While tarot is mostly associated with personal growth and divination, it’s also a powerful tool for stirring the imagination. A deck of cards represents human emotion and experience from the mundane to the extraordinary—an almost infinite source if you take all of tarot’s imagery and symbolism into account, too—so what better place to discover inspiration for your writing?
Setting technical aspects of writing aside, tarot offers a way to take your characters and plots to a whole new level. You don’t need to have an understanding of the cards to avail of its magical prompts either; your conscious and unconscious mind will take care of the imagery, symbols, colours, and themes. All you need to do, is look.
Plotter or Pantser? In creative writing, these terms refer to the amount of work a writer puts into their plot before they actually start writing. For some, it’s done with military precision, where every scene, character, and plot line is planned down to the last. Then there are the Pantsers, people like me, who jump straight in with a rough idea of plot, but will go with the flow and see what happens as they’re writing.
One method isn’t better than the other. Yet, regardless of whether four hundred and twenty eight post-its guide you through every single scene, or waiting for inspiration to strike as your characters show the way is how you operate, we all hit those moments where we find ourselves staring at the screen, fingers hovering, cursor blinking, waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting.
This is the point where I usually nip downstairs and make myself another cup of tea, stare out the kitchen window while the kettle’s boiling, talk to myself (yes, sometimes I do answer back), ask whichever cat is occupying the cat tree what they think, and then reach for biscuits.
For whatever reason, inspiration sometimes packs up and leaves. Without it, we can find ourselves unsure of how to proceed, and realising that what we’ve written, or even plan to write, is ‘meh.’ The next time you find yourself straining for inspiration, consider turning to tarot. With the help of a deck, you may find your story taking on a whole new life, and here’s how . . .
To begin, you can use any deck, but I would recommend choosing one that speaks to you in terms of its artistry. You might consider purchasing a deck specifically for writing inspiration. What about one deck just for plotting, and another for characters? Tumbling further down this rabbit hole, you could use one style of deck for the protagonist, and another for the antagonist. Hmm. Any excuse to start researching new tarot decks, eh?
Here are a few prompts to get your brain firing. Whether you’re looking to reimagine a whole scene, or craft a juicy backstory for a character, make your questions as broad or specific as you need. I do recommend avoiding questions that demand a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer as they’re generally too short-sighted.
What’s missing from this scene?
What emotion could I add to this scene?
What action could the character take next?
What location could I consider for the next scene?
How can I make things more difficult for this character?
What is hidden from my character?
Shuffle your deck. As you do, think about your question/s. When it feels right, draw a card in whichever manner you like. You can fan out the cards and draw at random, shuffle until one or more jump out of the deck, or cut the deck and work off the top pile.
Study the card. Look at the colours, the background, the weather. Are there trees, animals, buildings? What about the figure/s in the card? What are they doing? Do they look happy, sad, angry? Imagine your character in this position. How would it change their story?
For example; your character has just experienced an amazing turn of events, and in response, you’re planning to send them on an adventurous quest. Ideally, you’d like to draw the daring, fiery Knight of Wands charging into battle, but instead you pull the 4 of Swords, depicting a knight having a nap while 3 swords hang over him. So, maybe your character, let’s call him Bob, decides he’s had enough madness for one day, and can’t deal with the idea of a quest. He heads home, fed-up and worn-out. During the night, three assassins sneak in to his house and try to kill him.
Maybe you flip over the 8 of Pentacles.
It shows a figure working hard at crafting pentacles. Bob decides he wants to take the quest, but reckons he needs to learn a few new skills first, so the next day, he signs up for a night class; ‘Defeating Your Enemy 101’. He soon finds himself apprenticing with the greatest assassin of all time and discovers his life's calling.
Here’s another: Katy has just had her heart broken. Bob dumped her before dessert was served in her favourite restaurant, and now she’s a snotty, sobbing mess. You could write about how she goes home and cries into her pillow, but what would make it more interesting?
You draw Judgement, which depicts an angel blowing into a trumpet as naked people climb out of coffins (it’s a good card, trust me).
Katy decides not to go home. Instead, she goes to her local spa for a mud bath. Soft jazz plays as she soaks in the gloop, and soon admits that she has to stop settling when it comes to relationships—she deserves better. On her way out of the spa, she discovers a job opening for a massage therapist and decides to apply. A year later, she’s reinvented herself and opens her own spa.
These are just a few fun ways to interpret the draws I made, but they serve as a general idea of how the images can take you in random directions, thus stirring your imagination and jump-starting new ideas.
When it comes to character development, tarot is a great tool to build backstory, too. To try it out, draw a few cards and see what story they tell when lined up side by side. I’ve pulled three cards for Bob; The Fool, 5 of Pentacles, and The World.
(The Fool; innocence, new adventures, spontaneity)
Bob had a great idea to start a new business. He threw his heart, soul, and savings into it. But overcome with excitement for the adventure, he rushed the launch and didn’t build a strong enough foundation.
(The 5 of Pentacles; loss, strife, adversity)
By winter, he had to admit defeat. With all his savings gone, he had to shut down his business and let his staff go.
(The World; completion, integration)
But Bob learned a lot from his mistakes. He’s going to try again, armed this time with a lot more wisdom, and patience. With his past experiences, he knows the world is at his feet, and he won’t fail again.
Draw as many cards as you like to build on your character’s backstory. Dive deeper into the imagery to add even more layers. For example, with the 5 of Pentacles, the week Bob’s business had to shut, he also broke his leg when he fell on ice leaving church. His luck has run out entirely!
If you’re familiar with the traditional meanings of tarot (and for this you can simply use the guide book with your deck, or search the internet) you can apply those aspects too. Traditionally, the 5 of Pentacles represents personal winter. It’s a card of loss, strife, isolation, and adversity. How could this fit into your character’s backstory? How does it affect their personality in turn? Bob’s failed business venture might have turned him into a miser. He’s now terrified to spend money, and finds comfort in hoarding both possessions and his earnings. He refuses to take responsibility for anyone ever again, because the guilt of failing his employees eats him alive to this day. How will all of this feed into Bob’s pending quest and how he tackles the adversity he meets on the way?
Are your scenes in need of cosmetic touches? Study the backgrounds and take inspiration from the settings, weather, colours, animals, plants or symbols. One tiny detail has the power to spin your story on its axis.
What if you’re at the early developmental
story? Well, tarot can help there too.
The cards can be used during any or all of the planning, drafting, character development, and story arc stages. Simply think about your questions, and see what inspiration comes your way with the answers. Would you be brave enough to allow tarot lead you the entire way by using it to structure your whole plot and cast? (Now there’s an idea!)
Whether you’re blocked on how to get from point A to B, needing a character’s backstory fleshed out, or stuck with how to make life as miserable as possible for your tormented heroes and heroines, tarot has at least seventy-eight ways to help. Whip out a deck next time you find your fingers hovering over the keys; one card has the potential to refom your story into a bestseller! (Just don’t forget me when you retire to your private island, okay?)
Have you used tarot with your creative writing? How did it help your story evolve? I’d love to hear about your experiences using tarot for inspiration. To inspire me, you can email email@example.com
Deck: Smith Rider Waite (US Games)