Old Yammy & The Problem With Fortune Telling

When we think of fortune telling, we probably think of mysterious mumbo-jumbo that doesn’t actually work. In our current day and age, it’s a rip off for a bit of feel-good fun. However, when we translate fortune-telling into fiction, it can become as true or false as the author likes. It is up to the author, however, to use that power in a way that doesn’t spoil the story – it keeps it on a path but that path shouldn’t become obvious to the reader.

I was reading the second book in the Empire Of Storms trilogy by Jon Skovron, Bane and Shadow, when what I would say the worst thing possible happened. The intense, mysterious pace of the book suddenly got shattered by a couple of side characters. In this, I’m talking about Old Yammy, the mysterious wise woman, who can see into the future. Her powers are never really given a limit, and in the first novel, there is a good bit of establishing that they may just be completely bunk. But in the short time that she features in this novel, she single-handedly dictates the pacing of the novel and removes any of the wiggle room for the story to develop. What’s worse is that Skovron tries his hardest to keep the “fortunes” vague, but with the way the story is progressing, we know exactly what she is talking about and it ruins a lot of the suspense.

For me, pacing and rhythm makes or breaks a novel. When you introduce a character that can so heavily affect that and have foresight on the story that you’re trying to tell, you run the risk of having your rhythm run aground. On the flip side of this, though, you can create anticipation for what’s to come. By hinting at certain plot elements, you can create more suspense and keep the reader gripped.

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I think a good example of this is Alice Cullen in the Twilight saga. As trashy as the books are, and I won’t deny it, Alice’s powers keep them at least a little gripping. This is in part because she can see a lot of the major plot points before they happen, making the reader want to get to them faster. However, the unreliability of her powers also adds to this. It leaves room for the story to breathe because it is established that she can only see flashes of future possibilities based on the choices other characters have made.

Another decently good example is Melisandre in Game of Thrones. Much in the same line with Alice, her powers aren’t set in stone. However, they’re also a lot more prophetic; and require a much larger burden to use. The most vivid memory I have of this is her predicting the fall of the three other kings competing with Stannis Baratheon by using the blood of the bastard son of Robert. Of course, this vision comes to pass – the three other kings do eventually die, however, it is far between each other, and each death opens up more plot holes. With the death of Balon, the kingsmoot opens up on the Iron Islands; when Joffrey dies, his brother Tommen is set in place as a figurehead; and when Robb Stark dies, the door becomes open for multiple other characters to be elevated to his position. And each death is coincidental to her magic – it doesn’t directly affect it but the events still happen regardless. As a result, the vagueness of this act works as a form of foresight, but it also lets the story happen around it, making something interesting from it.

In conclusion, the use of clairvoyance, or fortune telling, or foresight is always a risky gamble to play. If you leave it far enough away from the action, or as a predictor for which is action is built around, then it can work by leaving the how and, to an extent the results, a mystery. However, if you throw it in alongside the preparations for the action it does the opposite – it de-escalates the narrative and throws off the pacing because the reader can infer the outcome much too easily.

And remember, if you’re having trouble with this or any other problems with your writing, Quill Inkers is here to help you. Just leave us an ask on our Ask page or send us an e-mail, and we’ll work our own magic.

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