How to Write Prophecy

Discussion in 'Research' started by J Q Kaiser, May 28, 2018.

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  1. J Q Kaiser

    J Q Kaiser Apprentice

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    This one has been difficult to search on Google. I ended up reading through a ton of old prophecies from Nostradamus, monks from the Middle Ages, and the Bible. I still don't have a firm grasp on how to write a strong prophecy.

    I get the sense I need to write backward. What do I need fulfilled? But it is the part of converting that into something that walks the line between vague and accurate where I think I am stumbling about. Any suggestions? Experiences? Any good references outside western literature that are helpful?
     
  2. Ankari

    Ankari Staff Moderator

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    It depends on when the prophecy is intended to take place from its origination. The events foretold may be set in a time where the foreteller doesn't have a reference or vocabulary for the technology or ideas. This is where the vagueness can almost sound absurd.

    Imagine a foreteller in 700 AD trying to describe a prophecy of WWII. The tanks, airplanes, communication technology, and even the handheld weapons used (flamethrowers, rifles, hand guns) would be beyond the comprehension of the poor foreteller. He'd have to use absurd or abstract ideas such as armored elephants (or metal-clad carts) which spew forth fire and smoke to describe a tank.

    Vagueness in any other manner is cheating from the writer. Yes, you can leave the interpretation open (think of the Wheel of Time prophecy of Rand's blood on the Dragon Mount), but it should be clear if the ideas and technology are similar to the times the prophecy is foretold.
     
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  3. Yora

    Yora Mystagogue

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    I think a prophecy needs to be helpful without removing tension. Most prophecies in fiction are either making sense only after it happens and they became pointless, or they tell you exactly what will happen regardless of the characters' actions.

    I think the best way to set up a prophecy is to have it say that something will happen, but not what the results will be. It provides characters with a bit of information of what lies ahead and helps them preparing for a challenge in the future.
     
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  4. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Grandmaster

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    Prophecy always seems like one of those things that is just so hard to get right. Maybe it's me. From Nostradamus and Revelations sort of Vagueness Is Coming beside things that happen with a regular basis (okay, maybe not so much the four horsemen and giant monsters, but being in Fantasy, those can be quite literal more often then not) or those that basically give the story away (good guy get's magic sword, kills dark lord before he sacrifices LI) and that sort of thing. So, kind of summing up Yora there.

    Unless trying to use them to twist them or as something that can be completely broken or read in a way to be broken I just generally leave them alone. May take away some of the mystique, but if I can't work them in I just don't bother.
     
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  5. J Q Kaiser

    J Q Kaiser Apprentice

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    I've always felt that prophecy done well in fiction comes off a poetry that doesn't give away plot before it is fulfilled and, once fulfilled, makes the reader think "Of course! How did I not see that coming?"
     
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    I don't do prophecies, but that doesn't keep me from having suggestions. :)

    Write it out in ordinary language. Be clear and blunt. This is for your purposes only, but it will be good to have the prophecy crystal clear in your own mind.

    The second thing I'd do is determine the story-telling purpose of this. Is it to serve as a big sign for the reader that this is the doom hanging over the hero's head? Is it a mystery to be solved? Some third thing that I can't come up with right now? That will certainly affect how you write it.

    You'll want to decide who knows this prophecy and how they know it. This will affect how the hero learns of it. Also, who made this prophecy? What's their track record? Any Yelp reviews? :)

    Once you have the context, you can start with your clear statement and start to muddy the waters. Maybe you only need to make it poetic, keeping the clarity. At the other extreme, you could write versions of it so there can be incorrect or misinterpreted versions floating around in your world. You could also decide if there is a way to subvert or avoid the prophecy, which also could affect how you construct it.

    Finally, at some point, you're going to have to decide how the reader learns of this. That, too, provides an opportunity for clarity or misdirection.
     
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  7. Yora

    Yora Mystagogue

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    I don't use prophecies myself, but I am quite fond of more specific divinations. I like them because they are a great way to ilustrate the problem of making important choices and planning ahead based on incomplete information that is open to a considerable degree of interpretation. It is an interesting moral and ethical dilema. You can't ignore them because you have high reason to suspect that something bad will happen when you do nothing. But there is also a very high risk of being manipulated by higher powers to help furthering an outcome that you don't want to happen. And in addition it faces you with the issue that you need to be certain that your interpretation of the available information is correct before you take action. Over confidence that your first guess of its meaning is correct can lead to causing more damage than helping things.

    The magic rules of my setting also limit any divination to extrapolations of current developments, based on the much broader perspective and expriences of supernatural spirits compared to normal mortals. By performing a divination, you are asking spirits to give you their prediction for the most likely scenario that is going to follow from an action or inaction. Spirits see more than mortals and can see connections that are not visible to mortals, so they can possibly give you a much better prediction than any living person. But on the other hand, they are spirits and completely different beings than mortals with very different ways of thinking and completely alien priorities. They will give you an answer that has the highest chance of being correct, but it may not actually tell you the thing that you want to know.
    And in any case, it is only a prediction. The future has not happened yet and everything is possible. In practice, the best way to use divinations is to get warnings of threats that you are not aware of. They can point out opportunities and possible weaknesses that allow you to plan ahead accordingly. But they can never tell whether a plan will actually work or not. There is way too much uncertainty and chance for even the most knowledgable spirits to take completely into consideration.
    Spirits can predict that one hero will certainly make a challenge to a duel, and that the opposing hero will almost certainly accept it. They might also be able to predict that one of them will try to cheat. But if their skills are comparable, there is no way to predict who will win.
     
  8. Gribba

    Gribba Lore Master

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    I sometimes use prophecies and I tend approach it much in the way skip.knox suggests here.
    Depending on how I want the prophecy to affect the story, I take the clear and ordinary version and I look at each word, do they need double meaning, be vague or should I use a word that can be interpreted in so many different ways. And I play around with it until I am satisfied with the end result.
     
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  9. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Lore Master

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    Design a prophecy in such a way that it tells the reader that certain unnamed individuals must come together and a certain group of events must happen in a certain order. If there is even the slightest deviation in what happens then the prophecy won't come true. Also add the potential for people to make the prophecy fit the contemporary hopes and fears of the society you've created and their manipulation by both good and bad characters. People do this all the time with Biblical prophecies and the so-called prophecies of Nostradamus.

    (By the way the anti-Christ will be an Italian pizza maker in Rome who makes kosher pizza using halal meat according to my interpretation of the Book of Revelations.)
     
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  10. J Q Kaiser

    J Q Kaiser Apprentice

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    You know what, I see that now. How could I have missed that before?!
     
  11. Firefly

    Firefly Journeyman

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    Interesting discussion. I wrote a story about an Oracle for Nano last year, and I needed a lot of of prophecies in there. (By which I mean about two and then fragments of others, but I spent way too much time on them so it feels like more)
    And yes, they are way hard to write. I love the suggestion of writing it out in normal-speak before obfuscating it with the prophecy stuff. (I did NOT do that and now wish I had. Would have been much easier.)

    For plot, I found my favorite thing to do was make it so it was fairly specific, but write in more than one way it can be interpreted. Like for example, It's prophesied that the king's son will die, but the king has three sons and the prophecy doesn't say which.
    Saying someone will die/turn evil/something else horrible can also heighten the stakes and add interesting to dimensions to the story. I also love when characters manage to find a loophole in a doomsday prophecy without breaking it. Anyway, there are a lot of cool plot things you can do with it besides having a chosen one/chosen team.

    As for the obfuscating/prophecy part... Essentially it's a combination of using archaic language and ALL THE POETRY STUFF. Repetition, rhyming, confusing yet evocative imagery... All that helps it sound more prophetic. Metaphor in particular helps with making the meaning not immediately obvious. A lot of old prophecies refer to things metaphorically without explaining the metaphor. And there are the times when something sounds like a metaphor but turns out to be completely literal.
    They also have a tendency to talk about people in really removed ways, particularly in terms of their parentage or family, like calling someone "the son of ____" instead of just using their name, or receding to where they were born of something.

    Another trick I've seen some people use and that seemed to work quite well was to not use the whole prophecy, and to only ever mention or paraphrase it. It didn't work for me, because the obtuseness of the prophecies was a plot point in itself, but it can work well if there are only a few main points in the prophecy that other characters have already figured out, or if the prophecy was never in strict written form to begin with.

    I wish you good luck with yours. They can be a lot of fun. :)
     
  12. J Q Kaiser

    J Q Kaiser Apprentice

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    I ended up thinking about this while I was walking my dog waiting the near infinity it takes her to finally find a place to poop. Ancient Greek prophecy is deceptively straight forward and often turns in directs that are perfect for keeping the reader invested (especially because they see the downfall of your character before the character does themselves; this is the definition of tragedy. right?).

    So if we take a fairly straight forward and common prophecy like, "the child of X will end your life" and think of all the ways it could play out.
    • A hidden, unknown child emerges so the villains murders amount to nothing (or may even motivate unknown child to carry out the killing)
    • The parentage of the villain/anti-hero, while it seemed clear at first, ends up muddled and we find out he too is a child of X. So the sudden recognition that he has killed his own family sends him mad like Oedipus. Yet, still the prophecy came true
    • The term "child" could be interpreted differently, maybe not biological but more of a mentee of X who is like a child to him/her
    • The "X" could mean something other than King X, maybe a river that carries the same name and so the killer is a young person born at some important point on that river, raised next to that river, with a last that is the same as the river, or who has worked on that river his entire life
    • Or maybe the "end your life" carries some odd construction that falls short of death and just produced a significant transformation in the status of the person hearing the prophecy.
    As I'm writing this prophecy I am trying to think of ways to incorporate these little twists. I want to have portions of the prophecy that are straightforward and play out as expected. And others that provide the twist that keeps the reader engaged and from falling into an "oh that's easy, I know exactly what will happen" way of thinking about the prophecy.

    I have no been up since 2 am, so I hope this makes as much sense as I think it does.
     
  13. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Lore Master

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    The "child of X" could mean the child could be a product of a particular society, a major event, a place, an organisation or someone other than a biological parent.

    The term "end your life" could refer to the symbolic end of a life rather than the literal end of a life. A king who is overthrown, a person who loses their job or a family who lose everything but the clothes on their backs in a natural disaster would think their lives were over and, symbolically, it may well be.

    The most effective prophecies though are the ones where the symbolism used could be interpreted in more than one way. If there is a gap of many decades or centuries since the time the prophecy was written the meaning of the symbolism or language may have changed. There could even be an implication that more than one person could be the person spoken of in the prophecy.

    For example, in Hinduism and Buddhism the swastika is a revered religious symbol but in the West it will always be associated with the Nazis, genocide and racism so whether the use of the swastika as a symbol in a prophecy is seen as a good or bad sign largely depends on who wrote it, when the prophecy was written and who is reading the prophecy.

    One example of how words can change their meaning is the word "virgin". In modern English it means a person who hasn't had sex. When Jesus was giving his Sermon on the Mount it simply meant a young woman who wasn't betrothed.

    An example of a case where more than one person could be the potential "chosen one" is found In the TV cartoon series Kim Possible. In this show the villain Monkey Fist believes he is the Monkey King of prophecy and he organises his life around the notion that he is the chosen one. However when Ron Stoppable is granted monkey powers he also becomes a contender for that exalted role.
     
  14. Firefly

    Firefly Journeyman

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    Yes.

    I like what you point out about how sometimes you do want to play parts of it straightforward. Prophecies can be a very effective foreshadowing too.
    It's kind of a double edged sword though, because if you DO have a major prophecy, everything in it has to be payed off. I don't know about every reader, but if I a character in a book I was reading was foretold to die and then didn't, I would probably be annoyed at the author.
    Of course, that's not to say it can't be done, but it's definitely something to be very careful of.
    I actually am currently reading a book that has that exact thing happen, and makes it work, and I think the two things the author does to make sure it's still satisfying to the reader are that he makes the reader REALLY NOT want that character to die, and he goes far enough with the actual death that it doesn't feel like the prophecy was lying.

    Words that change meaning seem like they could be tricky to deal with, especially in a fantasy world where the cultural context is different.
    I like how you point out the time differences though. I think sometimes I forget that the archaism is sometimes an artifact of actual archaic-ness (is that a word?) as much as prophecy-speech.

    That makes me think a little bit more about where it is your prophecy actually comes from. Yora mentioned above that the 'prophecies' in his stories are more predictions from someone with more information than they are prophecies. (Which is very cool, by the way.) I feel like this is definitely something worth conveying to the story's reader. Whether or not a prophecy is something that can be outsmarted in your universe is going to have a huge effect on reader expectations. It also makes me wonder if this is something that varies from person to person. For me, I feel like my default expectation would be that the prophecy Will Absolutely Happen if none of the characters ever mentioned it, but the second the characters start talking about how sure a prophecy is, even if they are just reaffirming that initial assumption, will make me less sure.

    Also, as an aside, I was super annoyed when I first learned about the history of the Swastika. I'd always thought it was a shame that such a cool symbol meant such horrible things, and when I learned that it USED to have such a positive connotation and the Nazis RUINED it, I was pretty mad. Especially since it was a religious symbol of the people they stole it from. Grrr.

    I really like where your going with the brainstorming on this, Kaiser. This sounds like it's going to be a fun book.
     
  15. Writer’s_Magic

    Writer’s_Magic Mystagogue

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    J Q KaiserJ Q Kaiser I think the best way to write a prophecy is to read some. It doesn’t matter if they are from some fortuneteller or from fantasy book. For example, Rick Riordan—the author of Percy Jackson—is a prophecy maniac. He wrote almost 3 or 4 series about prophecy. And those books are worthy to read!
     
  16. Rose Torres

    Rose Torres Acolyte

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    I just started thinking about prophecy and how to use it in one of my books. I read so many things about the pro's and cons that I am still up in the air about it. I even thought about having the protagonist read it on the wall next to her favorite bar.. Sorry I am not much help, but I was happy to see that people actually do think of prophecy for certain books.
     
  17. Firefly

    Firefly Journeyman

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    I think prophecies get a bad rap because they're a lot of times used only as a plot device to force a character that would otherwise be relatively unimportant into playing a central role in the plot. It's lazy writing-and a cliche, at this point.
    I think if they're used well they can be a very powerful tool, and I don't think readers dislike them nearly as much as some writing teachers would have you believe. Half of my favorite books have prophecies in them.
    What do you mean about having it written on the wall? It sounds to me like you're debating putting it in some type of front matter/epitaph type thing, versus having it show up in-store somewhere in the book, so I'm going to try to respond to that.
    Putting it outside the text can be fine, but I'd probably only do it if the prophecy was a central part of the plot, or if it had to be there for the opening to work. In most cases, I'd advocate for slipping it naturally into the story somewhere, i.e. your tavern example.
     
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  18. Rose Torres

    Rose Torres Acolyte

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    FireflyFirefly ,Thank you for your response. Yes, that is correct. I was thinking of putting the writing in certain places where my character goes often. The Tavern was the main place, but I am debating whether to have the whole prophecy there or just bits. I do not want the prophecy to be the visualization of the story nor dictate how my protagonist or any character should behave. I was moving toward this showing after they have made an action thereby the inscription would appear afterwards, even sometimes just crossed out and something else appears. Maybe it even changes as they read it if something else changes. There is only one part that will not yield, (have not figured that out yet) and the development or rather realization of this is seen late (so I am thinking right now). Anyway any thoughts are appreciated. I have thick skin, so please don't worry about hurting my feelings.
     
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