What Makes a Good Time Loop Story?

I love time travel stories. Playing around with timelines and parallel universes is one of my favorite hobbies. But my absolute favorite kind of story is a time loop story.

In a time loop story, the main character repeats the same length of time over and over again. They can do whatever they like, but it will all be reset once time returns to the "starting point" and the loop begins again. The possibilities for narratives are literally endless! However, not every possibility is, well... good.

So based on my own experiences reading and writing time loop stories of varying quality, I've cobbled together this little guide to creating a time loop story of your very own. These tips work for both original and fan fiction! They're mainly focused on written narratives, but lots of this advice can work in other mediums as well.

why is there a time loop?

The most important question, and the one that will decide whether your story even involves time loops at all. Narratively speaking, why is there a loop in the first place?

Think about your main conflict. What does your protagonist want? What lesson do they need to learn? What forces are trying to stop them? And most importantly, what makes the conflict unsolvable without a time loop?

This question has caused me the most trouble when writing my own stories. Especially fanfic where I just want to put my favorite characters in a loop and see what happens. I forget to come up with a problem! Or if there is a problem, it's a problem that can be solved without time travel. And then here's what happens: I have to come up with arbitrary reasons for characters to loop and insert silly obstacles that shouldn't exist anyway. I don't enjoy writing it and no one would enjoy reading it.

So create reasons why the conflict cannot be resolved unless there's a time loop. Maybe there's information that can't be learned unless multiple different timelines are observed. Or maybe there's a world-ending catastrophe that's impossible to stop unless a specific sequence of perfectly-timed events is put in motion.

If your main character needs to grow as a person (such as in the film Groundhog Day), there should be room for them to grow slowly, loop by loop. The story's arc should take them into hopelessness, despair, reckless behavior, before they have a revelation and choose to be better. This arc can of course be combined with a physical conflict: after spending so long in apathy, they realize they should use their looping powers for good and save the world from destruction.

One of the most important aspects of time loop stories is that as a character learns about the loop, they gain more and more control over the loop's events. If they already have significant control over their life, maybe they aren't a good candidate for a time loop story that focuses solely on character growth.

how does the loop work?

The second most important question is— how does the time loop work? Think about the boundaries of the loop and how it will affect the pacing of your narrative.

When does it start? When does it end? Can this be changed by your character? A lot of time loop stories, perhaps due to the influence of Groundhog Day, begin when the protagonist wakes up and end when they go to sleep that night.

This is a perfectly fine time frame, but it doesn't fit every story. If the world's ending, consider shortening the loop to just a few hours to increase suspense and give less wiggle room. Loops that are longer than a day are technically viable, but consider why you "need" that time and see if you can squish events into just a day or two.

Unnecessary week-long loops can not only drag out the pacing of the story, but require both author and readers to keep track of more information. If the protagonist does something different on Monday, they might change something on Friday, but depending how much narration is in between those days, your audience might not be able to associate cause with effect. The fun of time loops is playing around with possibilities, but if you can't remember which action causes which reaction, everyone will be confused.

Additionally, consider what happens if the protag doesn't sleep that night. Does the loop reset when the day reaches midnight? Does the next day happen but it resets the next time they're unconscious? Does the character die at the end of every loop no matter what? This can be a fun thing to play around with, but make sure the loop rules are consistent.

Be careful about time loops that rely on chance/the universe/a villain conspiring to kill the protag in a certain time frame. If it becomes a constant that your character dies before midnight every day, you must make every death somewhat believable, even in a comedy. An anvil can only drop from the sky once— random deaths from nowhere get boring fast. The best deaths are butterfly effects, caused by previous actions in a way that can be traced back. This way both the reader and character can realize the mistake, and the character can try to fix it next time.

why did the loop start?

You don't need an answer to this question, especially for stories based in the real world or settings with no magic. But for fantasy or sci-fi: did the protagonist mess with a spell or machine that began the time loop? Is there some other character that put them in a loop, whether to help or hurt them? Did they put themself in a loop? Why?

Even if there's no direct cause that puts your protag in a time loop, it might be helpful to consider why the loop starts when it does, in a narrative sense. What about that day is special? What important event will/won't happen unless the protag changes things? This goes back to the length of the loop discussed in the previous section.

On the other side of the coin, the loop must also end. Unless you think you can pull off a satisfying ending that doesn't involve your character moving on or fixing the conflict, you have to think about how and when the time loop stops for good.

Does it stop once the conflict is resolved? Do they have to stop it themself, by fixing the spell/machine/catalyst that started the loop in the first place? How does your character know it's over— do they just know, or do they have to get past the loop's boundaries (like waking up the next morning)? Will they ever know for sure they'll never reset again?

who is looping?

The hardest lesson I've learned from trying to write time loop fanfic is that not every character is a good candidate for a time loop story. You can love them to pieces and their world might be a good fit, but it has to be fun to watch the protagonist looping.

Their personality has to be compelling, whether they're a jerk going through a character growth plot, or they're a good person trying to figure out how to save the world. This partially relates back to the "why is there a time loop?" question from earlier. Watching a character solve a conflict through a loop is fun only if watching them figure out a time loop is fun. They can't solve everything right away but they can't take forever, either.

This advice is more subjective than the others and a little harder to explain in words. Let me try to illustrate with an example.

Character A is a scientific genius who's been studying time travel for years. They've finally built their very own time machine! But when they turn it on for the first time, it creates the starting point for a 3 hour long time loop. The loop resets when the machine blows up, so unless Dr. A can fix the machine, they're stuck!

Sounds cool, right? But if you tried to write this story, I think you'd very quickly find that it's not very exciting. If Dr. A is the genius who built the machine, it wouldn't take very long to fix it. There's no room for a complete story arc. They wouldn't really learn anything, either, aside from how to fix the machine. Let's tweak the idea a bit:

Character B is the younger assistant of Dr. A, a genius studying time travel. One day when Dr. A is doing business in the next town over, B turns on a time machine that creates a starting point for a 3 hour long time loop. The loop resets when the machine blows up, so unless B can fix the machine, they're stuck!

This is more fun for multiple reasons. Firstly, having the protagonist as someone who knows about time travel but isn't an expert leaves room in the story for them to figure things out (and take the audience along for the ride). This also works with characters for whom time travel isn't something they've ever thought about— they have even more room to learn!

Secondly, the existence but inaccessibility of Dr. A gives B a stepping stone to aim for: if they can reach Dr. A before the loop ends, they can help. But perhaps taking the time to bring in Dr. A doesn't leave enough time to actually fix the machine. B has to learn how to fix it on their own. But they can't fix it without a special part that only Dr. A knows how to make and won't tell B. And it all snowballs from there.

That doesn't mean your protagonist can't be a genius. But if you really want a quantum scientist as your looper, there has to be another problem they need to solve that doesn't involve what they're already an expert on.

Perhaps Dr. A witnessed a murder and activated their time machine, sending them a few hours into the past. They try to steer things in a better direction and fail, so they activate the machine again. And again. And again. Not only does this add an extra dimension because they're looping of their own volition (They could stop at any time. Why don't they?) but it creates a physical conflict that they can't directly use time travel to solve.


Maybe you don't want the usual time loop story. Maybe you love timelines and alternate universes and stories that make not only the author, but the audience, map things out on a piece of paper. Why write a narrative when you can write a logic puzzle?

(Of course, you should still keep the narrative in mind when adding extra complications to your time loops. It doesn't matter if you think you've revolutionized loop stories with unique time mechanics— if a reader isn't invested in the characters, they'll give up eventually. Sometimes not even good characters can save a story, if the audience can't follow the logic behind it.)

Here's some ideas to complicate matters for your protagonist.

multiple loopers

They aren't the only one in a time loop. There's someone else looping and changing things too. Is the other's loop the same as the protag's, or is it a different length? Are they looping for the same reason or are they opposed to the protag in some way? Were they not looping before, but in a previous loop, began to?

Hard Reset 2: Reset Harder is a MLP:FiM fanfic that was never finished, but brings up a lot of interesting ideas regarding multiple loopers.

There are three known time loopers in the story: Chrysalis, Celestia, and Twilight. Chrysalis' loop begins a week before Celestia's, and Twilight's begins later in the day of Celestia's loop. The only way to end any of the loops is to die, and the world is under threat of an invasion by Chrysalis' army that will kill everyone if they don't stop her.

The way time works in this story is that whoever dies first remembers their loop, while the others' memories are erased. So if Twilight dies first, she resets to that afternoon and everything she did was erased— Celestia only remembers her day before Twilight's loop started. But if Celestia dies first, even after Twilight's loop began, the entire day resets and Twilight remembers none of it.

This adds layers, especially by adding the villain Chrysalis as a third looper that can erase both of the other's memories and plan a whole week ahead of them. Because it's possible for Celestia and Twilight to have a conversation only one of them remembers, they have to come up with counting methods and code words to communicate across different time loops.

Meanwhile, the original Hard Reset (genuinely one of the best time travel stories I've ever read) and its sequels play around with the idea of parallel universes in relation to time loops. Which brings me to...

alternate universes

What happens to the time loops that get "reset?" Maybe they're erased from existence. Or maybe they stick around, continuing on while the protag jumps to another new timeline. This one gets interesting especially if your character dies at the end of every loop. Is it possible for them to view other timelines and see the aftermath?

What if time isn't looping at all? Instead, the protag is moving between dozens of identical universes, changing each one then moving on to the next. Until they run into a universe where one thing is different. What happens then?


Whew, that was a lot. Here's a recap... when writing a time loop story, make sure you know:

Now go forth, and write a super cool time loop with good characters and interesting plotlines!