I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not in any way spiritual or mystical. I’m also a pretty dedicated plotter, with some pantser allowances. But I’m always on the lookout for useful writing and plotting tools.
Then, one day last spring, I attended a writer’s retreat among the redwoods on the coast of California and with the ocean making gentle sounds far below. I learned of a new, intriguing tool: using tarot decks for writing.
Before that day, the sum total of my knowledge about the tarot equaled a pill bug’s. So when fellow writer and friend Kasey Corbit asked if we were interested in learning, I wasn’t all that excited. After all, isn’t tarot a bunch of mumbo jumbo?
Then she brought out her cards and we began playing around.
It turns out that the tarot is not weird at all. It taps right into your intuition and connects to universal human experiences. Heavy on story and imagery, tarot is almost like it’s made for writers. Maybe we already know who our characters are, but sometimes pulling out the details requires a little work. The images on the cards can be prompts in themselves. All good, right? And it turns out, tarot as a writing tool is not new to writers. According to author Corrine Kenner, Stephen King and John Steinbeck use/used them!
That day of the retreat, I liked what I saw enough so that when I got home, I purchased my very first tarot deck (a particularly pretty deck called The Wild Unknown, listed below). I would describe myself as a casual user, but was interested in using it more. In writing this post, I really discovered more and I’m glad I did.
Are you interested? Good! Here is a 3-step primer on tarot for writers, with some added help from my friend Kasey:
- Get a deck.
Find one that speaks to you: You can get a deck pretty much anywhere: Amazon, bookstores, online shops. A frequent recommendation is to get a deck with images that speak to you. I purchased The Wild Unknown by artist Kim Krans because I loved the artwork, the cards were large, and it also came with a substantial booklet, which I felt was key since I knew absolutely nothing beyond what Kasey told me on our retreat day. I didn’t like the darker ones. Kasey, though, has a whopping total of 20 decks. She told me she knows people with over 200 decks! (Her favorites are mentioned below under Resources.)
You should choose a deck that has a full deck of at least 78 cards, and you want them with the major and minor arcanas. Still with me? Good, because even though I’m writing this post, I’m still not even sure what arcanas are. That’s okay. We’re learning together.
Don’t confuse them with Oracle Cards: There is something called an Oracle Deck, which has fewer cards, and you don’t want that because the meanings are different than the cards in traditional tarot. Kasey did note, however, that “While the tarot is more archetypal in the way it sets up its journeys, some folks REALLY dig oracle cards. Oracle decks are their own thing and don't follow the same set-up as mentioned here, but for writing the goal is to switch out of that inner critic mode that shuts it all down and opens up the inner knowing and thinking.”
- Learn about the cards.
Okay, this step is admittedly a bit harder and takes a while, but you can learn as you go. You don’t need to be an expert.
- Earth/Pentacles represents practical things like money, physical work, home.
- Air/Swords represents activities of the mind. (The 9 of Swords I pulled below is about nightmare scenarios, but what we fear is usually a product of our own mind.) It also goes to communication and that includes writing. So, it’s not all bad (though air/swords has the highest number of “challenging” cards of any suit).
- Fire/wands is about passion, creativity, and sexuality.
- Water/Cups is the suit of our emotions. So these suits each include their own journeys, but they’re more the day-to-day dealings of life instead of the key archetypal moments.
- Do a few writing-centric card layouts.
As you handle the cards, have a question in mind. Avoid yeses or nos, but rather “what” or “why,” like “why does my protagonist want to stay (or go)?”
Then, shuffle the deck by hand over hand shuffling. Finally, cut the deck into three.
In the book Tarot for Writers, author Corrine Kenner offers some classic spreads that go from easy to more complicated, like the Celtic’s Cross. She also offers writing prompts and a great way to use cards to look at the Hero’s Journey plot arc.
Here are three easy ones to start:
One card spread: General character or story card
- What story do you see in the card you drew?
- What does the card tell you about your character?
- Can the card inspire a whole scene?
- Does the card hint at the character’s past?
- Does the location come through?
For purposes of this post, I pulled a card from my Wild Unknown deck and was horrified at all the eyeballs and worms! It was the nine of swords—a dark card indeed. (See Kasey’s note about the minor elements above.) In this card, I saw a complicated mess of things for my character to sort out. If she doesn’t sort out her issues, then she’ll die (worms?) a spiritual death. That is—she won’t move on with life. The character battles with herself and must act to find joy.
Okay, so far, so good.
Two-card spreads: Best and Worst Traits
Pull two cards to represent the best traits and the worst traits of your character and see what you get.
I pulled the 6 of wands for best traits and the 7 of swords for worst traits. Right off the bat, I liked that there was a pretty butterfly for my character’s best trait. She can move and change. For her worst trait, there’s an intriguing fox peeking out from its tail. The guide kook says that fox is all about keeping secrets either from yourself or other people. My character needs to admit things to herself in order to move on.
Three-card spreads: Past, present, and future
For this illustration, I switched to my Pagan Cats deck because it’s so cute.
For my character’s past, I pulled the knight of swords—a very fetching image of a cat on an owl. What on earth could that mean? It means someone who acts decisively when confronted with ideas. Hmm. Interesting –I’ll give that some thought. This card is also about influences from the past that could still affect your character today.
For my character’s present, I pulled the Knight of Pentacles, which is a tabby sitting on a goat. (I don’t know, either.) My booklet says this is someone who acts carefully when dealing with the physical world, finances, or resources.” Okay, that’s definitely interesting—especially because in my current manuscript, the character’s present is the one I’m grappling with the most. This card is also about the elements that surround the character now, either positive or negative.
For my character’s future, I have the king of swords with a very royal long-haired cat on a chest. This is someone who has authority or makes decisions and is a pro at dealing with things. I can get with that. That’s certainly where my character needs to go. This is all about where she needs to end up at the end of her story.
Maybe what I would do with these three cards is see if I can work in a line about my character’s desire to be more in control of her world or her problems, and at the end, in the resolution of the story, she is.
Plot Structure Spreads: any plot structure—the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat beat sheet, three-act structure—can be used as a spread. Pantsers can flip through cards to generate ideas for scenes and fit them together afterwards.
I liked the idea of trying to use the Hero’s Journey spread because I was having trouble developing the Refusal of the Call scene in my manuscript (also known as Debate). I used the cards and thought about what I drew.
I made a worksheet for you for this on my website – the Hero’s Journey Tarot worksheet. Download it free.
Another idea is to pull a card with a scene or story beat in mind and study the image. What would happen if you stepped into the card? What do you feel, taste, smell, see?
I hope this post has sparked your imagination or expanded your writing toolbox. I think one of the most important things about using the tarot that I’ve learned is to be causal if you want to. You don’t need to wear a caftan and set off the fire sprinklers with a hundred lit candles from being mystical about it. Some people only spread cards on a velvet cloth—but man, I don’t have time for that. Kasey says she usually does it on her wood kitchen table, and she’s also done it on her desk at work and a bar. I used my mostly-cleared desk. For me, it’s enough to know about it, and use it when I can.
Have you used the tarot for writing? If this is something new to you, do you think you’ll give it a try?
- Tarot for Writers by Corrine Kenner
Decks I like:
- The Wild Unknown Tarot deck by Kim Krans
- Tarot of Pagan Cats
- Steampunk Tarot (for fantasy writers)
- Tarot for Vampires (dark! For thriller, fantasy, and scifi writers)
- Rider-Waite Deck (traditional)
Kasey’s Deck Recommendations:
- The Wild Unknown as mentioned above
- Gaian Tarot by Joanna Powell Colbert (a little old-school-hippie in some cards, is a beautiful and very gentle deck; sometimes, you need a spoonful of sugar)
- Deviant Moon Tarot by Patrick Valenza (the opposite of the Gaian; it’s dark and good, Kasey notes, for shadow issues)
- Ghetto Tarot by Alice Smeets (modeled after the traditional Rider-Waite-Smith deck but is set in Haiti and uses Haitian actors to present gritty and real imagery.
- My Hero’s Journey tarot worksheet
- Aecletic Tarot spreads for writers and artists
- Raelyn Barclay’s excellent intro to tarot for writing
- Troi’s Tarot Study for Writers
- WordHunter’s Tarot for writers
- Storytelling with Tarot Pinterest board
- A goal, motivation, and conflict spread from a romance writer
In addition to writing fiction, Sierra Godfrey is also a graphic designer specializing in author websites and Swag (sites she’s designed include Pitchwars.org and ManuscriptWishList.com.) She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and moonlights as a sports writer covering Spanish football. She lives in the foggy wastelands of the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and way too animals. Visit her at www.sierragodfrey.com or tweet to her @sierragodfrey.
Kasey Corbit spends her days weaving narratives in one form or another, be it to readers, to other lawyers, her tarot clients, or her own children. She aims to bring a little more cheer and a little more justice to the world every day. Find her at https://thedharmadiva.wordpress.com/ or on twitter @thedharmadiva.