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I like prophecies (at least in fiction). They make for great story telling frames. They are an easy way to establish The Call to Adventure. Nothings beats a prophecy when it comes to raising the stakes. It’s not just a master less mercenary saving the snooty daughter of the local lord from the monster of the week.

Oh no!

Now it’s the whole kingdom that’s at stake.

Tempt Fate if you dare.

Become a plaything of the Gods.

Having a tough time believing that the local yokel is destined to save the Galaxy from the Overlord of all that is Eveil? Just check the prophecy, second stanza, third line. Aren’t you the man Man not born out of a Woman (whatever the hell that means)? Great! Now grab the shiny sword your father buried in that big honking rock in the backyard and off you go!

Sounds perfect, got prophecy will have fantasy blockbuster.

Or not.

Wait…

What?

Like I said, prophecies are great but there are so many ways to screw them up.

Let me counts ways:

The Forgotten Prophecy. The one you see early on in the story and completely disappears until the second to last paragraph of the book. If it’s that important you would think it would exert some pull on the characters who know about it. Otherwise why mention it.

The Retconned Prophecy, or the I happen to have prophecy that explains what otherwise defies the internal logic of the book. You know the type that crops up on page 315. Mr. Exposition every illogical twist and turn based on the prophecy and the reader is supposed to accept his explanation without question.  It’s the speculative fiction version of in-story CYA (coughBSGcoughbushitcoughsomemore), especially when he knows how baldy he screwed up the internal consistency of the narrative.

The Detail Free Prophecy. Everybody keeps talking about THE PROPHECY but NOBODY bothers to tell the hero or for that matter the reader what does it say let alone how it fits the story.

The Nonsense Prophecy.  Look it, we got a prophecy! And after reading it backwards and forwards it means absolutely nothing.  Bring Balance to the Force my left nut! Now, prophecies, by definition, are nebulous things, but c’mon!

The Pulled it out of my Rear Prophecy. The writer started with a few verses of the prophecy and it was good. Then he wanted to do something else, so he needed more prophetic words to justify that. And then some  more because he just sign a 6-book deal and now he needs to write more prophetic sounding crap because the reason the hero is doing the whole save the Universe bit is because Fate told him so. Now everything he does has been foretold and it will ALWAYS fit with whatever he does or fails to do.

The Ripped from the Ancient Headlines Prophecy.  I need a prophetic verse, stat! Oh, here is one:

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles

Nobody with access to a computer and Google will figure that one out. Yeah, right. Now if your novel is an alternate history work, or some such, this would make a great shout out to the King of Sparta. Otherwise it’s pretty flimsy.

As cool as prophecies might be, they are not a cure all for what ails your story. So be careful how you use them, if you use them at all.

And now for another Nostromo AMV. Enjoy!

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4 Comments

    • matthewgraybosch
    • Posted September 11, 2009 at 2:29 am
    • Permalink

    For my part, I hate hate hate prophecy in fantasy. Yes, I know that sometimes it’s necessary, especially if one is being traditional and following the path of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, but I’d rather see the action arise from the characters’ choices and not the divine plan of the fates.

  1. True, I prefer character driven stories to plot driven ones, but if done right a prophecy can highlight those character choices and make them even more awesome. I guess that will be the topic of my next post.

    Thanks for the comment Mathew. Always appreciated.

    • matthewgraybosch
    • Posted September 11, 2009 at 2:58 am
    • Permalink

    For my part, the only fantasy I can tolerate that allows prophecy to play a major role is Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth novels. Whatever Goodkind’s faults as a writer, it’s always fun to see him come up with a prophecy and watch his characters fulfill it in a manner that none of the self-styled interpreters of prophecy expect.

  2. Where there is cleverness and will there is always a way! 🙂


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  1. […] heroes get their call via stone tablet or star sign. A long time ago (or last week on a Tuesday afternoon) somebody, somewhere predicted that The Chosen […]

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