The power of the prophecy

Crystal ball. Image snarfed from Dreamstime free

Forgive me for being a little grumpy.

You see, today I started a book that had been sitting in my TBR pile for a long time. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the previous book by this author and had been looking forward to reading the book. No, I’m not going to tell you who the author is because that is beside the point of this post.

The book started in an interesting way, but then it all went south. You see, the author introduced a prophecy. Not just any prophecy, but one of the heavy-handed ZOMG the prophecy tells me I have to do this, so I do it type, no matter that the story itself didn’t support any reasons for the course of action. In fact, the prophecy was the only thing guiding all characters throughout the first third of the book. I don’t know what happened in the rest of the book. I’m not sure that I want to find out.

Am I the only one who finds this type of handling of prophecies cliché, tiresome and naïve? Those are the type of stories we wrote when we just started writing and didn’t know any better. They’re not the type of books I expect from a mature writer.

What is it about prophecies and fantasy?

Prophecies can be handled in a number of different ways.

At its most basic, there is the plot that takes a known prophecy at face value, without question of its authenticity or its predicting value. This type of dealing with prophecy is what I would call heavy-handed or naïve, because it takes all deciding power away from the character, and negates the need for the character’s actions to make sense. When “the prophecy said so” is the reason for something to happen, a flag should go up that you’ve entered this territory.

Alternately, a prophecy could be considered “true” in the fantasy society, but the character affected by it could resist the implications. This becomes more interesting, because now we’ve entered a personal conflict into the mix. Apart from the fact that the character must do X or something terrible will happen, the character doesn’t believe that the prophecy has value.

Or the other way around: the character believes the prophecy has value, but society doesn’t.

The history of the prophecy and its reach. A lot of fantasy prophecies tend to be well-known in the affected society. They’re part of some older legend, which, magically, everyone in the country knows even though they’ve to invent the internet or similar means of communication.

Or the prophecy could be not so well-known or only partially known–see Harry Potter. In this type of plot, a prophecy becomes part of the main plot device. Rather than handing the characters the prophecy at the start of the book, the characters must first discover the prophecy, then decide whether or not they’ll want to believe it, and then solve it. This type of plot becomes a mystery. The prophecy doesn’t drive the plot, discovering the prophecy does. Thus, the content of the prophecy becomes less important than the process of discovering it.

Alternately, there could be a prophecy that is proven to be complete bunk in the progress of the plot. But there had better be something even better (a conspiracy, and even worse prophecy) hiding behind the wreckage, or you’ll have some dissatisfied readers.

I don’t know what else you could do with prophecies. The prophecy as a plot device bores me to death. That said, I would love to write something that looks at prophecies from an unexpected angle, just to prove that you can breathe life into this tired plot device.

Any thoughts?

8 comments on “The power of the prophecy

  1. I’ve read an argument that one of the dividing lines between fantasy and science fiction is whether prophecy is real. If prophecy is real, that generally implies some supernatural guiding force. (The obvious exception, of course, is statistical prediction as in the Foundation Trilogy, where the force is measurable, quantifiable, and ultimately alterable when unknown factors are added in.)

    • I would rather say whether the prophecy is explained. The prophecy may or may not be real, but its history dictates whether it’s SF or fantasy. If the prophecy is written down and passed through generations, it could still be SF. If the prophecy is communicated through unexplained phenomena, it’s likely to be fantasy.

      Although, if SF covers an alien race whose properties people don’t understand, you can stil have prophecies that people just don’t understand, and I’d still call the work SF.

  2. Interesting thoughts, especially as I write Fantasy and some paranormal is almost mandatory. However, I play with it in a subtle way, and in my books, the predictions and requirements may bend or change under some circumstances. Even the goddess is not infallible or all powerful. So I think that I have, perhaps unknowingly, avoided the pitfalls you describe. As for the distinction between Fantasy and Sci-Fi – that is another discussion entirely for me.

  3. My current work in progress has a prophecy. But so far the reader hasn’t seen it and neither have the characters. In fact, its knowledge is limited to scholarly circles. At the moment, I intend the protagonist to discover it long after some of those scholars have become convinced it’s working itself out without their help. The protagonist, not surprisingly, doesn’t believer them. Should be a fun late story conflict! 🙂

  4. I really don’t mind even heavy handed prophecy. The trick is whether the actual writing and story is well done. It doesn’t matter if the ending is telegraphed, its the journey along the way that counts. I don’t really need every story I read to be a suspense or thriller.

  5. I’ve wondered about writing from the prophet viewpoint of the prophet trying to write a prophecy that survives to when it is needed, kind of laying the bricks to save the far future. Not ground shaking but an aspect that I think could be interesting exploring.

    • Hmmm. That would depend on whether the prophet believes the prophecy, makes up the prophecy or whether it’s handed to him as a fact by some sort of god. Is the prophet a mouthpiece of the prophecy, or has he valid and thought-through reasons for making the prophecy.

      In a modern-day scenario, we are drowning in prophecies. Peak oil, the stockmarket, various doomsday scenarios. Some are obviously better based than others. I think it would be interesting to look at a prophet who has (pseudo) scientific reasons for predicting an event in a thoroughly pre-science world.

      The hand-me-down prophecy “because a god said so” interests me a lot less.

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