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No, I'm not actually asking you to tell me how to predict the future!

Several pieces of fiction I've read/watched recently have prophecies. One of my favourites is

On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a Question will be asked, a question that must never, ever be answered. - Doctor Who

In the story the viewers know massive amounts of this, we know the question, the planet but the final story was a real surprise.

What are the best techniques to create an interesting prophecy which keeps the reader guessing until it is revealed?

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Other things to consider: Is the prophecy immutable? (that is, will it come true no matter what the protagonists or antagonists do?) What happens if it's thwarted? Could more than one person or event fulfill the prophecy? Will your prophecy have two forks? (If X happens, the good guys win; if Y happens, the bad guys do) –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 10 at 9:57
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@LaurenIpsum I quite like prophecies which do end up coming true but not as the characters expect - but that's personal preference –  Liath Jun 10 at 12:50
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Something else I thought of: are the good guys and bad guys working on two different sets of prophecies? David Eddings did this in the Belgariad. Both sets talked about the same events, favoring different outcomes depending on whether Good or Evil was making the prophecy. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 10 at 14:28
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@LaurenIpsum This is related to time travel conception (a prophecy is just information time travel). With one immutable time line, the prophecy will come true. A mutable time line (or parallel universes) makes the prophecy a warning of what had happened without the prophecy. There is also the question of whether the prophecy was a true vision and faithfully passed on. Ancient prophecies can suffer from copyist error and mistranslation (word meanings/connotations can change). –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 10 at 14:48
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Probably the best twist on the concept of prophecies in literature that I've seen comes from the last two books of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. It turns out that the prophecy of the Hero of Ages (SPOILER ALERT!) had been manipulated and warped over the ages by the dark god it was supposed to be warning people about, to the point where those who attempted to follow it would end up setting him free and enabling him to bring about the apocalypse. Oops! –  Mason Wheeler Jun 10 at 23:35

2 Answers 2

up vote 16 down vote accepted

As usually with all riddles, start from the end - what the prophecy describes.

Write or at least plan thoroughly the story, leaving a placeholder where the prophecy has to go.

Then sum up the events that are to be prophesized, actors involved, their role, the effects. Try to get that into about the size you want your prophecy to take.

And then get to convoluting it. Start replacing names with metaphors, involving deeds or characteristics of the subjects involved, you may consider writing it as a rhymed riddle, make sure to obfuscate, give it double meanings, good if the second meanings are deceiving - match both the actual subject and some completely different subject that still has a prominent place in the story.

Depending if you want the prophecy, or a part of it to be understandable from moment one, involve factors that are already known at the time the prophecy is encountered. The parts that are to remain unclear should reference factors either not known to the reader at the time, or not yet fully understood. Nevertheless, spice it up with a few grains of clarity, something the reader can understand readily and grasp as obviously relevant - say, alternate name of a place, or an obvious, unique trait of a significant character. If the whole prophecy is a mystical mumbo-jumbo without a single good hint, it will not be attractive.

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Perfect answer. The first example which leaps to mind is Prof. Trelawney's about The Chosen One who would defeat Voldemort (which could have applied to Harry or Neville). The extra fillip on that prophecy was that Voldemort's reaction to it actually created the one who would take him down. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 10 at 9:54
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Realizing the prophecy by trying to avoid it is a classic of prophecies. Just look in the bible, and ancient mythologies. Another ingredient is ambiguity, but preferably not too obvious. –  babou Jun 10 at 11:17
    
@babou What prophecy in the Bible was paradoxically fulfilled by someone trying to prevent it? I can't think of an example of that. –  Jay Jun 10 at 13:54
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High improbability/impossibility is another common aspect (e.g., Macbeth: "none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth", "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him"). The believability of a prophecy (provenance and plausibility) can be significant both to those who would like it to be true and those who want it to be false. Lord Macbeth's simple interpretation might be scorned by readers (everyone knows prophecies are twisty), but such "sophistication" can be exploited by realizing a simple interpretation or twisting the clearest part. –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 10 at 14:19
    
@PaulA.Clayton That's a great one. Also brings to mind Glorfindel's prophecy of the death of the Witch-King of Angmar: "He shall not fall by the hand of man." Cue Merry the hobbit stabbing him behind the knee and Éowyn ripping off her helmet to shout, "I am no man!" before putting a sword through his ghost head. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 10 at 14:30

@SF has given a good answer. A couple of other thoughts that occur to me:

You seem to be saying that you want a prophecy that is cryptically worded. Depending on the point of the story, one could have a very clear prophecy, like, "You will have seven years of abundant harvest followed by seven years of famine." If the point is to show that the prophet really does have a special connection to God or has magical powers or whatever, making it clear and unambiguous would do that better than something cryptic.

If you want it to be cryptic, presumably so that figuring out what it means is an interesting puzzle, something I'd carefully consider is whether you want it to be so vague that no matter what happens, someone could say that it came true. Like there's the famous prophecy of the Oracle at Delphi to King Croesus. He asked if he should attack Persia, and the Oracle said that if he did, he would "destroy a great empire". So he attacked and lost the war badly. And so the true believers in the Oracle declared that what the Oracle meant was that the empire that he destroyed "would be his own". But of course if he had won the war, they would have said, See, the Oracle was right, he destroyed Persia. Or like those psychics who offer to help solve crimes and then make statements like, "The letter R will be important." Then when the case is solved the psychic can find something in there that has the letter R in it -- some geographical feature near where the body was found may start with an R, or some store nearby, or the first, middle, or last name of the person who found the body, or some object near the body, etc. There could be dozens or hundreds of people, places, and things that are in some way related to solving the crime, and just by shear probabilities one of them should have a name that starts with any given letter. If I read such a prophecy in a story, then unless the point is to say that no matter what happened the prophet could claim to have been right, I'd find that very unsatisfying.

I think the ideal mysterious riddle would be one that sounds very cryptic and could mean anything when you first hear it, but when you finally get to the solution, it suddenly sounds very clear and explicit.

Oh, and maybe this is obvious: No matter how cryptic or mysterious the prophecy to the reader, make sure that YOU know exactly what it means when you write it. Don't just make up something bizarre and think you're going to figure out what it means later. This is the age of word processors: if something you put in your prophecy in chapter 1 turns out to just not work out by the time you get to chapter 20, go back and change it. Any mystery in a story you write should be baffling and mysterious to the reader, not to the writer. You should know where you're going.

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