Adding a prophecy to your story can add a feeling of destiny around the characters and events of the plot. If you’re not careful though, you’re going to run into issues and plot holes. How do you prevent these problems when writing prophecies?
You can use a prophecy in your writing to act as set “rules” about the future, as rumors about certain plot points or characters, or as hints and puzzles for the readers. Let’s go over some guidelines to keep in mind while you’re writing your prophecy.
A reason for the prophecy
Before you actually start writing one, consider the reason(s) you’re including a prophecy in your story at all. Adding a prophecy can add a lot of plotholes if you’re not careful. You also have to be careful to be original, as prophecies are sort of one of the go-to tropes in fantasy. That is definitely not to say you shouldn’t include one; just think about the reasons you are.
A prophecy can serve as a puzzle for the readers to solve throughout the entire novel, or alternatively, as a twist when its true meaning is revealed. It can also add a lot to the atmosphere of your story, as well as serve as motivation for the characters, if they are aware of it. Furthermore, it can act as a weak point for your antagonist (or any other characters for that matter) – if they rely too much on one interpretation of a prophecy, they might overlook the true meaning, causing their eventual downfall. Finally, a prophecy can provide a lot of depth for your worldbuilding. However, for that to be the case, you need to carefully consider every aspect of your world the prophecy is going to influence; more on that later.
Overall, definitely include a prophecy in your story if you want to, but make sure to thoroughly think through the reasons you are including it. And keep in mind all the guidelines in this article to try and avoid as many issues as possible.
The first thing you should consider while writing your prophecy is how much it makes sense within the boundaries of your world. Does your world include magic? If so, consider if your magic system allows users to see and attempt to predict the future. How would they see the future, and how precise would their prophecies be? If you’re struggling with building your magic system, check out my article on magic.
If your world does not have magic, or the magic system does not allow for truthful prophecies, you can still include one, but you have to be careful about it. People will still make claims about the future, either simply guessing, or predicting events based on them having more information than other people. If you include a prophecy in your world without magic, and it turns out to be true, make sure to consider how the person coming up with the prophecy had enough information to predict the future.
A prophecy of any kind immediately raises questions about its origin. Because of this, you have to consider how the prophecy came to be; whether via magic, pure guesses, or the careful manipulation of information by certain people, make sure the existence of a prophecy is consistent with everything else you’re saying about your world in your writing.
The phrasing of the prophecy
I would recommend, while writing the first draft of your story, using a placeholder instead of the actual prophecy. After you’ve written the story out, come back to the prophecy and phrase it around the events that happen during and around the end of your story. You can then go back and include some foreshadowing and hints created around the specific phrasing into the story. The prophecy should be more of a puzzling yet solvable mystery, rather than just a vague riddle that suddenly makes sense at the end.
Sometimes, it’s appropriate to write the prophecy as a poem. This adds an air of elegance and seriousness to the prophecy. However, if you chose that to be the case, you have to consider why, in-world, would the prophecy be phrased that way. If this prophecy has been around for generations, being passed from mouth to mouth, the poetical form would most probably be lost over time, corrupting the prophecy into a more simple form. On the other hand, if the prophecy was preserved well, for example in an old, long-lost book, the original form would remain, as there wasn’t enough time and iterations of it being spoken to corrupt it.
When it comes to the words themselves: try to first write out the meaning of the prophecy in the most literal sense, and then start replacing words, phrases, and sections with metaphors, vague explanations, nicknames, etc.
While the prophecy could (and arguably should) be enigmatic, consider leaving one or two clues the readers will immediately understand (or will think they understand) – it can be discouraging for a reader if a prophecy seems like just a jumbled mess of sentences they don’t understand. On the other hand, you could make your prophecy as clear as day, without any vague metaphors and misdirections; it all depends on the reason you’re including the prophecy, and on the in-world explanations for its origins.
Impact on your story and your worldbuilding
After you have drafted your prophecy, consider what impact it will actually have on the world around it. Who knows about it? If the prophecy is widely-known, how many people actually believe it will come true? Which characters try to stop it from fulfilling, and why? On the other hand, who wants it to come true? Think about how people hear about the prophecy. How was it even initially discovered? Maybe it’s depicted as a series of ancient paintings, or it was found as a story etched onto a wall of a temple. All of these tiny details will help you make the prophecy more believable for your readers, as characters in your world will have realistic reactions to it.
Ask yourself as many questions about your prophecy as you possibly can. Try to figure out how its existence influences the culture of your world, its characters, and their motivations. It’s your job to convince the readers the prophecy is actually concretely set in your world and that it works within all the confines the world creates for it.
Ultimately, it’s your choice whether to include a prophecy in your story and doing so is no easy task. You have to figure out the contents of the prophecy itself, its phrasing, and the impact of it on your world and characters, while making sure to stay consistent with the rules of your worldbuilding.
However, if you do succeed, you can add motivations to your characters while crafting an air of mystery and plenty of foreshadowing into your story. So give it a try! If you feel like you’d like some feedback, feel free to reach out to me at my email, firstname.lastname@example.org.