by outlawing guns).
  • He won't want to be noticed. You can't pull off a "controlling history from the shadows" conspiracy unless you're actually in the shadows.

So he will want to:

  • Change the absolute bare minimum necessary
  • Be as stealthy and inconspicuous as possible in the process, and generally make it appear as though he was never there at all

This will also make things easier for yourself. Trying to calculate every single consequence of every single action that this guy takes while he's in the past is physically impossible. Just focus on the important ones, because chances are your readers aren't focusing on the unimportant ones as much as you seem to think they might.


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