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prophecies

in my mind, the biggest problem with plots that revolve around prophecy is that you immediately write yourself into a corner.

traditionally, prophecies are written in such a way to imply that they come from a force of a god or the universe or something similar, something which even the most powerful of men cannot defy. I tend to think that as story devices they used to work fine in times when mysticism was more common and held in awe, so there was this sense of tension - would the prophecy come true? there's no way that that could happen, right? And then it inevitably does, everyone is amazed, and the prophecy pats itself on the back. probably from the future.

These days i tend to think that the use of prophecy as a serious plot device is a difficult sort of trap to break out of. Using it has the danger of making the story predictable if the prophecy comes to pass or unrealistic and cliché if the prophecy is broken. Making the prophecy vague so as to obscure its fulfillment means that a lot of time is wasted in the story trying to predict what it means, something that the characters have to do because to ignore it would look stupid, and never mind that the prophecy has to be such that the reader shouldn't be able to stay too far ahead of the characters without making the characters seem, well, stupid. But making the prophecy vague enough that the reader can't predict it any better than the characters makes the prophecy pretty useless, so why use it at all.

Doctor Who's series six suffered from this, with the whole Astronaut killing the Doctor thing. Both solutions to that plot device - the fake solution where the Astronaut changed the Fixed Point and the Real Solution having to do with the Tesselecta - were huge cop-outs in my mind, the first because of the aforementioned "defying destiny" thing and the second because the solution invalidated certain things you saw in the first episode (ask yourself how much it makes sense that a dying Tesselecta thingy would exhibit the same regeneration effects as a Time Lord).

Not that prophecy can't be used well. i guess it's more how it's used as a tool and how important it is to the bigger picture of the plot. In Steven Brust's Khaavren Romances, there's at one point a prophecy that Morrolan is going to acquire a "black wand." Readers of the Vlad series already know about Morrolan and Blackwand so this isn't a surprise to us, but it works anyway because his acquisition of Blackwand in the Khaavren books doesn't drive more than a very small piece of the larger complex plot puzzle. The series, even the book isn't about Blackwand. It's not even really about Morrolan.

Compare that to, say, David Eddings's The Belgariad where the whole five book series revolves around fulfilling the prophecy - the plot is the prophecy and everything leading to it.

I guess in a way i see prophecy in the same way that i see 12-tone music. I'm not a fan of 12-tone pieces, particularly those that use rigid rhythmic structures to complement the tone structures, but i do think that 12-tone musical techniques work well as an aspect of a piece of music, a tool that can be used to inform the bigger picture of the piece more successfully. I suppose in a way that's also how i feel about love stories, but that's probably an entirely separate discussion.

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