Should Your Story Use Prophecy?

 

by Stephanie O’Brien

In some stories, the plot’s resolution takes everyone by surprise. Nobody knew how the story would end, or how the outcome would be achieved. In others, the ending was a surprise to absolutely no one, because a prophecy had already spoiled the ending long before it could happen.

 

The downside to having a prophecy:

Having a prophecy about your plot or protagonist has one obvious drawback: it spoils the ending of the story, and removes much of the dramatic tension that you otherwise could have built.

When the audience knows how the story will end, it takes a lot of skill to avoid making them feel like you’re simply going through the motions. Some storytellers don’t have that skill, so the prophecy ruins what could have been a good story.

 

Can you include a prophecy without spoiling your whole story?

Sure you can – if you do it right.

Here are a few ways you can include a prophecy in your tale, without it being a massive drama-killing spoiler:

 

1. Make the prophecy ambiguous.

Maybe the prophecy says a kingdom will fall – but it doesn’t say WHICH kingdom.

Perhaps it warns of a sacrifice, but you don’t know who will be lost in order to resolve the conflict.

Or maybe it was foretold that an angel will bring freedom, but there’s debate about whether that means a good angel will bring freedom from imprisonment, or an angel of death will force people to accept “freedom” from this mortal coil.

A good fictional prophecy will have enough specifics to raise questions and make it clear when the prophecy is fulfilled, but enough ambiguity that it doesn’t explicitly lay out how the story will end.

 

2. Make it unclear who the prophecy’s about.

​”Is this prophecy really about me? Or am I trying to force myself into a pair of shoes that was never made for me?”

This kind of uncertainty can make the protagonist question their actions, their motives, and their role in the adventure as a whole.

A jealous or egotistical character might become suspicious of anyone who might “steal” their role, while a more passive or weary person might hope that they can find the “real” subject of the prophecy and thus relieve themselves of a harsh obligation.

By making the prophecy unclear, you can turn it into a plot-and-character-development-driving question, instead of a plot-spoiling fact.

 

3. Have the characters question whether the prophecy is true.

Is the prophecy actually accurate, or are the characters making a fatal mistake by basing their strategy on something that isn’t actually going to happen?

Is the character doing what they’re doing because it’s right, or because they think they’re “supposed to” because of a prophecy that might not even be true?

Raising this question can bring a lot of fear and uncertainty into the story, and can also cause conflicts between characters who believe the prophecy and those who don’t.

It can also serve to highlight the cooler heads in the cast – those who are able to incorporate the prophecy in their plans, while creating a backup plan just in case the foretelling turns out to be a load of bull.

 

4. Fulfill the prophecy in an unexpected way.

​If you can fulfill the prophecy to the letter, but do so in a way that the audience doesn’t expect, you can have the cake of solid foreshadowing and have your readers enjoy eating it, too.

Perhaps the prophecy gets fulfilled one piece at a time instead of all at once. Maybe the characters’ assumptions misled the reader about how said fulfillment would look, or maybe it was already fulfilled off-screen, but the cast wasn’t aware of that.

 

But Whatever You Do, Don’t…

1. Use the prophecy as the sole reason why the protagonist has to do something, with no plausible reason why that should be the case.

2. Make the prophecy the only reason why it HAS to be the protagonist, when other characters are much more plausibly suited for the task.

3. Spell out the end of the story through the prophecy, and then do exactly what was foretold, with no twists or additional requirements to create a happy ending.

If you avoid these three traps, and use one or more of the plot-twisting or question-raising techniques that I outlined above, you should be able to include a prophecy about your plot, without making that plot predictable.

 

 

 

Alternately titled Should There be a Prophecy About Your Protagonist or Plot?

Guest post contributed by Stephanie O’Brien. Stephanie has been writing novels since she was twelve years old and has published three of them on Amazon’s Kindle. When she isn’t writing novels and running her marketing business, she’s usually creating comics, music videos, and fanfiction. If you’d like to get more writing tips, or to check out her books, art, and videos, you can visit her website. You can also connect with her on Facebook or on Twitter.

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14 thoughts on “Should Your Story Use Prophecy?”

  1. Nice! I haven’t read much fantasty, but I like that Dune analyzes how different people react to a prophesy *intentionally put in place for political reasons* – when the prophesised one is uncomfortable with it. I think it can be done well but is often a crutch for lazy writers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree. This post was largely inspired by the 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland, in which the prophecy and the plot’s strict adherence to it sucked all the potential suspense and surprise out of the movie and made it boringly predictable, at least for me.

      Like

  2. Very well written. I think you’re right on all points. As with many things, I think it’s important for the author to question the need for a prophecy. Dune definitely needed one, and there’s definitely a subgenre of fantasy that leans pretty heavily on it, but more often than not I think theres no real need for one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the compliments! I agree that it’s important to question the need for a prophecy, and even if it is needed, it’s even MORE important to include it in a way that doesn’t turn the prophecy into a suspense-killing spoiler, especially if it foretells a happy ending. Don’t turn the hero’s perfect victory into a foregone conclusion!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Shockingly enough, I actually haven’t watched or read the HP series. And, less shockingly, I have yet to add a prophecy to any of my completed stories, though I think I have one or two hanging around in some REALLY old WIPs.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Shocked! That doesn’t come close to it. Since reading you reply I have hidden in my wardrobe rocking back and forth, not wanting to live in a world where people haven’t read Harry Potter. I was once like you until a friend brought me the first three books for a birthday present. Strangely enough he now says he always regrets buying them for me, no idea why.

        Since reading your article I have been thinking about using prophecy in my WiP but ther is a danger if shoehorning it in. Either way luck with your current work.

        Liked by 1 person

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