Savvy Saturday: Using Prophecy

Happy week before Christmas! If you go to a Christmas service this week, you might find that there are several elements of storytelling that transfer well from the Christmas story to typical fantasy story arcs as accepted in western mythology. (This is, in part, because the Bible gives Western civilization its template for how stories “should” be told.) One of these elements is that of prophecy. We have all seen used prophecy used in fantasy stories – sometimes used well, sometimes used poorly. But what makes “good” prophecy use in a fantasy story? Here are two elements:

  1. Good prophecy gives a mix of specific and general predictions.

If a prophecy only consists of general predictions, it is too easily fulfilled by different people at different points in time. “The Child of Light will confront the Child of Darkness at the place of the end” is a great ominous line – but only if you know who the child of light is, who the child of darkness is, and what is at stake. It doesn’t take any work to create a prophecy that consists of vague generalities, and it doesn’t engage reader interest. If a reader shrugs their shoulders and says, “That prophecy isn’t even saying anything,” then at best, they will not understand why your main characters are so worried about the prophecy, and at worst, they simply won’t care.

On the other hand, if a prophecy consists of entirely specific predictions, once you establish that the prophecy is coming true then knowing the prophecy ahead of time makes the outcome of the book entirely boring for a reader. There is no reason to read a book all the way to the end if it has already been predicted in chapter three that, “The farmer’s son will smite down the lord of darkness when he stumbles over a fallen root, knocking his helmet from his head and smashing in his skull with the sword of his forbearers, which will have been blessed by the old protector of the forest.”

  1. Good prophecy can be legitimately fulfilled in different ways.

The best prophecy is one that sounds like it says one thing, but leaves room for the author to play with audience expectations. Two ways of doing this include having competing prophecies, and having prophecies that have two meanings (a primary and a secondary). Perhaps two different prophecies seem to contradict each other but don’t actually (but how?), or perhaps one prophet was actually mistaken or lying about something (but which is which?) Either way, introducing uncertainty into the supposed certainty of prophecy is a way to keep audience interest in and satisfaction with your story high.

 For instance, the Belgariad by David Eddings revolves around the existence of two prophecies – one written by the light and the other by the dark side of the universe. Both of them predict what will happen in the future, and each has been right in the past, but only one can ultimately prevail. The prophecies in the story are actually characters competing with each other. In contrast, a single prophecy could also have different possible fulfillments if it has a surface-level meaning and a deeper meaning, multiple fulfillments across time (e.g. “soon” and also “at the end of history on a bigger scale”), or if key words in the prophecy have multiple legitimate definitions.

Prophecy can be an integral and fascinating part of a fantasy story. It can drive protagonists to complete their quests, to question or doubt their abilities or future, to wrestle with questions of fate and free will, and to either embrace prophecy or to fight it. But if used poorly – if a prophecy is too specific, too vague, too straightforward, or too convoluted – prophecy can hamstring the effectiveness of your novel.

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