The future is in the cards

Most of us have probably engaged in some light fortune-telling activity in our lives, be it through playing children’s games or scanning horoscopes or eating fortune cookies. You’ve also likely read about it in books, whether it was in your face or more subtle. The befuddled heroine seeks a palm reader to find her true love. The dashing hero has a mysterious dream that only becomes clear later in the story. The conflicted character is shown his flaws and virtues in blunt or vague terms. But how many of us have used prognostication in our fiction, and to what end?

Whether it is done well or poorly, fortune telling is typically used for three major purposes: to foreshadow, to reveal information, or to develop character. Here are some examples of each:


I opened my fortune cookie expecting something like I’d gotten two days ago (“You have a tendency to focus too much on yourself.”) and to my surprise it was an imperative fortune: “Look beyond the surface or you will be deceived.” What was that supposed to mean?

This happens early on in the book I’m editing at present. It’s what those of us who have seen Kung Pow would call it the “Stars Above” approach: a vague tease of a line that will make sense later. This can either be narratively satisfying due to the later payoff, or it can be contrived and annoying to the reader because of that very anticipation of later payoff. It’s a question of whether it successfully creates suspense, or fails by drawing too much attention to the suspense it seeks to create.

At the same time, this is one of the most natural uses of prognostication because that’s pretty much the way such things work. It’s rare for an oracle or spooky dream or Tarot reading to give specific indications of what’s to come; if anything, specifics lend an element of incredulity to the whole process. If you called a psychic hotline and were actually given lottery numbers, how likely would you be to believe them? Not very. Such is the way of foreshadowing. If it weren’t vague, what would be the point in reading the rest of the book?


And yet, sometimes, the hero does need some kind of guidance as to where he should go next, or needs to possess some vital information in order for the plot to move forward. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas and the surviving Trojans head to Delos to consult the oracle as to where they should go next. They get this handy instruction:

Undaunted youths, go, seek that mother earth
From which your ancestors derive their birth.
The soil that sent you forth, her ancient race
In her old bosom shall again embrace.

Aha, says Aeneas’ father, seek the home of our ancestors! This means we need to head for Crete! And so they do, and once there they begin to build a new home for themselves. Unfortunately, they got it wrong, and so a more straightforward oracle shows up to give more guidance:

But change thy seat; for not the Delian god,
Nor we, have giv’n thee Crete for our abode.
A land there is, Hesperia call’d of old,
(The soil is fruitful, and the natives bold-
Th’ Oenotrians held it once,) by later fame
Now call’d Italia, from the leader’s name.
lasius there and Dardanus were born;
From thence we came, and thither must return.
Rise, and thy sire with these glad tidings greet.
Search Italy; for Jove denies thee Crete.

Whoops, says Aeneas’ father. The thing about ancestors is that you have more than one, and he picked the wrong one. And so we have an example of how fortune telling can be used to reveal something that the character has to know to get going, thus providing guidance and moving the plot forward. It doesn’t always need to be this clear, but must be more specific and easier to interpret than the kind of fluff used for foreshadowing.

Character Illustration

It rained, though he didn’t remember consciously suggesting it. The water soaked through his cloak and his clothes to his skin, clammy and cold, but he wasn’t made uncomfortable. In the dream he was in Syria, walking along a river. A man was baptising people with water in the name of a god who would come. The water ran clean and clear and when he followed it on, Odin stood with Heimdall at a bridge. His father reached for him, clasped his hand, and welcomed him home. The river turned to stone as they crossed it, and he stared at the foundation of a hall larger than had ever been built in Asgard. He knew it was his own. The closer he drew to it, the more clear it became. Stones piled upon one another, and he felt the rock against his palms as if he had hewed them. When he reached it, it was complete, and he wandered the corridors until he lost count of the rooms inside, and slept.

Courtesy Amalia of Good To Begin Well, Better To End Well

Here we see the character of Thor, who at this point in the story is exiled from Asgard and wandering the earth as punishment. This dream sequence highlights how alone he feels, and how much he craves a home and the peace it brings. It is simultaneously prophetic because it shows something that will happen later, when Thor finally does build the hall in his dream. But mainly, this shows you what he is feeling at this point in the story, giving you insight into this character’s concerns and hopes.

Here’s a more up front example, again from the novel I’m editing. This bit may not make the final cut, but it works for this purpose:

“So,” Luke said, “What does the card mean?” He was grinning, and he had those perfect teeth you can only get from braces or magical dentistry.

“Um,” I replied. I didn’t want to tell him what I was thinking, because no matter how euphemistically I tried to word it, none of it seemed very flattering.

“Relax, Evie, I’m not going to get mad,” he said.

“Um,” I said again. “Well. The card is The Fool, and it shows a guy about to walk off a cliff.”


“He’s smiling,” I continued, “So he probably isn’t too worried about life. He’s just kind of, um, ignoring the world around him.” I frowned. “But he can’t do that forever. At some point, he’ll walk off that cliff and fall to his death, which is pretty scary. He needs to look where he’s going. Stop laughing at everything and start getting serious, you know?” At this point, my mouth dried up and I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Luke shrugged and leaned back in his chair. “Yeah, what can I say… I get that all the time from my dad, so I guess I had it coming.”

This is where the reader learns a little something about Luke, who he is and where he comes from. The failure of something like this is that you usually want to discover character through their actions and dialog, and this can come across as a infodump. However, when done well, it can give insight into the inner workings of a character, even illuminating areas that the character himself was burying or refusing to acknowledge, which then helps that character to grow and change. Having a perfect stranger tell you your faults can be an eye-opening experience, and fortune telling can be a great vehicle for that.

So, ladies and gentlemen, have you ever used some form of fortune telling in your writing? Prophetic dreams? Palm readings? Casting of bones? For what purpose did you use this technique, and how satisfied are you with the result?


5 Responses to “The future is in the cards”

  1. Lamat says:

    I have used prophetic dreams for fortune telling purposes, primarily as warnings. The source of the dreams is not revealed, though I may go back and update/edit that part of the story later. I also used rune casting for character development in a story, but the prophetic results had little impact other than to establish the mindset of the character. Do you think this might annoy readers expecting something to happen because of or in relation to divination?

  2. @lil_monmon says:

    I always like the prophecy that’s misleading and can be interpreted with several meanings. I also like the “to act or not to act” question fortune telling offers, the classic example being “MacBeth,” who was convinced to reach out and grab his destiny (to his peril).

    I’m only just exploring the potential of fortunetelling in my horror-comic Skeleton Crew. I decided to make one of the character’s a latent psychic. The power mostly just helps us skip to the chase instead of having countless interviews and leg-work to find a maguffin. But we had to introduce it dynamically. We chose to use TAROT as a medium, since I’m familiar with it, and it’s also fairly nebulous with it’s interpretation. But how to make a good story?

    We thought about her giving strange prophecies, or scrying for a major plot point, but eventually we decided against that. Instead we chose to have her do a reading for one of our characters. This is a character we know very little about, and who is generally a “joke” character. He’s the dark cynic who’s always making annoying comments on the sideline, but he’s not the type to share his feelings or even his origin story.

    The psychic’s reading reveals his character, his thoughts and even his fears which otherwise would be secret. Me and my brother (my co-writer) were so thrilled with how it turned out. We’ll see if it’s as effective in comic-form, though. (It’s not due to come out for a few MONTHS).

  3. Valerie says:

    I think one of the perils in using fortune telling in a story is that there is an audience expectation that It Will Be Significant, to once again quote Kung Pow. If it ends up not being important, you risk alienating some readers, even as a few might find that amusing. I think it depends on the story, really; if it’s a tale about fate and destiny and the character is railing against that, to have a prediction fail may actually be a useful plot point. But to just have something be a throwaway… I think that would be a problem, unfortunately.

    MacBeth is indeed another excellent example. Fortune telling is basically the motivator of the story, the domino that sets the rest of the stack in motion. One could also argue that it was merely a tiny spark and that MacBeth and his wife were the ones who turned it into a fire when it might otherwise have flickered out, and that is why it’s a great use of the trope.

    What a cool way to introduce a story element… like I said, character illumination is a good goal of fortune telling, and yours set the stage for future Tarot exploits. Can’t wait to see how it looks in comic form.

  4. VR Barkowski says:

    What a fascinating question! The protag in my first book reads tarot. And because she believes, as I do, that the tarot is a tool that allows the reader to perceive situations in new ways – to escape the boundaries of a mindset – that’s how I use them in the book.

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