1. AJSmith
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    AJSmith Senior Member

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    Prophecy

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by AJSmith, Aug 2, 2011.

    I have seen prophecy as a plot device discussed on here several times as a big no no basically. The reasons given make sense, yet...It is used a LOT, especially in fantasy. I've also seen an equivalent device used more than once, such as fortune telling.

    So, my question are,

    If prophecy is such a weak plot device, why is it used so often?

    Under what circumstances does using prophecy work? Enhance the writing rather than look like a band aid to explain the unexplainable? etc.
     
  2. AJSmith
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    AJSmith Senior Member

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    Though I am asking about this partially because I am debating the value of using prophecy in the YA novel I am working on (which happens to be tied to Greek Mythology and therefore fates, seers, prophecy) - I mostly posted this because I am interested in you opinions as readers...

    Have you read examples of where the use of prophecy worked really well?
    Also, examples of where it was just terrible?
    Why do you think it ends up in published work so often?
    really... any thoughts on the topic are welcome. :)
     
  3. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's used so often because it's easy.

    Of course it should enhance the writing. Every part of a story should enhance the whole.

    Although it's not prose, the webcomic Goblins handles it really well, I think. Young goblins are given their name by a village seer who usually names them after an event in their life.
    One of the goblins is named "Dies-Horribly", which is comedic. But there's another goblin who is called "Saves-a-Fox" who, upon meeting the eponymous fox, kills it. She later finds out that the fox basically had rabies (they called it something else) and it was better off dead, so she did actually save it.

    The Harry Potter usage of it was good too, given that it could have been Neville. It opens up the lore of that world to a shiteload of implications.

    As for why it ends up in published work so often, look at my topmost answer.


    I personally think prophecy isn't that great. Not because it's weak, but because it's annoying. A story where the hero wins via a pre-ordained path is stupid. It doesn't give any faith to the reader.
    That was good about Harry Potter. Harry and Voldemort both had an equal chance to win.
     
  4. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I know Cogito would say something about how anything can be cliche or non-cliche depending on how you write it, and usually that's the case, but I'll be honest here....I hate prophecies.

    I think they're mainly a cop-out: the writer needs to think of a special reason for why the MC is in the position that he/she is in. Why did the MC, not someone else, go on the quest? If the MC can beat the bad guy at the end, why didn't someone more powerful do it years before? Etc.

    Give the character a relatable motivation to step up to the plate and be the hero. This will 1) Flesh out your character and add further development, and 2) nix the need for a plot device. And don't just make the motivation something like "because he has the purest heart of anyone else in the city." Give him or her some real stakes.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Prophecy is a mechanism for foreshadowing. However, prophecy should be at least ambiguous or considered unreliable. The existence of a prophecy presents a good focal point for conflict, too, between those who believe and those who do not.

    A desperate attempt to prevent a prophecy from coming true is also a powerful plot device (read Frank Herbert's Dune, and especially Dune Messiah). The whole essence of Greek tragedy centered around the dire consequences of trying to avoid one's fate.
     
  6. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    ^ That's true for prophecies in general. I got the connotation that we were talking about the type where the hero is the hero simply because he was prophecied to be - i.e. a band of elders sets him on a task that's been assigned to no one else but him, 1000s of years ago, by the writing on some ancient scrolls, and therefore only he can carry through to the end (most likely with his Special Magic Sword and the unbreakable shield of his mother's love..)....

    But even that could have a twist, I suppose. If the "chosen one" is part of a deliberate conspiracy to stop the real hero, or if the "chosen one" dies and a secondary character takes over, or something.
     
  7. TobiasJames
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    TobiasJames Contributing Member

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    I'd echo the point already made that prophecy can be an effective plot device if it's ambiguous, to both the reader and the characters.

    If a prophecy basically lays out the hero's path, which is followed to defeat some age-old evil, then it's a poor use of prophecy as a plot device.

    But consider the hero that discovers a dangerous prophecy and sets out to avoid it, only to discover that it didn't mean what he thought it did and cause other events to be set in motion, and through a series of revelations and twists ends up nearly fulfilling it himself - that's a far more intriguing storyline.
     
  8. Dr.Grid101
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    Dr.Grid101 New Member

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    To me Prophecy plot drive/device are subjective.

    Either you do them right or your don't do them at all or they can become one the worst foreshadowing tools if done poorly. Thus turning the novel or short story into the most blanketed linear plot line with a added touch of uneventful side sub plots that carrier little to no meaning at all, just for the sack of giving the reader something new to follow like throwing a bone to dog (Pisses me off).

    Since the hole or most of what is going to happen is told to you for the most part and the really bad ones don't let you use your imagination to what could or just meant happen.Oh and i hate the really corny uninspired prophecy life cables that tries to hold the overall story together in a failed attempted to make the already horrible, flawed , one dimensional main character or characters more important...when it only makes it worse


    So do none of their things (This is my take and it was covered above in James post) an make it ambiguous and not a hand holding marathon through the whole of the story. Because most if not all readers will spot a half ass prophecy device that is way to noticeable , thus the bad predicable journey will make the reader throw that said book against a wall, along with the other problems that will now arise when using what i call a "inherently ambiguous device" the wrong way.
     
  9. westofthemoon
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    westofthemoon Member

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    I think "prophecy" can potentially be an effective device if it isn't rational or objective, if it is truly Delphic and abstruse--which should work pretty well if you're writing about something to do with Greek Mythology!

    From time to time, you can catch a "Nostradamus" special on the History Channel, and people have linked his "predictions" with Hitler and Napoleon and 9/11 and to the supposed world's end in 2012...for examples you can find a lot of the quatrains of his book online, which allegedly portend famous events in history, albeit in a vague sort of way.

    So, I agree with Dr.Grid101...if you do them right and well, your audience will thank you!
     
  10. AJSmith
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    AJSmith Senior Member

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    It was nice to see the distinction made between the two directions prophecy can take. I have always thought of prophecy as the more ambiguous/ unreliable as opposed to the 'prince charming will slay the dragon', so when I have come across very negative opinion of its use I was a bit confused.

    I definitely see how it could go either way, but I'm glad to see that if done correctly, prophecy could be a good thing too.

    For my WIP, I had actually toyed with the idea of removing the use of prophecy because it is so ambiguous to the characters as well as, I worry, the reader... and some days, me. I know now, from reading options about this, that the ambiguity is desired, but I think it's a fine line. :) Also, my story is so entwined with Greek Mythology that it would feel wrong to me to ignore the prophecy/seer elements.

    I also think that the whole 'chosen one' prophecy stuff is dangerous not only in that it creates a weak plot, but also because it makes the MC (if the chosen one), harder to relate to. If the MC is a chosen one, he can't very well be anyone, and therefore...wouldn't the reader have a hard time putting themselves in the shoes of the MC?
     
  11. AJSmith
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    AJSmith Senior Member

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    It sounds like it can also maybe be a focal point for conflict between those who want it to happen and those who do not. :) ??
     
  12. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think prophecies in themselves are infinitely uninteresting. I basically think the whole concept is as full of bogus as astrology and couldn't for a second take it seriously, not even in fiction. The multitude of more or less rational ways people might react to them or subconsciously fulfill them, however -- now that can be interesting. It all comes back to character.
     
  13. MatthewR
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    MatthewR Member

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    Terry Goodkind is my go-to for this topic.
    While can be an easy cop-out, it can also be a development piece, a twisted meaning on the words that don't seem to make sense until after the character's fate has been accidently fulfilled.


    ***spoiler*** EXAMPLE *** SPOILER ***

    goodkind's Sword of Truth series ends with Richard evading for nearly 3 books a "twin fork" in a prophecy one which ends in a prophetic "black hole" where no more prophecies exist to which the experts all believe is the end of existence. And another where prophecies continue.
    Rather than choose one path however he ends up being able to fulfill both fork simultaneously thus giving the reader and unexpected twist and realizing the truth of the prophecy in a backwards fashion.

    Don't know if that helps, but I love Goodkind's take on prophecies and while I don't personally use them I feel they can be done effectively as long as they are cryptically written enough to leave room for surprises.
     
  14. teacherayala
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    teacherayala Contributing Member

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    Prophecy is as old as Oedipus Rex, so I wouldn't discount it completely. Also, I see a lot of Messiah motifs in fantasy, usually who is hinted at in prophecy beforehand.
     
  15. Sundae
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    Sundae Contributing Member

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    I like mystery prophesies, ones where we are constantly guessing as to who the prophecy relates to or what it truly means. I also like the ambiguous/unreliable prophesy, or the ones that can go in several directions.

    Usually, it's not that the prophecy or use of it that is a cliche, but rather, the approach and execution of it. For example, even if your story didn't employ a classical approach to the likes of said person being destined to destroy an evil sorcerer, many people are still employing a perspective that regardless of prophecy being explicitly stated, the perspective often forces the author's MC or an important character to still produce the desired outcome regardless. From what I have see, people get lost in the workings of a prophecy, they tend give too much power to a force that in itself is very subtle and often times a thing that goes on in the background going unnoticed. When you start putting emphasis and bringing the workings of the prophecy to the forefront of the story, I think you go against the very nature of the device and that is when it does become cliche, because your character motives no longer belong to the characters themselves but to the prophecy.

    When a prophesy is used, it is the thing that loosely ties a novel together, it is the unconscious movement of the plot in a direction to fulfill the prophecy. Prophecies to me can give great double meanings to a plot, it doesn't even have to directly relate to the plot and can be a great device to tie several unrelated plots together for even a bigger meaning that the characters in the book haven't even realized yet.
     
  16. Sundae
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    Sundae Contributing Member

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    I like mystery prophesies, ones where we are constantly guessing as to who the prophecy relates to or what it truly means. I also like the ambiguous/unreliable prophesy, or the ones that can go in several directions.

    Usually, it's not that the prophecy or use of it that is a cliche, but rather, the approach and execution of it. For example, even if your story didn't employ a classical approach to the likes of said person being destined to destroy an evil sorcerer, many people are still employing a perspective that regardless of prophecy being explicitly stated, the perspective often forces the author's MC or an important character to still produce the desired outcome regardless. From what I have see, people get lost in the workings of a prophecy, they tend give too much power to a force that in itself is very subtle and often times a thing that goes on in the background going unnoticed. When you start putting emphasis and bringing the workings of the prophecy to the forefront of the story, I think you go against the very nature of the device and that is when it does become cliche, because your character motives no longer belong to the characters themselves but to the prophecy.

    When a prophesy is used, it is the thing that loosely ties a novel together, it is the unconscious movement of the plot in a direction to fulfill the prophecy. Prophecies to me can give great double meanings to a plot, it doesn't even have to directly relate to the plot and can be a great device to tie several unrelated plots together for even a bigger meaning that the characters in the book haven't even realized yet.
     
  17. Dr.Grid101
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    Dr.Grid101 New Member

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    dp sundae
     
  18. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Prophecy can take many forms. It need not be the ancient legend, in a world where such legends generally prove out, nor need it be made by a psychic with an Aura of Truth. It can also be the crazy superstitious aunt everyone ignores, but whose predictions make one of your characters uneasy. Or it could be the scientist with a theory that most of his contemporaries scoff at as contrary to accepted wisdom. It could be the mysterious words "Bad Wolf" appearing seemingly everywhere in time and space. It need not by at all clear just what is being prophesied, just that some kind of patterm suggests something is about to break. And it need not come to pass - it can generate doubt and tension, yet come to nothing.

    So don't dismiss prophesy as tiresome and predictable, and outmoded. Get creative with it!
     

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