Dramatic prophecies, sometimes delivered in poetic form. They’re a large part of many works of fiction (especially fantasy). Sometimes they work… and sometimes they really, really don’t. Here’s my views on how prophecy in fiction should be done.
Before we begin, note that this is only my opinion, not some explicit set of rules. This is writing. There are no rules. As a great pirate captain once said they’re “more what you’d call guidelines.”
There are three key rules to the “how not to” part. The first is that the prophecy shouldn’t take away the sense of peril. There shouldn’t be a prophecy telling us everything will work out okay at the end and the hero will defeat the villain.
The second, and more important, is that it shouldn’t take away a character’s agency. Characters should do things because they want to do them, not because “I guess it was prophesied.” Your hero should be a hero because of their own convictions, not because people told them to go be a hero.
Many writers counter this by making the destined hero either reluctant or full of self-doubt. These are excellent solutions that fix the problem. Unfortunately, so many people have done this that it’s now a sort of cliché.
The third, in my opinion, is saying the prophecy won’t happen because people fight against it. This sort of defeats the whole purpose of having a prophecy in the first place. Again, stories like this can work, but I find that generally they don’t.
So how should a prophecy work?
The best prophecies have an unexpected twist to them. They seem to foretell one thing, but thanks to cleverly ambiguous wording, they lead to another. The best example of this I can think of is Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (The US trailer for the movie adaptation with Fassbender is what inspired me to finally write this post.)
In Macbeth, everything the witches tell him is true, but it isn’t the whole truth. Macbeth acts on the information from the prophecies, but he always does so based on his own desires and wants rather than “I suppose I have to.” The prophecy lulls him into believing that he cannot fail and that everything will succeed. Clever wording enables the prophecies to be true, but not in a way that would be expected.
The other kind of prophecy story that works well is the story of a person fighting against fate only to fail. The best example of this is Oedipus Rex, where everything Oedipus does to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother leads to him killing his father and marrying his mother. This can be a clever story. The problem is that like the reluctant/self-doubting destined hero story, it’s been done quite a few times and it’s hard (but not impossible) to come up with an original take on the idea.
This isn’t just a fantasy thing. In recent years, these story structures have been worked into science fiction in the form of time travel. Instead of fighting against a future someone has predicted, heroes fight to prevent events in the future that they know will occur. This is where the “Oh, the prophecy doesn’t count” explanation tends to get used the most as “bad” futures are wiped with no consequences.
I’ve also seen other genres use “ambiguous” prophecies that aren’t explicitly true or supernatural but might be and have a way of coming true.
I hope this has been useful to someone and isn’t just me rambling in walls of text. Remember, in writing there are no rules, so feel free to disregard my advice or disagree with me. If you think a story is strong, it doesn’t matter how many guidelines you break to write it.
My own short mystery story involving prophecy, Spiral: A Death Foretold as a significant element is available from Amazon Kindle. Click Here to Buy
If anyone has any feedback (positive or negative) on this post, feel free to engage in a conversation in the comments.