At least 20% of my current to-read list…
Shadowed figures stare at lit boxes
Power of knowledge from all ages at their touch
Feline pleasures instead feel their eyes
And the story will continue without them.
I’ve been reading a lot lately, working my way through the Story of Fire and Ice series (aka. Game of Thrones books). I realized a trend to this series which seems to be overwhelmingly common amongst most science fiction and fantasy literature. A “trope,” if you may – A character or some all knowing creature who presents cryptic clues to the protagonists or antagonists which hints to future events to come.
This acts as a driver of interest for the reader, but leaves them guessing about what is going to happen next. I know that I enjoy this style of literature, but I am left wondering, why do I find this so fun to read? Why does it work so well as a story structure and keep me coming back for more?
Most importantly, how can a potential writer use this to their advantage to make interesting books?
Why does partially spoiling a book make that book so appealing?
It allows a small bit of the author’s real person to enter the story
When an author adds mystical clues to their story, they are subtly spoiling it for you. They want you to know what is coming, but they cannot just outright tell you. If they did, then they could skip the entire series that leads up to that release. However, by using an omniscient character in the novel, the author enters into the story, speaking directly with their own characters and the reader.
The writer has been dropping these clues throughout the book like hidden treasure, giving all of the readers something to talk about around the water cooler. I have read tons of theories about Game of Thrones specifically because there are tons of cryptic clues hidden throughout the book and TV show. Each one built up from these cryptic clues and prophecies.
Note though, the prophecies must be cryptic. If they are not, then the book would be spoiled and boring. So remember that…
Most wrapped boxes are fun and exciting, until they are opened.
This is simple way to explain why LOST was so awesome until it wasn’t. The big problem with LOST was it felt like a Christmas tree, every episode being loaded with more and more awesomely shaped and sized gifts, each of them hinting at some very cool and deep underlying universe where all of the bat shit craziness made sense. Each one a prophecy of something mind blowing to come. Yet, around season 4, viewers started getting a bit pissed, the piles of boxes kept piling up, but no one was opening them, there was no release.
Then, the worst came to past and it was clear why they weren’t being opened. They contained garbage and disappointment. Most of the prophecies were answered in a way tangential to the overlying story, and when they were found out, it felt more like seeing the wizard behind the curtain, than learning something foundational that made all of the other pieces fit together in a satisfying way.
If the wrapped box is a puzzling prophecy, that almost implies that the answers should not be lame or silly. Why? Because they are the structural answers to the story. Regardless, a puzzling prophecy is a mystery and…
Mysteries are cool and fun to figure out
Everyone loves mysteries. You can talk about it with friends. Come up with theories, each one progressively more complex. Yet, no one loves mysteries when you have to bang your head against the wall every page of a book.
I think cryptic prophecies are a fantastic halfway point for this. They give you just enough pieces to come up with intricate theories, but then reel it in every once and a while so you are brought back to the main story thread, and generally you learn the solution to the prophecy in pieces, not with one grand reveal (a la Sherlock Holmes.)
If you spread this out over multiple books, I think you pretty much guarantee yourself a fan club. If the book is good, people will find others online and create communities solely dedicated to trying to figure it all out. This works particularly well because they know the writer already has an answer to it and is slowly revealing it.
I’ve seen this happen with reality TV shows even. People love to try to suss out the intentions of the writer. We, in a way, enjoy being spoiled. As long as we are doing the spoiling to ourselves.
It gives the appearance of magic and purpose to our lives
This is deeper and more metaphysical. When we read stories, we find it easier to write our own story of our lives. The integration of prophecy and magic in a storybook seems to open prophecy and magic in our own lives. I don’t mean that people who read Harry Potter will suddenly discover how to cast spells and fly, nor do I mean that people who read Game of Thrones are going to see dragons flying around London.
Instead, it gives the seed of the child in our psyche. The possibility of a grander narrative to our lives. We read stories, sometimes of grand characters and sometimes of peons, but in the process we take on a bit of those characters, if only for an instant. We become the warrior, the maiden, the smith, the crone, the father, the mother or even the stranger, and while that moment is fleeting, it gives us a bit of magic ourselves. Those prophecies only apply to those characters in the book, but possibly there is some prophecy we don’t know that applies to us.
Some sort of magic that might give us purpose.
It draws us in to solve the cryptic prophecy, but in the end that didn’t even matter. It was only a dance between the reader and the writer.