Originally published at D*I*Y Planner.
Candlelight flickers and dances across the walls of the room. Wispy, light sounds of Japanese pipes drift through the incense smoke into your ears. A tiny woman, her head wrapped in a bright red and gold turban sits at a intimate wrought-iron table covered with a purple, silk table cloth. A white candle, its flame flickering; a palm sized crystal ball; and a pack of cards, the top card displaying the picture of a giant wheel; lay carefully positioned on the table’s top. The woman beckons you to take a seat directly across from her. You take a seat as the woman waves her hand over the deck of cards and begins to shuffle them. As you stare at her, gauging her true intentions, the woman begins to position the cards onto the table in a careful layout. Then she begins to tell you your future as she describes how the cards and what each position relate to your life.
Tarot cards. One of the oldest means of exploring symbolism and your spot in the universe. A simple pack of 78 cards with a myriad assortment of images and cross-culture symbols painted on them, used as divination device by people all over the world. It contains a major arcana of 22 cards that seek to explain higher powers at work as well as a minor arcana composed of 4 suites corresponding to the 4 elements (wands, swords, cups and coins). Of course, there’s a lot of tarot history I’m glossing over here but I just wanted to give you a small background on the cards. If you’re curious about the tarot and want to learn more about its history, check out aeclectic.net and wikipedia’s tarot page for more information about the tarot and variety of decks out there.
So, how can a divination deck help us generate story ideas? There’s a wide variety of ways to use the tarot to trigger lots of creative ideas. First, you’ll need to get yourself a tarot deck. I recommend the Rider-Waite Tarot that comes with a little white book of meanings and information. Once you have your deck, open it up and start looking at the images. What do you see? Unlike a standard deck of playing cards, every card in this deck has a picture painted on them. Images of colorful Fools with dogs yapping at their heals, people partying, towers burning, lovers uniting and knights and Kings on horseback appear in the often strange scenes. Let your imagination guide you into the cards and place yourself in the imagery.
Which images strike a chord with you? Which ones repulse you? How many images out of the deck inspire you? Pull out a a card that you’re drawn to or repulsed by and write about the scene. If you aren’t sure what is going on in the picture, use your little white book to read about that card and what the meaning is and then write about that meaning. What are the swords doing to that person in the 9 of Swords card? How does The Lovers card make you feel? Stare into the card’s scene until a feeling or thought emerges, then pick up your pen and let your thoughts spill onto the paper. When you are working with the tarot, there’s no right or wrong way to interpret how the images on the cards are supposed to make you feel. The little white book is not the ultimate authority on the tarot, you are. You are free to interpret the cards however you want.
Another way to quickly generate ideas is to look through the deck of cards and pick a few out that seem to tell a story to you. Lay out as many cards as you want, in any order and then write the story that connects the cards? How does the scene in the first card get to the scene in the next card and so on. This works especially well as the 22 Major arcana cards do tell a story in most decks about how The Fool takes a journey from knowing nothing to being learned about The World he is apart of. Sometimes the little white book that comes with each deck tells the story of this change.
Of course, what would an article on tarot be without a few spreads? So, for those of you who are curious about divining some story ideas from the cards themselves, here’s a few small layouts that you can do with your cards. These three spreads should help you come up with some interesting inspiration for any story or creative endeavor. Reading with tarot isn’t as hard as you think. First, shuffle the cards and think about your story’s goal or what you want to write about. When you have that idea firmly in your mind, stop shuffling. Begin laying out the cards. After you’ve laid down the amount of cards for whichever spread you’re using, open your little white book to uncover the meanings of the cards and how they represent people or traits in your stories.
Short story Spread
1. Protagonist: this card represents your main character.
2. Antagonist: this card represents your antagonist.
3. Beginning: this card represents the beginning of your story.
4. Middle: this card represents the middle of your story.
5: End: this card represents the end of the story.
6: Theme: this card represents the theme of your story.
Story Idea Spread
1. The Protagonist: this card represents your main character.
2. Conflict: this card represents the conflict.
3. Background: this card represents the background behind the conflict or character.
4. Subconscious: this card represents the underlying motivation for the conflict.
5: Reaction: this card represents how your protagonist responds to the conflict.
6. Outcome: this card represents the outcome of the story.
Creative Advice Spread
1. Blocks: this card represents what’s blocking your creativity.
2. Brainstormer: this card represents what can help you get started.
3. Expression: this card represents the idea you want to express.
4. Stepping stone: this card represents the advice on your next step.
I’m constantly using my tarot deck for a source of guidance and inspiration in my creative life. When I started coming up with ideas for my NaNoWriMo novel October of 2006, I pulled out my cards and did a reading on a possible story. I used the Short-story Spread to come up with a few different ideas on what my novel could become. In the end, I chose to base my protagonist, Autumn Chase, off the Strength card. A woman with fiery red hair who’s inner strength helped her to overcome the evil that threatened to destroy the world and turn it into a living nightmare filled with daemons. In the end, it was the idea I ran with and she successfully carried me through the entire month of November to 50,408 words.
I hope you try some of the techniques I’ve discussed. Like The Hanged Man card, that depicts a man hanging upside down tied from one leg on a tree, hoping to gain a new perspective on the world, the tarot can help provide you with years of inspiration and introspection. You’d be amazed at the things you can discovery from working with the cards. I also recommend you check out the 4 amazon.com links listed after this essay. The first one is for the traditional Rider-Waite tarot deck. However, I know many people may not be receptive to using a tarot deck, so I’ve added two other popular creativity decks that I’ve used in the past to help unblock my creativity. No matter what deck of imagery you favor, remember that the tarot means whatever you think it means. It’s up to you to find out how to relate to the symbolism depicted on the cards. I love learning about tarot, discussing their meaning and imagery with others, and all the different ways a deck can used to deepen and enhance the meaning of our lives. So feel free to email or post comments on what you think.