One of the most common tropes in fantasy storytelling, as well as fictional storytelling in general, is the prophecy. It’s a useful tool; with it, you can foreshadow the events to come, more easily spur your characters into motion, and create some easy drama. How do the characters interpret the prophecy? How do they react to those interpretations?
Unfortunately, it’s not an all-powerful tool. A poorly written prophecy can hurt a story more than help it. If you’re not subtle enough, you can blow any potential surprises. The audience will start looking at the beats of the story like a checklist from the prophecy rather than enjoying the story itself. Cohere to it too tightly and the story feels restricted. Don’t cohere to it enough and it may as well not even be there. For such a simple tool, it can be surprisingly difficult to use.
Personally, I can’t stand prophecies. I find them to be too distracting. It’s rare that I find a book that properly utilizes this trope. I much prefer a story that doesn’t bother with this future-telling shit and just focus on telling a compelling narrative.
It doesn’t help that a lot of them come out of nowhere. This is a problem in a lot of long-running series. The writers run out of ideas for how to make the plot go forward, so they slap together a prophecy and act like it was there the whole time. As such, the prophecy becomes a pointless MacGuffin that doesn’t do anything to change the narrative. That, or they detail exactly what you knew was going to happen already; in case you didn’t know that the hero was going to defeat the genocidal villain, let’s write a prophecy telling you that’s going to happen!
Not to say that a prophecy can’t be done well. If executed properly, it can serve as the basis for some seriously compelling drama. But you need to be willing to be flexible. And more importantly: you need to know how to lie without lying.
A good prophecy isn’t just a subtle hint at what’s to come. It’s also a powerful tool for setting up and subverting expectations. With it, you can subtly misdirect your reader while simultaneously giving them a hint about the events to come. You can make them think that one beat of the story aligns with an important line from the prophecy only to later reveal that nope, that wasn’t it, it was actually this. In a single moment, you can entirely flip the reader’s understanding of the story.
Let’s look at a simple but effective answer in the first Percy Jackson book: ‘The Lightning Thief’. When Percy first starts his journey towards the Underworld, he is given a prophecy outlining the journey ahead. It warns him of many things, most worrisome of them all being a betrayal. For the whole story, this fear nags at Percy in the back of his mind. Then, halfway through, he meets Ares, the God of War.
Ares seems to meet the bill for the traitor. He gave Percy a helpful item only for it later to bite Percy in the ass. It’s revealed later that he was the one who stole Zeus’s lightning to try and incite war among the gods, thus betraying Olympus. He must be our traitor, right? So Percy takes him down and bang! That’s the end of it.
Except not quite. Just when Percy thinks it’s all over and he starts getting comfortable, he finds himself paralyzed alone with a venomous scorpion. Remember Luke, that cool older brother guy from the beginning of the story that helped him out? Turns out, he was the traitor the whole time! Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. He feels abandoned by his father and the gods, so he swears vengeance and betrays everyone that trusts him.
Suddenly, our whole understanding of the story transforms. All those scenes of Luke being a cool, helpful guy suddenly change from a comforting scene to a dark one. Our understanding of his character is completely different. Plus, it opens up tons of new threads for the story going forward! What will Luke do next? How will Percy and the others react to it? Because of this one twist, which was born entirely from the prophecy, a ton of new possibilities are open to the writer! So many that the reader can’t possibly predict what will happen next!
This is what a properly executed prophecy looks like. It’s used to hint at the twist to come. Then it uses audience expectations to throw them off the trail without flat out lying to the audience. Rather than acting as a stone that keeps the plot from twisting, it served as the basis for the most important, groundbreaking twists in the story.
With this mindset, you can find some new, creative opportunities for your fantasy story! Suddenly, the prophecy becomes an untrustworthy narrator to the story, meant to try and sway the audience the wrong way. If properly executed, you could turn your reader into a paranoid hunter for details!
Look at the other books in the Percy Jackson series. Each one has its own prophecy with its own twists. The first book set a precedent: prophecies are reliable but tricky. So, for each one going forward, the audience knew not to take them at face value. They started looking at the finer details of everything as if trying to sniff out the twist.
This is the power of a good prophecy. It can be difficult to harness, but the results are well worth the effort. Still, I prefer to avoid them altogether. Given how often they aren’t done well, nothing takes me out of a story faster than the word ‘prophecy’.
Tied with gibberish words. Like ‘ Bene Gesserit’.