Predestination Paradox – Extending Students through Challenging Narrative Devices

Somewhere along the way, students develop a highly structured and formulaic way of telling a story. Perhaps it is the influence of television shows, movies or books that centre upon teen characters who introduce themselves and their entire family to audience incredibly early on in the story. In doing so, they reduce the mystery that could have been revealed later.

To thwart this old habit, we need to break the cycle and introduce them to a variety of narrative devices. One of these devices that I have been teaching recently is the predestination paradox. Essentially, predestination paradox boils down time travel; an individual travels back in time to change the past, but in doing so becomes a participants within these events.

For example, a man might travel back in time to stop a fire, but his attempts lead him to cause the fire in the first place.

This narrative device has been used in a wide range of films and books including Back To The Future and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. However, the technique can be difficult for students to conceptualise. For this reason, it is important that we provide straightforward examples for students to see how the ideas work within story writing.

In the fifth annual Treehouse of Horror episode, The Simpsons explored the impact of time travel. A simple story: Homer must fix a toast and in doing so creates a time travelling device; he travels back to the Mesozoic Era and changes the avenues of history by killing a large prehistoric insect. Once the toast pops, we see Homer return to the past and explore the wide ranging damage he created.

Before exploring the above, introduce students to the concept of time travel and the past with a do now activity. This will evoke their senses fo the topic:

After introducing the topic, you can present the learning intentions to students:

This is the tricky part: explaining predestination paradox. Go slow and provide examples. Provide a broad definition first before jumping into some anecdotal example that you can talk about. These should be straightforward (For example, see the one above). I found this definition from incredibly helpful.

A key element to time travel in narratives is the portal or tool used to travel from one era to another. Marty McFly had the DeLorean. Ron and Hermione used the time-wheel. Encourage students to understand that there must always be a tool to time travel.

Now, you are ready to show students the episode. For now, just allow students to take in the episode – it is only 6 minutes long.

Once students have seen the episode, they can now reflect on the time travel elements to the story. Allow students to focus on the following elements:

As part of your discussion, focus on the manner which Homer travels back in time. This is vital to the next activity. Students need to understand that there is an internal logic to stories that include time travel.

Characters don’t just travel back in time without a device or mechanism; writers need to maintain internal logic within the worlds they create to ensure that readers suspend their disbelief. With Harry Potter, magic is a driving force, while in Back to The Future, the DeLorean must get to 88 mph. By having parameters and constraints around time travel, writers can manage the conflicts characters experience.

Now, students are ready to plan out their own narrative. They can use the following questions to guide their planning:

Happy writing!

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