How To Make A Prophecy Picture

I really, really hate writing prophecies in my stories. For one thing, I suck at them. For another thing... well, actually, Reason Number One pretty much sums it up. I just hate admitting that I don't do something just because I'm bad at it. Like basketball.

But enough about what I fail at. The reason I write prophecies into my fiction even though I hate them is because, well, oracular statements (yeah, you can tell I've been abusing my thesaurus here) just open so many doors. They're fun to work with, even though they're a bitch to write.

Here are some general rules that I've come to live by:
#1—keep it short
#2—don't be too specific
#3—make it vaguely ominous
#4—symbolism is your boss
#5—make it flow

For Rule #1, it's more of a matter of professional pride. Sort of. Basically, a long prophecy tells too much information. When you're writing, you want to leave your readers wondering what happens next, rather then basically giving them an outline of the entire story and then expecting them to keep reading even though they know exactly what's going to happen. That's just boring. And not very intelligent. So keep it short and sweet. See the example? It's only three lines long. Admittedly, it tells nine things about the subject of the prophecy, but none of those things are longer than three words.

For Rule #2, it ties into Rule #1. Long prophecies tend to be more specific. Specific prophecies tend to tell everyone too much information about what's going to happen. Give your readers the benefit of doubt when they read your work. Having your hero desperately scramble to avoid being killed by his best friend, as was foretold, only to have it turn out that the prophecy was referring to the hero's brother... that would be interesting.

The example above is pretty good, in my opinion. Admittedly, all three statements contained in that particular prophecy refer to a single person, but it's actually difficult to tell what's going to happen. You know that the subject is going to be some sort of benefactor to someone from “deliverer” and a type of doctor from “healer of men”. “Chosen of Eris” suggests someone that causes chaos, however, if you know your Greek mythology, and “red maid” could mean all manner of things—from a person with red hair or wears red clothing, or a murderer, or someone who is just generally bloody. The third item on that list of suggestions contradicts “healer of men” which in turn contradicts “black heart” because doctors are traditionally seen as caring, benevolent figures.

So basically you have a prophetic statement that's very hard to interpret unless you have hindsight on your side. Which I wholeheartedly approve of, really. “Prophet of bones” and “white hand” are relevant, but are more for the sake of Rule #5 than anything else.

Rule #3 is very simple. It ties into one of the basic rules of writing, which is this: conflict, conflict, conflict. Your basic story is a protagonist having a goal, pursuing it, facing obstacles along the way, and arriving at a win, lose, or draw. Tension and danger make things more interesting and keep your readers reading. And possibly writers writing.

But I digress. If you want this rule in laymen's terms, put a warning in there somewhere. Remember Rule #2 when you do this. Look at the prophecy that I made up there. Check out the last line. If the subject is a generally nice person who tries to do the right thing, that last line is very strange—but it's a prophecy, so one way or another it's going to come true and the subject is going to become a traitor.

That conflict, of a nice person having a black heart and becoming a traitor, will spark interest in readers. It'll make them wonder at the transformation that the prophecy's subject will undergo to reach that stage.

Rule #4 is something that causes me both migraines and smiles. Because I just love symbolism to death. When I have to figure it out in other peoples' writing it gives me headaches, but I like writing it. Symbolism can be just about anything—the Victorian language of flowers, classical references, or simply a repeated motif that's prevalent throughout the story. On this subject I can offer you very little advice, other than to take what you want to say, think of everything possibly associated with it, and then to pick one of those things and say that instead. That's symbolism in a nutshell.

For an example, let's choose that statement I made in the example-prophecy. “Prophet of bones” is what I'm looking at. The subject of the prophecy actually has a name, which is Cassandra. Remember what I said about classical references? The original Cassandra was found in Homer's Iliad and was one of the daughters of Priam, the king of Troy. She could foresee the future, and predicted Troy's downfall. “Prophet of bones” indeed.

For another one, you could go with lilies. Because flowers are cool. Lilies are white, and white symbolizes purity. Purity can sometimes also mean youth and innocence. Also, flowers and plant life symbolize prosperity and cleanliness. But lilies also mean death. You see a lot of them at funerals.

I could go on. Traditionally I use symbolism for naming my characters (Ex: Valerie Barbara Read = valiant, barbaric, red-haired) but prophecies are really good places for symbolism too. This ties into Rule #2.

Rule #5 is actually one of the most important. Prophecies just sound amazing when chanted, and for chanting you need rhythm. Not necessarily rhyming, but certainly rhythm, and God I hate spelling those words. I don't know why I hate them, I just do. Anyway, a good A-A-B-C-C-B rhyming pattern is excellent for ballads and chanting, though it requires a good deal of thought and breaks Rule #1 all to pieces.

I suck at poetry just as much as I suck at basketball. If you want to make your prophecy rhyme, do it on your own. I honestly have no advice whatsoever to give you. Moving on...

Once more, examine the example. Note that each of the lines has four parts. The first part of each line is “you shall be”. This doesn't have any variations, even slightly. The second part is “the <color> <noun relating to the human body>” I think that “red maid” is a slight deviation from the pattern, but it doesn't disrupt the flow too badly. The last part is “the <occupational noun> of <noun/pronoun>”. Each line follows a specific pattern, which gives the prophecy flow and allows it to be read out loud without too many ear-jarring breaks. If you suck at rhyming as much as I do, take comfort in repetition.

Rule #6
This rule is probably the most important one of all, which is why I didn't include it on this list. It's very simple: go your own way. What I have told you is all relevant to my writing and, I think, generally good advice. However, I am not omnipotent and cannot say that my rules cover everything. If you think it would be better to disregard my advice and go your own way, do so. I'm not going to say that your prophecies suck because of that.

I hope that I've helped, though, at least a little bit.

Here is a list of oracular statements from the Pythia of Delphi:…

And here is a site pertaining to the language of flowers, for that symbolism:…
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