Neat Story Idea I Might Actually Follow Up On: Journal through Time

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So I spent a lot of today thinking about this story idea(s), which could become a pretty good web novel I think.

A man meets a woman, they fall in love, yadda yadda. Let’s call him Levi and her Madeleine, because those are the first names that came to mind. A year after they meet, she dies unexpectedly. I’m currently thinking that she dies of a drug overdose (gotta write what you know they say). So Levi is heartbroken, completely destroyed by this. She was the love of his life, donchaknow. And out of nowhere, a man comes out of nowhere with a proposition: how would you like to bring her back? He works for a company that sends people back in time to relive their time with a loved one. To avoid any paradoxes, you are sent to an alternate timeline. Then you can spend your time with the loved one you’ve lost, and continue from there to live out the rest of your life.

Of course, there are a couple of catches.

You only get one second chance, because the time machine only works once per person. So Levi will have one extra year with Madeleine. And, he’s told, you should probably kill your other self from the alternate timeline, or he’s bound to fuck up your second chance. (There should also be some sort of almost fairy-tale-ish cost to getting the time machine, but I can’t think of one. You know, the kind where you have to give up something strange – like your depth perception.)

So Levi takes the time machine and goes back a year into an alternate timeline. He meets his alternate self and finds he can’t kill him to take his place. Yet he can’t resist the chance to spend another last year with Madeleine, so he takes his alternate self and locks him in his basement. He spends a second happy year with Madeleine, but when she dies he can’t figure out what to do with his prisoner, Alt-Levi, who has spent the entire year as a prisoner in his own basement. He finally decides to let alt-Levi try to use the time machine himself – he was told it was one use per person, but this is technically a different person, so he tells him to give it a shot. Alt-Levi pushes the button and disappears. Levi continues with his post-Madeleine life, happy he got a second chance.

Meanwhile, Alt-Levi is fricking pissed that a year of his life was stolen from him, the best year of his life according to Levi. The time machine sends him back to another alternate timeline, to the same date, at the beginning of his relationship with Madeleine. Alt-Levi meets Alt-Levi-2, and, faced with the prospect of getting that year of his life back and getting to spend a year with the woman he’s heard is the love of his life, he imprisons Alt-Levi-2 in his own basement. A year later, he passes a pissed-off Alt-Levi-2 the time machine, and the cycle continues.

And here’s a part I particularly like: the novel you’d be reading is really the journal kept by the Alt-Levis while they’re in prison. So, like, the first Levi started a journal during the end of his relationship with Madeleine. When he imprisoned Alt-Levi, he felt really bad for him (but not bad enough to let him out, obviously), and gave him the journal to read. Alt-Levi started writing in it to keep himself occupied, and when he went back in time himself to get his year back, he passed it on to his own prisoner, Alt-Levi-2. It’s full of Alt-Levis railing at their fate, mourning the loss of the year, and hearing details of what should have been their life being recounted to them by… themselves. It has instructions on how to get through the next year based on the differing expeirneces of The Madeleine Year from the perspective of each Alt-Levi (okay, yeah, I need a better term, maybe a better name). And I figure there will be a progression each time from disbelief and anger at having “their” year taken away, to a kind of looking forward to getting their year back, and ending up looking at the next guy’s year as the year owed to them.

That’s your basic story. Here are some issues and ideas:

1. Who’s this guy who gives him the time machine? I’m thinking maybe some organization outside the bounds of time. Maybe they sell the chance to get back a portion of your life that you wish to experience again? Is it some sort of experiment, or game? I really need to flesh this out, or find another way to get him to travel back in time. I’m not sure I’m happy with, “He built a time machine in his basement.”

2. No one wants to read the same cycle over and over again, so I figure there will be change and resolution occurring gradually. One potential change is how each prison-guard-Levi treats and regards each prisoner-Levi, and vice versa. Perhaps it would start as a relatively civilized imprisonment (and even then, I mean, I would make no bones that that’s a pretty big oxymoron right there). But soon a cruel streak would emerge, probably from being fucking imprisoned and having a year of your life taken away, then being all of a sudden reversed into the role of the prison guard. (Note: I really ought to read up on the psychology of prisoners and guards first. Anyone read about that Stanford Prison Experiment? Crazy stuff.) Perhaps this would just become crueler and crueler.

3. Probably escape attempts would be frequent. I think someone ought to come close to really escaping, and soon one of them ought to succeed. Perhaps there ought to be a character that lives nearby and sometimes almost learns what’s going on. (One problem [strength?] in the story is a relative paucity of characters so far, but I bet that will change.) But what would an escapee do? He certainly can’t tell anyone, as no one would believe him, and there would also be no way to prove who’s the real him. Would he try to kill the prison-guard-Levi and take his life back? Try to use the time machine early to start his Madeleine Year without being imprisoned? Hmm.

4. More importantly, something that might hange is the approach each Alt-Levi takes when its his turn. What w*rks, what doesn’t? What do you want to get out of the only year you’ll spend with the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with? Can you prevent her death? If you think you might have a chance to prevent her death, do you spend your only time with her obsessed with saving her instead of getting the most out of your time together? What does “getting the most out of your time together” even mean? Do you tell her she’s going to die? Does that make a difference in what happens? Does it ruin her time left, or make her appreciate it more? Do you tell her about the time machine? Do you tell her about your prisoner?

5. Even more importantly, what if the alternate timelines aren’t truly identical? Things could go well in the relationship in some, not so much in others. Maybe some Alt-Levis are even different. (In the timelines where things don’t go so well, I can imagine the prison-guard-Levi would probably feel cheated, and maybe even take it out on prisoner-Levi.) Maybe sometimes Madeleine breaks up with Levi. Maybe sometimes she dates someone else. Maybe sometimes that other dude gets a time machine when she dies? Maybe she doesn’t die with another dude! Maybe sometimes she dies earlier than others, or later. (If I do something like that, I can have fun making things outside the relationship different – different wars, diseases, Presidents, music…)

6. How should this all end? I think eventually there would have to be a Last Levi. LL could choose not to take Madeleine away from the next Levi, even if meant losing out on the best year of his life. Would he escape from the prison-guard-Levi? Would he kill prison-guard-Levi, choosing to make his revenge the payback type instead of the everpopular payforward variety. He could even try to track down the guy who gave Original Levi the time machine, bringing things full circle a bit and giving us maybe some answers on Time Machine Guy. He could not kill his prison guard, use the time machine (or not) and go live in some other country where he won’t run into any identity paperw*rk problems. Perhaps he’ll even meet another girl there, one who doesn’t die after a year. In that case, is he happy? Or does he wonder how this girl measures up to the Madeleine he never spent any time with? This would presumably make him the only Levi to meet this girl, which would be interesting.

So, the basic themes I’ve got are as follows:

A) Drug addition. Dealing with it as a user and as a user’s loved one.
B) Death and loss. The stages of dealing with it. Last stage, acceptance, maybe achieved only by Last Levi.
C) Paying a hurt forward versus back. The oppressed often becomes an oppressor. The poor don’t want equality, they want to be the rich.
D) The cost of living in the past.
E) Prisoner/guard relationships.
F) Relationships.

So, yeah, time to try writing this thing. Lemme know what you think.

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7 Responses to “Neat Story Idea I Might Actually Follow Up On: Journal through Time”

  1. gryfft Says:

    I like it. It seems like you’ve drawn pretty heavily from Primer structurally, but that isn’t a bad thing really. And the thing the Primer guys never had was the journal handed down over, potentially, decades.

    I’d recommend making the time spent with the girlfriend a lot less than a year. Make it a month, maybe two, then have the book span, like I said, maybe decades.
    (spoilers ahead)
    Also it just struck me that the machine Aaron builds at the end of Primer means that he could potentially clone like hundreds of himself. Now THAT could be world-changing- an army of himself, everyone answering to the eldest Aaron…

  2. deathbychiasmus Says:

    It’s an intriguing idea. Needs some ironing out in the details and making all the logic consistent (both internally and in how it relates to the reality we live in), but this has the potential to explore some really creative and interesting territory. I really think that the best idea for why The Guy can’t kill himself is not physical but moral–he has compunctions against killing, especially killing an alternate himself, or perhaps he just can’t bring himself to do it. The idea is replete with potential and you should totally do something with it!

  3. annoying Says:

    1. Maybe Original Levi was working on a time machine the year he was with Madeleine and finished it shortly after her death. This could be all kinds of hilarious. If that was the case, Alt-Levi could work on it while imprisoned in the basement (as well as reading/writing the journal). Original Levi (and the subsequent Alts) could then spend more time with her. That could result in either good things (including her dieing later or not dieing at all), or bad things (her feeling pressured/paranoid and leaving him or dieing earlier).

    If someone else gives him the opportunity, my biggest question would be, ‘why?’ It may not be for his own good. What if, if the timeline remained unaltered, he created something that whoever sends him back doesn’t want him to create? They might want to steal the idea for themselves, but more likely (in my opinion) they’d want to stop it (whatever ‘it’ is) from being made entirely.

    Why does the time machine go with him? I know that’s what usually happens, but why? It’s probably just me being silly, but I’ve always wondered what causes the machine to go, too. Couldn’t it just sent him through to another timeline and the machine would have to be rebuilt/regiven in each new place? You can pretty much ignore this line of questioning if you want to; there’s enough ‘history’ of time machines going with the traveler(s) that it’s generally just accepted.

    2. I was actually going to suggest you look at that before I saw you mention it. The guard/prisoner dynamic could devolve very quickly. The story could follow the broad strokes of the changes without showing every single iteration.

    3. How are you going to deal with fingerprints. From what I understand even twins have different fingerprints; so wouldn’t any escapee be able to point to that to prove his identity?

    How much soundproofing would the basement have? Could the neighbors hear the prisoner if he made a lot of noise? Or, are they used to weird noises coming from his house? If he’s an inventor, then that could be why they are used to the noises.

    4. Wouldn’t his knowledge that she dies change how he treats her simply because he knows? He might be too desperate/clingy and that could ruin it for him, or almost ruin it. That could be interesting. Maybe his involvement in her life somehow leads to her death. Maybe she wasn’t a druggie before they met, or she had gotten clean, and something about their relationship turned her (back) to drugs. Maybe she got into some kind of accident (possibly due to him in some way, and possibly he doesn’t know that) and the drug overdose was in a hospital.

    Why would the Alts did things differently? How would they know what happened before? Would the guard give Alt his journal from the second chance year? Would all the journals be passed on? That could become a handful. Or, would they just be given an overview?

    5. I ASSumed the timelines would be different, silly me; there’s no real reason for me to assume that either. Like I said, his knowledge of her death could easily change how he treats her, either for the better or for the worse. Think about ‘the butterfly effect’; a small change could create a big one.

    6. Maybe the machine stops working. If it’s been given to him, he would have no way of knowing how to fix it. He would HAVE to come up with an alternate plan then. I like the idea of him going somewhere else and meeting someone else. And really, either one of them could do that. if the one who hijacked the other’s life went somewhere else, he could learn from the experience with Madeleine and find that what he learned there helped him with the other girl. You know, like he only thinks Madeleine is the love of his life until he meets the new girl and all of the horrible, horrible bad things that happened could have been avoided if the Original Levi had just stayed in his own world and lived his life as it was supposed to happen.

    What if the Last Levi gets shunted to the Original Levi’s world but doesn’t go back in time, so that he arrives just after OL left? He would never meet Madeleine and that could be interesting.

  4. aricollins Says:

    Thanks for the input, everyone. Especially annoying, you’ve given me much to think about. Your thoughts about the knowlege of her death making him deal with her poorly in particular.

    Also, yeah, why do time machines go with? But gotta in this one, I think, to make it w*rk.

    Has anyone not seen The Prestige? See it. Not a time travel story, but… breathtaking. A twist at the end and then it twists further.

    And now I’ve gotta see Primer.

  5. gryfft Says:

    3 things.
    First, you haven’t seen Primer?!
    Second, the time machine doesn’t “go with-” the idea is that you can only go back as far as the machine was first turned on. If you just jumped backward in time, you’d have to make a significant jump in space too (earth moved, sun moved, galaxy moved.) The idea is that the machine is like a 4-dimensional train- it has to follow the “track” through time and space. Or like a fax machine: You can’t send a fax to someone who doesn’t have a fax machine and have it magically appear on their doorstep, there has to be a receiving end.
    Third, YOU HAVEN’T SEEN PRIMER?

  6. annoying Says:

    I’ve been thinking about it; and I think that sometimes the time machine goes with because it becomes outside of space and time. The time machine makes the path and, therefore, has to go with for the path to be created. Anyway, as I think I said before, there is a history of time machines going with the traveler, so it probably doesn’t need to be minutely explained in the story.

  7. Journal Through Time - Three More Ideas « Air Theremin Says:

    […] Through Time – Three More Ideas Click here for the original holy host of ideas, if you’re curious.  And now, some additional twist […]

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