When you mention the genre fantasy, some people imagine dragons and faraway lands, some steer toward vampires, werewolves, and witches, and others--like myself--tend to be drawn toward the element of time. Time is a mysterious idea, even to modern-day scholars. It fascinates scientists and writers alike, spawning many theories and stories revolving around the variables of this fluid beast. We know that over time organic matter breaks down, and new matter can take its place. Time propels us forward, making progression possible. We use time to categorize and arrange past events. But little is known about time other than how it affects us. However, it is something that we religiously base our routines and everyday lives around. Acceptance of time means changes are inevitable; some things can be completely replaced over time, and others simply altered.
The sheer magnitude of the concept of time is one of the things that makes it so fascinating to us. There is almost an unspoken knowledge of its power. It's something that we have absolutely no control over, causing anxiety for some and a sense of relief for others. For writers, time is one of those magical toys that can be dreamt about contorted. It defines the lives and journeys of the character that we craft.
But playing with time is like playing with fire; it's a difficult to harness but is extremely dynamic. Most writers use this capability to their advantage, even in the most basic sense. They establish a chronological order of events but present them in a way that is the most effective for conveying the story. However, when time is presented as an object in a fantastical story, it becomes a living creature capable of wreaking havoc on the characters and story being told.
In order to best utilize this tool, there are three main areas a writer should focus on.
Idea or Object? Time is either going to be seen as an idea or an object in a story. If it is simply an idea, it will usually follow a linear path and affect the characters much like time in the real world as a unit of measure to signify when certain events occurred. If time as seen as an object, it is elevated and personified, and can be captured, manipulated, or even stopped. This view of time is most likely to occur in a story where there is sorcery. It will require the creation of extra rules which must be consistently maintained. Toying with time in this way alone can certainly hold a great amount of potential for plot development and unexpected twists.
Time Travel The next thing you'll want to establish is how flexible time will be: Will time manipulation and/or time travel be possible? Managing this view of time is tricky. There are whole shows based on this idea. Some are executed quite well, but ones that aren't are monstrosities. The best aid for writing this kind of a story is research. See what's out there, what works well, and what doesn't. Come up with your own rules and try them out. Just make sure that every action has a consequence. Based on context of the story, readers will know how devastating the consequence should be. When something as big as time travel is involved, readers will expect long-term effects to characters' actions. Even if an immediate consequence isn't appropriate, one should be queued for later.
Weave in History If there is any sort of manipulation of time in your story, a history of why and how time came to be that way is absolutely crucial to a well-developed plot. Without it, the actions of the characters toward the object of time are meaningless. Be careful to avoid long blocks of backstory though; doing so can simultaneously bore readers and give away too much of the plot. Use it instead as a detail to enhance the current point in the plot and peak interest in past events.