Narrative Techniques: Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

A series exploring storytelling techniques. This essay looks at self-fulfilling prophecy as a plot device and how to use it.

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A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true. It has been around for thousands of years; bleeding into myths, fairy tales and legends.

The classical examples of a self-fulfilling prophecy were designed to showcase an unavoidable fate. Most commonly, if a child is said to bring down a powerful character’s downfall, then it is going to happen, no matter how much said powerful character has gone out of their way to avoid it. The most notable would be Oedipus, whose father, Laius, is told that his son would one day kill him. Laius abandoned Oedipus—then a newborn—to die. Oedipus is found and raised completely ignorant of his origins, and one day told that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing his adoptive parents were his real parents, Oedipus left them to keep this from happening, only to end up fulfilling the prophecy both son and father had desperately tried to fight.

Another example comes from Sun, Moon and Talia—a retelling of the classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty—in which the King is told his daughter, Talia, would be later endangered by flax by astrologers and scholars. In an effort to spare his daughter of this danger, the King bans flax from his home. Years later, Talia, who has grown up without any knowledge of flax or its inherent danger to her, sees a woman spinning it and asks if she can thread it. When she does so she receives a splinter under her fingernail and seemingly dies.

Although it has been used for over a millennium in storytelling, the term is relatively new. Coined by sociologist Robert K Merton, the self-fulfilling prophecy was defined as a false prediction made true by a change in behaviour to avoid it. For example, Laius being told his son would murder him was initially untrue, but his own behaviour made it so.

Once people convince themselves that a situation has a certain meaning—regardless of whether it actually does—they will take very real steps to either attain or avoid said results.

In storytelling, it doesn’t have to be a divine prophecy that comes in, merely a prediction of some kind. It could be a character believing they are going to fail their exams, and the stress of this causes them to fail. It also doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative outcome. A character could believe that they are in for some luck, and this kind of thinking enables them to achieve a goal.

There are many ways that a self-fulfilling prophecy can be used: with seriousness, for comical effect, for positive outcome, to bring about a tragedy; making it an adaptable technique. It can also be subtly implied or slap the audience across the face—much like prophecies in stories often do.

The use of a self-fulfilling prophecy can be used to help explore a character’s behaviour or thought process and the prophecy (or prediction) may not even be the basis of the plot, as it so often is used. The prophecy can act as a burden hanging above a character’s head and the audience can either see it unfolding as they read, or be amazed when all the energy that went into avoiding the prophecy ends up wasted. If done correctly, the latter will pay off rather than feel like a cheap exit, such as Oedipus Rex. The trick is similar to avoiding Deus ex Machina, foreshadow early and keep it subtle, or keep it humorous, depending on the style of the narrative.

Self-fulfilling prophecy is often a clear demonstration of destiny within a story, and one’s inability to fight it. This may be due to events that have been set up long before the story takes place, or thanks to some bored gods, or because of a character’s own misunderstanding or conviction. It can be an outside force beyond the character’s control, or it can be a by-product of the character trying to control everything. The author can decide which this is, or leave it entirely to the audience’s guesswork, but either way they need to remain consistent. As a result, working this out early is a good way to avoid disappointment later down the line.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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