Pin It

The Tarot as a Tool for Writing Your Novel

Note from the Editor: November sees the beginning of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. Anyone can join the thirty days of literary abandon. WTD will run posts to inspire and encourage you on the way.

By Marelisa Fábrega of Abundance Blog

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) begins in just a few days, on November 1st, and thousands of would-be authors are registering with high hopes of crossing the finish line on November 30th, novel firmly in hand. The objective of writing at least 50,000 words in 30 days doesn’t seem so daunting, until the sobering thought hits that you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to write about. Or perhaps you do have an idea—one that would look great as a blurb on a book jacket cover–but the plot is eluding you, or you can’t see your novel’s characters very clearly. One solution is to prime your creativity pump by turning to the tarot.

Although the tarot is most often used as a tool for divination, tarot cards are also great, practical tools for writing and creative thinking. Corrine Kenner, author of “Tarot for Writers”, explains that well-known writers, such as John Steinbeck and Stephen King, have used tarot cards for inspiration. She adds that Italian novelist Italo Calvino went so far as to call the tarot “a machine for writing stories.”

If you’re thinking of writing a novel, you can apply the imagery and symbolism of the 78 cards of the tarot to help you develop plot, conflict, character profiles, dialogue, and scenery, as well as to introduce unpredictable elements. The cards can even serve as a creativity prompt if you hit a brick wall while you’re writing. With a tarot deck beside you, you won’t be starting out with a blank sheet of paper. Instead, you’ll have a world of imagery as your disposal, which, if you allow your imagination and intuition to step forward, will begin to move, speak, and take action. This article will help you get started in using the tarot to write your novel.

Choosing a Tarot Deck

There are many different tarot decks which you can choose from, including everything from the Lord of the Rings Tarot–with “Death” depicted as Gandalf fighting the Balrog–to a Jane Austen Tarot, in which each card represents a character or scene from one of her novels. Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith created the best-selling Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck in 1909, and that’s the deck we’ll be referring to in this article. You can either purchase a deck from Amazon, or you can print the cards out, for free, here.

Tarot for Writers 101

You don’t have to become an expert on the meaning of the tarot cards in order to use them as a creativity tool. Once you have a general idea of the symbolism of the cards, you can apply your own interpretations and use them as a springboard for your own ideas and impressions. The tarot will help you in allowing your intuition to tell you stories which you can then get down on paper. In essence, you’ll be taking the open ended images on the cards and projecting a story onto them.

Basically, the tarot consists of two parts: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana is made up of 22 cards; the figures of the Major Arcana represent universal archetypes which serve as the basic patterns for human thoughts and emotions, as well as dramatic, life-changing events. For example, the Hermit can represent the need to withdraw, to seek solitude, or to look for a new direction. If you draw this card while trying to decide where your plot goes next, it could mean that your hero is about to leave everything he knows behind and embark on a solitary journey or adventure.

There are 56 cards in the Minor Arcana. While the Major Arcana expresses universal themes, the Minor Arcana brings those themes down to the practical arena and applies them to everyday life. The Minor Arcana has four suits—typically called Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles—and each suit has ten numbered cards and four Court Cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Page). Each of the tarot’s four suits corresponds to one of the elements: fire, earth, air, or water:

  • The wands represent fire: someone with a fiery personality; tempers flaring; something is about to go up in flames; literally, something catches on fire.
  • The cups represent water: someone who is very emotional; intuition; a desire or want; the beginning of a love affair.
  • The swords represent air: someone who is very intellectual; using words as weapons; ideas coming into conflict; having interests in common.
  • The pentacles represent earth: someone who is very wealthy; money trouble; buying or selling real estate; an opportunity to make lots of money.

As an example, the three of swords shows a heart being pierced by three swords. If you pull out this card it’s time to introduce an element of betrayal or heartbreak into your story. As further illustration, the five of wands shows five men; each is holding a wand and they appear to be working against each other. This card could symbolize that there’s something in the environment that’s working against the protagonist, it can represent a race or competition, or it can mean that one of your characters needs to learn to get along with others.

If you want more information on how to interpret tarot cards, there are plenty of books out there which can help you, and there’s a free online course on the tarot here.

Example: The Empress

The Empress is tarot card 3 in the Major Arcana. The card shows a beautiful woman seated on a throne covered with soft, lush pillows. Her gown is white—representing purity—and is decorated with pomegranates; she‘s wearing a crown with 12 stars representing the signs of the Zodiac; in her right hand she’s holding a rod which symbolizes power; and she has a shield with the symbol for Venus, the goddess of love. Her belly shows a hint of pregnancy. In the background there’s a forest with trees in various stages of life, a field of ripe wheat, and a waterfall.

From the symbolism and imagery on the card, you could come up with some of the following possible meanings to apply to your novel:

One of you main characters wants to become pregnant.

  • An unplanned pregnancy creates a conflict in the story (maybe one character wants to keep the baby and the other doesn’t).
  • It can refer to motherly traits that are present in your character, or that your character meets someone new who has these traits. For example, in the Fairy Tale Tarot the Empress is represented by Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
  • As an outcome, this card can be a sign of prosperity (notice the abundance that surrounds the Empress).
  • It’s also a card of creativity; creative seeds are planted and will flourish and grow. It can represent an idea that’s beginning to take shape: an idea for a new business, for a marketing campaign, and so on.
  • If you pull out this card when you’re trying to come up with a setting, it can represent a warm, inviting home filled with good food and laughter.
  • The card can be a warning that your character needs to learn patience: just as everything in nature grows according to cycles, everything happens in due time.
  • The card can also refer to a situation that is pregnant with promise.
  • If the empress is surrounded by negative cards in a reading, it could signify the negative side of motherhood: over-protectiveness, smothering, and refusal to let go.
  • If the card is reversed it can mean domestic upheaval, infertility, an unwanted pregnancy, or suppressed artistic expression.
  • In the Wizard’s Tarot—in which the Major Arcana represents the faculty at a magic school–the Empress is represented by the Professor of Herbal Magic.

Creating Spreads to Craft Your Novel

A spread is a layout of the cards with a definite purpose in mind. Spreads can be simple—even one card can be a spread—or they can be very elaborate: there’s one spread that uses all 78 cards. Set the intent to create a scene for your story, shuffle your cards, and pull one out at random. Write your scene based on the card that you selected.

Now set the intent to establish the setting for your novel and go through the process again. You can follow this process for anything that you want to know about your novel: start a dialogue, suggest a plot twist, bring a supporting character into the conflict, and so on. Instead of one card, you can use two cards and balance them against each other: the pros and cons of a venture your protagonist is considering, a heated argument between two characters, and so on.

One way to use a three card spread is to have the cards represent your character’s past, present, and future. You can also set the intent to determine the following:

  • The first card represents your character’s primary goal and motivation.
  • The second card represents your character’s greatest fear in relation to this goal.
  • The third card explores the internal conflict your character has to conquer along the way.
  • You can go into more detail by having larger spreads. For example, shuffle the cards and set the intent that the first six cards you choose will represent, in order, the following:
  1. Protagonist: this card represents your main character.
  2. Antagonist: this card represents the main adversary.
  3. Theme: this card represents your novel’s theme.
  4. Beginning: this card represents the beginning of your novel.
  5. Middle: this card represents the middle of your novel.
  6. End: this card represents the end of your novel.

You can even create intricate character profiles by pulling out several cards and assigning them meanings, such as the following:

  • Relationship with mother
  • Relationship with father
  • Relationship with siblings.
  • What was the defining moment in the character’s life?
  • What was their first job?
  • What are some of the character’s idiosyncrasies or quirks?
  • What’s their greatest fear?
  • What do they want most out of life?
  • What are their major strengths?
  • What are their major weaknesses?

The Celtic Cross Spread is a particularly good spread for setting out an intricate plot. In addition, you can come up with your own spreads: decide what you want to know, ask a question, and develop a custom-designed spread.

Conclusion

Using the tarot to write your novel is simply about trusting yourself and allowing your subconscious to express itself. Pick a card and set it in front of you. What’s the first image that you notice? What do you think it means? Do you get an overall impression from the image as a whole? What thoughts or feelings emerge? How can you apply it to your novel? Write freely, without censoring yourself, based on the images and symbols that you see in the card and what they represent to you.

Keep in mind that the tarot can be used for inspiration regardless of the genre of your novel: whether your protagonist is a fairy with gossamer wings, an Indiana Jones-type character in search of an ancient artifact, or a relentless detective who won’t let go of an unsolved murder that happened fifteen years ago. Gather your laptop or writing tool of choice, your favorite coffee mug, and your tarot deck, and get ready to crank out your novel and win NaNoWriMo this year.

Marelisa Fábrega blogs about creativity, productivity, and simplifying your life over at Abundance Blog at Marelisa Online. Marelisa is the author of the ebook “How to Be More Creative – A Handbook for Alchemists”.

Read below or add a comment...

30 thoughts on “The Tarot as a Tool for Writing Your Novel

  • Marelisa

    Hi Mary: Thank you for publishing my article on the tarot as a creativity tool on WTD. I see that the links I refer to didn’t come up on the article. I’m going to include them in this comment in case anyone wants to have a look.

    You can print out the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck for free by visiting the link below (the Empress I refer to in this article is from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck):

    http://www.thetarotdeck.com/rider-waite-smith-tarot-deck-images/

    There’s a free online course on the tarot here: http://www.learntarot.com/

    Regards,

    Marelisa

  • Marelisa

    Hi Dani: Thank you. I got interested in the Tarot several years ago and as I started thinking of what to write about for NaNoWrimo I thought, “You know what I could use to generate ideas? The tarot.” :-)

  • Marelisa

    Hi Tisha: Thank you. When you really look at each card it’s amazing how you can come up with little stories just by noticing the imagery and symbolism on the cards.

  • Hilary

    Hi Mary and MareLisa .. what a wonderful way to craft ideas, and build a story line – really imaginative.

    I guess – that could be done with other sorts of batches of things .. except the Tarot cards have those stories built in ..

    Opportunites about for ideas – it’s the putting those ideas together in a comprehensive package for a novel, or short story ..

    Really interesting – thank you – Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  • maurice

    Hallo Marelisa, thank you for that tip. While reading I got another idea, which might work in a certain way. Maybe you remember those “Magic Cards”. Here, in germany, they were very popular in the 90s. I still have some of them. There are thousand of different cards out there with as many meanings and functions. So using those cards would work fine, too (I think).

  • Marelisa

    Hi Hilary: Even if you’re not writing a novel you can use tarot cards as a creativity prompt to make sure that you keep up with your writing. Every morning you can pull one out and write a one page story inspired by the card.

  • Marelisa

    Hi Maurice: There are many visual cues you can use to stimulate creativity. Some people cut pictures out of magazines and glue them to index cards; then they pull one out when they need to be inspired. I haven’t seen the magic cards you refer to, but if they have interesting images then you can use them, certainly. Tarot cards have the added benefit that if you read a little about tarot you can see that each one is loaded with symbolism and imagery, which can be interpreted in many interesting ways.

  • janice

    What a great idea, Marelisa! I used to do tarot readings but gave up when the accuracy started freaking me out. I’d never thought about using them as writing prompts for novels.

    If you haven’t caught it yet, check out Mary’s post at Goodlife Zen about the four elements of fire, earth, air and water as they pertain to Ninja warriors.The similarity with the Tarot suits struck me.

  • Hilary

    Hi Marelisa .. I’ve walking around Eastbourne today, while the car is sorted, and everywhere I go .. I think you could build a story around those names, the street names, the house names, the … names – a history story … a story story .. and yes as you say take one tarot card a day and add a piece .. good idea.

    Lots of good ideas .. thanks – and prompts for posts, stories, ideas etc ..

    Grand – I love it – Hilary

  • Marelisa

    Hi Janice: The four elements of fire, earth, air and water as they pertain to Ninja warriors . . . that sounds really interesting; I have to stop by and read Mary’s post. Now can use your tarot knonwledge to write stories. :-)

    Hi Hilary: Whenever I visit my little nephew he’s always asking me to tell him stories. So now everytime I go for a jog I look for things that can inspire me and I come up with a story that I can tell him the next time I see him. :-)

    Hi Vered: That’s what I’m using for NaNoWrimo this year. :-)

  • Marelisa

    Hi Mike: I love the quote by Joseph Pulitzer you have on your blog. I’m copying it to my posterous (with a link back to you). And I’m glad you found fresh ideas in my post. :-)

  • FekketCantenel

    What ever happened to getting plot and character ideas from real life? I actually feel sorry for writers who try gimmicky stuff like this when their material gets stale. You’ll find plenty of things to write about and devices to use in your story if you get out and talk to people and see things. In other words, you’ll get much more inspiration talking to the cat lady at the fortune-telling shop than you will from the cards you buy from her.

    Oh hell, I guess if you want a random technique absolutely disconnected from the real world, tarot is a great idea. Try astrology and Glenn Beck while you’re at it. “GET OFF MY STARS!”

    . . . BRB, got an idea for a novel.

  • Melissa Donovan

    This is an excellent article, Marelisa. I used the Tarot years ago to outline a story. It’s a great tool for creativity, meditation, and countless other endeavors. However, you’ve broken it down step-by-step and made it easy to use it for creative storytelling in different ways — from simply pulling out a random card when a story is stuck to using the deck to plan the plot in advance. Awesome, awesome, awesome!

  • Icy

    I love this post! I’d never considered using my Tarot cards before, but I think I shall do so in future whenever I get stuck!

  • Mary Jaksch

    Thanks for an interesting and unusual post Marelisa.

    Creativity is something that is triggered. In order for the brain to be creative, we need to put together two or more unrelated bits of information.

    A well-tuned creativity will feed on everything it sees or hears – those are the ‘real life’ triggers. Say I’m thinking about writing a post on creativity and see some birds. Next thing my brain has connected those two things and has come up with something new.

    But it can also be triggered by something like Tarot cards.

    No way of triggering our creativity is ‘better’. It’s just different. When we put some strange connections before our brain – like one does using Tarot cards, it snaps into action and produces interesting ideas.

  • Marelisa

    Hi FekketCantenel: Not every technique out there is useful for everyone.

    Hi Melissa: I’m glad you’ve used tarot cards in the past for your story telling and gotten positive results.

    Hi Icy: Give it try sometime; you may be pleasantly surprised. :-)

    Hi Mary: That’s right; it’s important to have many creativity tools at your disposal since not every tool is right for every situation.

  • Bummble

    Lovely article!

    Could you tell me which deck the cards in that first picture are from, and from which deck (a different one, I think) the Empress in the second picture?

  • Cindy

    I love this idea! I already have a tarot deck at home that I haven’t picked up in like a year – but I am going to try this as a source of inspiration. Thank you for the great tip.

  • Marelisa

    Hi Bummble: Thank you. I wish I could tell you what tarot decks the cards in the images are from, but I don’t know. There are tarot decks for just about everything you can imagine, from vampires to a celtic dragon tarot.

    Hi Cindy: You’re very welcome; I hope you find lots of inspiration in your tarot deck.

  • Abi

    Love this idea, as a writer, never thought of using the tarot but now I see the endless possibilities, Tarot for Writer, I am going to amazon right now. Thanks for the heads up.

    Cheers

  • oudler

    One of the problems of Tarot is the default assumption in our country that they are to be used for prediction. Before these cards were used for prediction, they were used for card games which are still played today in continental Europe. The Tarot is actually a variant of playing cards and are as versatile as the standard playing card deck if not more so. Tarot was used as early as the 16th century to compose poems, Tarocchi Appropriati, describing personality characteristics. Like Tarot game playing, the use of Tarot cards for composition also predates there use in the divinatory arts.

  • Lilith

    After I stopped practising as a Wiccan a few years ago, and now have ceased to believe altogether, I haven’t stopped wondering if there is some meaning and use to my tarot cards. Having learnt to read my deck by heart (no books required) I’m ecstatic to discover a whole new use for them, and I can assure you I’ll be writing a lot of short stories based on readings from now on. Thank you, this is brilliant!

  • Pingback: Character: Walk in Their Shoes « Logorrhea

  • Kat

    Can anyone tell me which deck the Empress picture comes from?
    I really like the style.

    Ta

  • Chris

    What a great article! I’ve actually been doing this for awhile. I started after having a kind of Eureka! moment during a particularly long stint with writer’s block. I did it to get the creativity going again and it worked like a charm. Now I use this to plot out even short stories and to get a really indepth look at all of my characters. It’s a great tool that I think all writers should at least investigate!

Comments are closed.