Some tarot cards on table with blind women with swords on top

The Storyteller’s Tarot Spread

Sometimes inspiration doesn’t come to me spontaneously and I need external prompts. The divinatory system of the tarot offers a complex map of human psychology, archetypes, and challenges that I’ve found a great starting point for understanding and developing characters and stories. In trying to harness all that intuitive potential planning my books, I came up with this approach to using the cards as a storyteller. I hope you find it useful!

Using The Cards

There are hundreds (thousands?) of tarot decks commercially available. An excellent starter deck is the classic Rider-Waite tarot deck, but find one that has images that speak to you and that capture the flavor of the story you’re telling. An epic fantasy might benefit from a different deck to one you might use for a murder mystery. Find a deck that you enjoy looking at and working with.

Most tarot cards are rich with imagery. It might be sufficient for you to look at the images and let them inspire you, but you also have the written interpretation to draw on. Sometimes a face on a card suggests a character to me, or a strange juxtaposition suggests a plot complication or a location. On the other hand, a written description of the symbolism of the card can be inspiring, especially when I’m in need of a more conceptual framework. Most decks come with an explanatory booklet, but there is plenty of free information available on the internet.

Selecting Cards

In a classic tarot reading, the querent (who may be the same person as the reader) shuffles and cuts the cards for the reader to then lay out in her desired spread and interpret. In the Storyteller’s Tarot, the storyteller has two options:

  1. Random Draw: After shuffling and cutting the cards, she may draw a card randomly to place in the spread. After taking time to contemplate it and explore what the card invokes in her, the storyteller may decide that the card doesn’t provide sufficient inspiration, in which case she can draw an additional card or two to elaborate. If the card doesn’t appear to fit in the story and spread, the storyteller may discard it and draw again.
  2. Selection: Instead of randomly drawing, the storyteller may examine the imagery on the cards until she finds one that fits in the spread.

Feel free to combine the two approaches. I like to start with a random draw. If the card I’ve drawn doesn’t work I’ll either draw again, or shuffle through the images to find one that works for me.

Elaborating Cards

A single card might not be sufficient to create the right inspiration to move the storyteller’s imagination. A second or third card can often fill out the picture. Additional cards may present as elaborations on the root card, deepening its meaning. If so, place the edge of the elaborating cards either over or under the root card. Sometimes the additional cards seem to move the root card in a new direction. If so, place them in sequence emerging from the root card.

The Storyteller’s Tarot Spread

Developing The Spread

Begin with the first trio of cards, the main story question. Once you have a satisfying sequence, progress to the second trio, the main plot. From there, add in subplots as desired.

The Storyteller’s Tarot Spread

Main Story Question (the inner journey of the main character)

The main story question is all about the main character and her inner desires and needs. What is she lacking in her life? What does she think she needs to fill that lack? Will she get what she wants and will it actually be what she needs? What will her inner journey be?

The Spread

  1. The Character: representing her inner state as we meet her at the beginning of the story.
  2. The Complication: representing what happens to break her out of her initial inner state. Could represent her inner conundrum or the outer situation.
  3. The Outcome: representing her inner state at the end of the story.

Main Plot (the story that emerges from the complication)

The plot of the story that the character is taken through—the actions and complications, the failures and successes—emerge out of the Complication.

The Spread

  1. The Unknown: representing the place that the complication takes her. Could represent the inner state of the other characters or the outer environment and influences of the story.
  2. The Revelation: representing what will allow the character to win in her struggle and make sense of the unknown.

Subplots #1 & #2 (Optional)

A novella or a short novel might only contain the principal arc of the main character, but complexity and interest can be layered in with the use of subplots. These might emerge out of the Character or the Complication, and you might employ more than one.

The Spread

  1. The Barrier: representing an aspect of the main character’s inner state that will get in her way in the subplot.
  2. The Opportunity: representing a situation that will allow her to overcome the Barrier.
  3. The Result: representing what happens as a result of the main character taking up the opportunity or not. Might not be an outcome so much as a new complication.

Here’s an example of a spread I did for a novella/short novel I’m working on:

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