Prophecy

How to Use Prophecies Effectively in Fiction

Hey, Lovelies!

I made neglected to go into depth about the prophecy aspect of the apocalypse in last week’s post. To fix that, we’re going to talk about it today.

As we all know, the fictional apocalypse doesn’t just come at us from nowhere. There is usually a warning before the main event occurs. We’ve seen this time and time again in books and on the movie screens.

Some people might call it foreshadowing, but there is a specific way that they are written, and they come with their own history, which ties in strongly with religious texts, as briefly explained in our post from last week.

What are the Two Types of Prophecies?

So, what is a prophecy? Is it a religious document? Does it predict natural disasters, or does it relate to the human level as well? Before we get into answering those questions, let’s get our simple definition going:

Prophecy: a statement that says what is going to happen in the future.

Essentially, this boils down to two categories of prophecy: world-events and self-fulfilling. Let’s look at world events first.

World-Event Prophecies

The first type of prophecy doesn’t have to deal with humans – exactly. They’re more about those natural disasters and alien invasions. These prophecies take a macro view of the world and make predictions based on what’s going to happen to Earth and its inhabitants as a whole. It’s not looking to individual contributions to that prophecy, but what we do as a collective.

However, there are things that we can do to help bring about or deflect a prophecized apocalypse. Let’s take climate change as an example. We need everyone to buy into the idea that climate change is a thing in order to enact change. Without this, we can’t create policy changes that clean up waterways, air pollution, etc. Instead of destroying the planet, we can take steps to reduce our impact on the environment, giving us an actionable plan to ward off the environmental apocalypse.

Another example can be found in religious texts. Let’s take a look at the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. According to Christianity.com, the horsemen are thought to represent four types of disastrous occurrences that will take place before the second coming of Jesus Christ. The main message of this tale is that the true believers will be saved from the Devil and his machinations by remaining faithful to God.

Again, we need to have a large-scale buy-in to the idea that if we all stay true to Christian ideology and values, then God will spare us at the end of the world. While this staying true to God helps us get through the apocalypse brought on by the four horsemen, it doesn’t prevent the apocalypse from happening. It can also be said if we’re all true to God then there will be no need for an apocalypse at all.

What do these two examples have in common? Well, they each need to have people buy into them as the truth. If people deny their existence, then they don’t have any power.

They also reflect the feelings of the time. For climate change, many people want to be more environmentally responsible, and they don’t want to lose expensive assets, like houses, that reside alongside the oceans and the rising sea levels.

Another thing that accompanies prophecies is the reactions to them. Governments and scientific bodies, such as NASA, try to calm the public’s fears and instill order to the situation. Social media, the media, and prophets tend to stoke the flames of fear. And of course, you have a bunch of people that freeze – like those of us trying to wrap our heads around coronavirus. We also have people that just live their lives as regularly as they can. It’s almost as if they don’t know or care about what’s going on around them.

Now, when I said that world events are more macro-focused, that doesn’t mean that specific individuals with their fears and belief systems can’t make a prophecy come true. That’s most certainly not the case. For example, the Great Depression was exacerbated in the US when large groups of people withdrew their money from banks. They believed that they needed to get their money out of the banks to avoid a financial collapse. By doing this, they validated that fear – and screwed over a bunch of other people in the process.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy on a large scale. To get that type of response, though, you need to have enough fear to move mass amounts of people into action. Another recent example I can think of is the toilet paper shortage we’re currently experiencing across the globe. A whole bunch of people bought mass amounts of toilet paper because they thought there wouldn’t be enough. That rush created the current toilet paper deficit.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

While world-event prophecies deal with a global or macro perspective, self-fulfilling prophecies bring things down to an individual level. Here’s our definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy:

Self-fulfilling Prophecy: a prediction that somehow causes itself to come true.

Self-fulfilling prophecies, in particular, play an essential role in fiction. We’ve seen characters time and time again to try to prevent their fate and bring about that fate through those preventative actions.

The most famous example of this would be the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles. In the story, Oedipus’s parents are told that he will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Understandably horrified, his parents leave Oedipus by the side of the road to die. Unbeknownst to them, Oedipus is saved and grows up to become a powerful hero and, because he does not know who his parents are, he inadvertently does precisely what the oracle prophesied he would do.

Self-fulfilling prophecies can be a very effective way to build a plot. They’re compelling because the prophecy is woven throughout the whole story, making it unified from beginning to end as well as relatable. Why? Well, we know what is going to happen, but, like the characters, we’re still hoping to prevent it.

Stories built around self-fulfilling prophecies are also believable because we have an innate understanding that such things happen all the time in real life. Even if there are fantasy elements like oracles in the story, the situation itself seems completely real.

The Advantages of a Good Prophecy

So why should we look at incorporating prophecies into our novels? Well, I’m going to turn things over to The Artful Narrator (Jack Fulmer) to explain why it’s a good thing. The video is a bit over the top, but it makes some good points.

Prophecy tends to drive the plot of a novel, and it’s the perfect motivator for some types of characters. For example, in Harry Potter, Voldemort starts off the entire series because he tried to stop a prophecy from coming true (can anyone say self-fulfilling prophecy?). Without that prophecy, Harry’s role as protagonist and his quest to defeat Voldemort would never have happened.

There are even some threads on the internet that state that Voldemort shouldn’t have worried about Harry! It was Neville that the prophecy was speaking about. Think about it, he was the one to destroy the last Horcrux…

Moreover, good prophecies also create suspense and tension within your novel. Prophecies can be formulated in such a way that they evolve without changing. They’re vague enough that a variety of things can happen that make the situation more fraught with peril.

I think the best example of how a good prophecy works is in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. From the opening scene to the end, we have the prophecy playing out slowly and agonizingly. We know that things will not end well for Macbeth, but we can’t help but root for him. He’s not a bad guy, but his choices and the choices that those around him make bring about his death – just as the witches said it would.

How to Write a Prophecy

Writing a prophecy isn’t that hard to do, right? Just throw in some esoteric language and some doom and gloom and you’re good to go! Sorry to burst your optimism here, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. There are a few things that go into a good one.

The Anatomy of a Prophecy

To understand prophecies we need to look at how they are constructed. So what are the elements that make up a prophecy? First and foremost they’re riddles.

What is a riddle?

A riddle is a question or statement intentionally phrased so as to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning.

Riddles are full of metaphors and they use words with multiple meanings as a way to misdirect a reader’s attention from what it’s actually about. However, riddles must contain clues within the metaphors and carefully selected words to lead readers to the right conclusion.

Prophecies work the same way. They use metaphors and words with multiple meanings to hide the true message it contains. Prophecies also like to work in reverse. They like to tell you what happens in the end before “telling you” how to get to that end.

Let’s use Harry Potter as an example again:

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies….— Sybill Trelawney’s prophecy made to Albus Dumbledore

As we see here, it mentions an ambiguous “one”, leaving us to interpret whether that’s Harry or Neville. It also starts with how Voldemort is going to die, before giving us some clues as to who is going to kill him.

Like riddles, prophecies can also come in the form of verse rather than prose. If you want it to read more like a Shakespearian play, then look towards poetry and rhyming to get your message across. Or you can take a page out of J.K. Rowling’s playbook and keep to prose.

Prophecy Writing Tips

We know that most prophecies are riddles and that they like to go in reverse order. But what are some of the other things that you need to keep in mind? No need to fear, I’ve compiled a list of do’s and don’t’s: 

  • Know your story and it’s outcomes before adding in your prophecy. Depending on your skill level or how you write, this can be skipped over, but it’s a good piece of advice. With this tactic, adding in your prophecy at the end makes sure that you hit all of the major revelations and twists to the story in your prophecy. There’s no need to go back and fix it each time things in your story change.
  • Prophecies never lie. TV Tropes said it best. Prophecies in fiction never lie and must always come true. We expect them to. It’s probably why we’ve kept reading your book. So don’t introduce a prophecy to your story and then take it nowhere.
  • Your prophecy can’t be completely incoherent. As much as we like confusing people and hiding the true meaning of a prophecy, our readers still like figuring them out. So drop actual clues and hints into your prophecy to help your characters and reader suss out what’s going to happen.
  • Include stuff that the readers and characters already know. Depending on when your prophecy is introduced, you can add elements that we already know to it. In the Harry Potter example, we already know that Harry has been marked and that Voldemort killed his parents and it’s included in the prophecy. However, we still need to figure out why they can’t both be alive at the same time.
  • Prophecies ≠ plot armor. Just because your prophecy points to Cornelius as “The Chosen One” it doesn’t mean that he can whistle a tune and without a scratch, while walking through thousands of people trying to kill him. It just doesn’t happen. Keep them human and make sure they are still touched by their surroundings.
  • Your prophecy doesn’t have to be vague. It can be concrete. You can outline exactly what’s going to happen and follow through with it. Your characters can rebel or try to stop the outcome but it can slowly creep up on them until they submit to their fate.
  • Prophecies are a cliche. And we all know that cliches are not something that we want to adhere to. So try to bring a new spin on an old trope or to not use it altogether. A great example of this was in The Lego Movie when Vitruvius tries to stop Lord Business from destroying him and taking over the world. He casts a prophecy, which he later admits he made up, and Lord Business mocks him outright for coming up with the prophecy in the first place.

  • Prophecies do help drive the plot forward, but they should not be used to shore up a lackluster plotline. Do your planning and research ahead of time. Try to make sure that you are developing your characters and having plot points that drive the story forward without the added help of the prophecy.
  • Prophecies ≠ foreshadowing. They’re not the same thing and can’t be used interchangeably. Prophecy is there to drive the plot forward while foreshadowing hints at things to come. One is obvious and the other is subtle. (More on this next week.)
  • If you’re not a poet, then don’t write poetry. This is something that I will live and die by. I cannot write poetry. I can rhyme things and make them sound pretty, but none of it makes a lick of sense. Instead of inflicting my bad poetry on you all, I leave it to the professionals. If you do want to try your hand at writing sick verses, ask your poet friend to look things over before incorporating it into your story.
  • Prophecies need a call of action. Especially, if we’re talking about an apocalypse. You need something that is going to want to make people act in some way. For a 2012-type end of the world prediction, you’re going to want to have people try to get to loved ones or building bunkers. But make the reactions to these scenarios realistic. Put yourself in your character’s shoes.
  • Think about religion. Prophecies originate in religious texts and most call for repentance as a way for people to be ready for the savior. Adding these types of elements could offer feelings of hope for your characters and pay homage to the roots of prophecy. It also allows you to explore the relationship between God and humanity.
  • Keep to the rules of your world. If your world doesn’t have oracles or prophet makers, then prophecies are redundant and stick out as a huge plot hole.

There you have it. The do’s and don’t’s of writing a prophecy. Remember, make sure that you fulfill your prophecies if you’re using them, and to try something new. That doesn’t mean that you need to try your hand at poetry, it means making things clear and easy to understand instead of cryptic. Or you can have a happy-ending prophecy instead of a doomsday one.

Before we go, I did want to go over the most important part of writing a prophecy, which is whether your story really needs one. Prophecies can come with a host of issues, like plot holes, and it’s overused in the fantasy genre. If you are considering adding one, make sure you really think about why you want or need one in your story.

If you’re adding one to boost the plotline then you have a more significant issue that needs solving and a prophecy won’t fix it for you. It may be prudent to add a prophecy if you want to add a little extra something to your story, but I caution you to only add it if you already have a solid plot and admirable character development.

Here are some things to think about when before you include a prophecy:

  • Who knows about it? Is it widely spread amongst conspiracy theorists? Does the Pope know about it? The government? How about your character’s friends and family? Figuring out who knows and doesn’t create tension and suspense for your readers. It also helps determine what challenges your characters will have – do they need to keep it a secret or convince people that they’re telling the truth?
  • How is it important? Is it centered around your character or does it affect the entire world? Is it a life or death situation?
  • Do the characters of your stories react to it? If so, do they want to stop the prophecy from being fulfilled, or are they trying to encourage it? Why? In other words, what’s the motivation behind your character’s actions and is the threat big enough to warrant any action being taken?
  • Think about how the prophecy is passed on. It is by word of mouth? Maybe it’s depicted in a series of ancient paintings. Or it could be a story etched onto a wall in a temple. Or is it shared across social media channels?
  • Who created the prophecy? Why and how did they do it? There’s going to be some sort of background as to why the prophecy is in existence in your narrative. Think about maybe writing a short character profile for the prophecy and its maker to help keep things consistent.
  • Does the prophecy have to come true, or is it more like a warning, a premonition? Going back to the do’s and don’t’s list above, if it doesn’t come true then why is it there? Think about how your characters are going to react to the premonitions or warnings. If it is a premonition or warning then you might want to look to foreshadowing instead of prophecy.

How about you guys. Have you come across any amazing prophecies or some really bad ones? What are your prophecy pet-peeves? Are any of you writing a prophecy now?


That’s it for me today! I hope it cleared up any lingering questions about prophecies from last week.

Don’t forget to stay tuned for the next installment to the apocalypse universe. We’ll be talking about the post-apocalypse this week on Thursday at the regular time.

Stay safe, everyone!

Cheers,

Danielle

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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her fiance and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.

Comments

2 Responses

  1. Love it, love it. My favorite type of prophecy in stories is when a character says something, and the rest of the cast – save for one or two – think they know what it means.
    Then another meaning gets attached to the statement, and the ominous realization starts to set in.
    This is a big deal because the character who made the statement is either respected or feared. The more he/she knows, or the more powerful they themselves are, everyone else believes he/she knows what he/she is talking about. Which makes the awful truth more solid, when you attach the new implications to the statement.
    I think it’s character development when the protagonist grows wiser, like in a Fantasy-adventure setting, in realizing the more serious truth, and moves to stop it.

    1. Yes, those types of prophecies are the best! I also like the vague ones where it hints at a bunch of things, and then you have to slowly figure things out with your characters. Then you have the “big reveal” right before the climax. Those ones are fun too.

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