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Prayers, Promises and Prophecies
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
November 15, 2012
People are intrigued by forecasts about the future. Because of this fascination, stories brim with prayers, promises and prophecies. This column describes ways to use each to move your fiction forward and to enhance your readers' entertainment.
The first definition of prayer at http://www.thefreedictionary.com is: "A reverent petition made to God, a god, or another object of worship." The definitions continue, but this suffices.
A prayer offered by a character can serve several purposes in a story. First, if your character Joanna is making a point to pray for something, then we have a good idea what she wants (if she is praying for something that she does not want that is interesting as well). Her desire helps define the character and her priorities.
Second, the ritual surrounding the prayer can show us the religion and the society, and Joanna's relationship to these things. Third, we learn a lot about Joanna's attitude towards her god(s), another interesting character trait. How deep is her faith relative to those around her? There's an expression that there are no atheists in foxholes, meaning that under extreme stress, everyone appeals to the divine for help (a group, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, opposes the use of this phrase).
Fourth, a prayer sets off or emphasizes a thread in your story. As the storyteller, you get to decide how Joanna's prayer is answered. We'll return to this subject later.
The Free Online Dictionary defines a promise as "A declaration assuring that one will or will not do something; a vow."
Promises are another great way to move your story along. A promise often pertains to something a character does not want to do, or something a character will have difficulty doing. Hence promises are a great source of tension.
Promises can be made solemnly, with oaths and rituals -- another opportunity for your storytelling.
A promise tends to be between two of your characters, giving you a way to add depth to their relationship. A promise is interesting in that it shows both characters' values -- and how much they value each other. If your main character is making the promise, how sincere is he? If your main character is depending on the promise being kept, how much faith does he have in the one making it?
Then, of course, there is the question as to whether the promise should be kept or not. Again, we'll return to this later.
Unlike prayers and promises, prophecies are less a part of everyday life, so let's delve deeper into the Free Online Dictionary's definitions. A prophecy is: "(a) An inspired utterance of a prophet, viewed as a revelation of divine will; or (b) A prediction of the future, made under divine inspiration; or (c) Such an inspired message or prediction transmitted orally or in writing." There's more, of course -- there's always more! -- but for now that will do.
If you're planning to use prophecies in your story, you should take advantage of them to develop a source of prophecy which is interesting and entertaining. There are many methods of incorporating prophecies: prophets; rituals such as reading entrails, tea leaves and casting lots; watching the skies for birds and lightning; and sacred texts are but a few. Of course if you're writing historical fiction you should build on whatever was actually used in your period.
Poetry or prose? With prophecies, you can have fun with the form and use words and phrases outside your usual vocabulary. In our Tapestry of Bronze series, most of the prophecies are written in verse. Despite holding a poetry contest at our website, I've never felt comfortable composing it, so my co-author Alice does most of the rhymes. I must warn you that with poetry you take a chance. A reader confessed to me that he skips over poems whenever he can and I am sure he is not alone. You may not understand how readers can ignore any of your carefully crafted words, but they do. In one sense this is understandable; they have picked up your work expecting prose and may be averse to reading verse.
When you insert prayers, promises and prophecies into your story, you create many opportunities for plot and character development.
Is the prophecy used to make decisions? If so, the prophecy may be as ironically cruel, as the Delphic Oracle that caused Oedipus to leave his Corinthian parents (who had in truth adopted him) and go to Thebes, where he ended up marrying his biological mother.
Consider, too how your characters feel about prayers, promises and prophecies. Do they rely on them being fulfilled? Or do they scorn them? Remember ill-fated Cassandra, who was cursed with the gift of being able to see the future but never being believed when she prophesied (I always wonder why, after she made several accurate predictions, those around her did not accord her more respect -- but that's a point for another discussion). Other characters may manipulate the prophecies themselves or the events that follow, to make it look as if the gods favor their actions. In other words, they cheat.
Another approach is to have the characters, and possibly the readers, forget most of the prayers, the promises and the prophecies. They may be so caught up in the action that they barely notice when events start coming true. A twist on this is for the predictions to be fulfilled -- but not in a manner that anyone expected. In prayers, promises and prophecies, the actual words can be very important! It's a case of cosmic fine print.
That leads to an important question: should the prayers, promises and prophecies in your stories come true?
Certainly in real life prayers, promises and prophecies do not all come true. Enemies at war both pray for victory, but both sides cannot claim success. Life, alas, is full of broken promises. As for prophecies, how often have your fortune cookies and horoscopes come true? You may remember the ones that did, but what about all those that proved completely irrelevant? Or that were so vague that they should not count?
However, fiction is not real life, and if there is any place where words should have power, perhaps it is inside stories. Besides, readers often turn to books because they want to spend time in an orderly world. They have a sense of satisfaction when prayers are answered, promises kept, and prophecies fulfilled.
You may choose not to have them all come true. In one of the Harry Potter books, Dumbledore explains that many prophecies are not fulfilled. On the other hand, if you introduce prayers or promises or prophecies, you should decide how you want to treat them. Most deserve resolution; you owe your readers that much. If you choose to ignore them, at least ignore them on purpose.
True story: a stranger once told me I had three wishes. I did not take him seriously, but thought, why not, what should I wish for? So later I formulated three wishes. Within six months all of them came true -- and they came true exactly as I had formulated them. A couple of them ended up causing me serious trouble! It was a case of life imitating art and it still makes me wonder.
I wish all of you a safe and happy end of the year, and if the Mayan end-of-the-world prophecy proves false, see you in 2013.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.