plotting with tarot cards

When BIWC member, Sylvia Beckett Davidson, shared her ideas on social media about how she used tarot cards to develop the narratives in her stories, we asked her if she'd expand on the idea. For some of us, the Tarot deck is associated with magic, fortune telling and the supernatural. We have Hollywood to thank for that, as usual!

In fact, Tarot cards can be a means of reflection. A way for the author to review their work, to solve problems and consider new ideas. Here's Sylvia's explanation. It offers writers an original approach to plotting their stories and developing their characters!

I was 11 years old when I started reading tarot cards: six every two weeks in a magazine subscription from my local corner store. I saved up all my pennies and pounds to buy them, secreting them away after. I read about the meaning of each card and challenged myself to memorise the varied images that filled my little mind. I worked out early on that I loved the story being told throughout the deck, but it would be years before I began viewing them creatively, and a little longer before I applied my love of literary psychoanalysis to them too. Funnily enough, I also learned that you didn’t have to dress up like a carnival attraction or run around on a broom. I could read the cards and analyse all sorts of things, and it helped a great deal.

In more recent years I’ve been using the tarot for self-care (meditation, weekly focus, etc.), art inspiration, and for plot devising and planning. Tarot cards are a tool to help the reader (or the seeker) find answers to something that is troubling them. Think of them as the advice boards online, a place to ask questions when weighing up options – you might even find avenues you hadn’t thought of before. What tarot allows for is deeper introspection of the issue at hand, and in the case of writing, tarot can help you sift out bad elements of your story and bring in twists in the narrative. Tarot isn’t for everyone, and it can come off as a kooky device that most skeptics are willing to bash without ever experiencing them. In this article, I will attempt to guide you to see how tarot can be used outside of the spiritual context.

A Very Brief and Non-historical Look at Tarot

Tarot cards consist of 78 cards: 22 Major Arcana (Fool, Devil, Tower, etc.), and 56 Minor Arcana (four suits of pentacles, wands, swords and cups). Each card and suit tell a story through archetypal images that allow the reader to discern clues and answers for whatever it is they are searching for. Today, tarot is used a lot more for its basic psychological and introspective analysis.

Alongside the cards are the spreads which come in various numerical sizes and analytical depths. Some spreads, like the Quick Plot, are small, requiring only four cards. Others are more complex, utilising many cards for a deeper look into a situation, or conjuring of ideas and execution. The placements of cards assists in keeping questions or keywords in mind, which you then add to the meaning of the card.

When exploring a quick way to plan a plot or get yourself out of a narrative squeeze, you can pull a card, discern its meaning and how it works within the setting that the spread has given. For example, you place The Lovers card in the position of ‘overall theme’. From there, you can decide whether you want the overall theme to be romantic or not. As you continue reading the other cards and analysing their positions on the table, your idea will unfold before you.

For the newer self-care movement, some people will pull a random card from a freshly shuffled deck, and depending on the archetype on the card, they will meditate or think about whatever valuable lesson is being presented. They will consider the meaning of the card and adjust their thinking and/or behaviours accordingly for the day, week, or month. For instance, if I were to pull a card that showed me a collapsing tower with people falling off, I would consider not putting all my eggs in one basket and not jump to conclusions with any issues that may arise in my everyday life, for a week. The Tower is a vivid and obvious looking card, always depicting a high and beautiful tower being destroyed by lightening.

It’s always suggested that when you get a fresh deck of cards, you must take the time to sift through each one and come up with your own comprehension, alongside what the designer wants you to understand, and including general tarot knowledge. Tarot is also known to be rather explicit in whatever answers you are seeking. Don’t get me wrong, tarot can’t tell you who your next love will be or reveal when you’ll die, but it can be helpful in forcing you to see the obvious when you’ve given into denial.

If you were to ask if your book is in a state of flux or whether your characters are vivid, the cards will not only reiterate that back to you, but they can help you breathe life back into your project. If you find that you don’t have a good enough plot, but you have a tonne of ideas you haven’t included in your writing, the cards will not only help you shape how to develop those ideas but also where to put them.

This is also extremely helpful when you want to avoid particular clichés, like the Mary Sue character, or the typical happy and romantic ending when you probably didn’t want your main character to settle down for the sake of it, especially if the story you’ve written isn’t a romance. If you find that you want to kill or get rid of a character but you’re not sure how, the cards can help you find a decent way to do that, by making you consider limited or copious options. However, tarot isn’t the end all, merely a tool in your creative arsenal that can help you shape up a fantastic story, and push you creatively in ways you may or may not have thought about.

Tarot Spreads

The Quick Plot

This spread isn’t supposed to explain the whole plot of your story or the process - it merely serves as something to consider if you’re planning a narrative where you want to try something new and avoid clichés. There are four positions for you to focus on:

  • Overall theme of the novel/chapter/characterisation – Whatever card you put here will indicate your focus for the book or section or make you concentrate on character development. It may also help to create a subplot.

  • Inciting incident – If you’ve somehow written a narrative without any inciting incidents, this position will help you determine what incident you can write, and you can add subsequent cards if you want more issues for your characters to deal with. It would surprise you how many folks write a story without a plot.

  • Climax – What will help amplify the climax later? How will the card you put here maximise or minimise the grand finale? It’s possible to apply this card to various characters, not just situations.

  • Resolve – Want something else to consider when trying to write the resolve? Put a card here and consider the meaning of the card, and how it will affect the story, and how the characters will affect one another.

These aren’t hard rules or facts, they are merely recommendations, and a spread I created for myself some time ago. Spreads are also, for the most part, flexible when being used for creative endeavours. You can pull four cards, three or only one, depending on what you want to focus on. Remember, it’s your story, and tarot is just something to consider.

Slightly More Complex Plot

The following spread adds complexity, but it follows the same rule of thumb as The Quick Plot, except this time you use more cards for a deeper dive into your planning or writing. Again, this isn’t the right way to write your book, just an alternative viewpoint. There are more placeholders for inciting incidents, allowing for a complication that occurs before the resolve. Could a character die, who should have been there for the resolve? Or have two people who are total opposites ended up together? Those are the types of questions you should ask yourself. Due to the flexibility of these spreads, you can move the complication to somewhere else, or remove it entirely. Play around and see what plots you can come up with.

One caveat that may end up causing issues for folks like me, whose minds race at a million miles per hour, is that too many ideas can really screw up the writing process. So, to stay focused, tarot is massively helpful because the fewer cards you use, the more limits you place of your narrative and the tighter the story will be. I don’t mean limits in the sense of restricting creative freedom, but rather making the story more succinct and tie up loose ends quickly.

Example of a Query

(The term ‘query’ is a common word used within the world of tarot, which means ‘question(s) at hand’).

I recently uploaded a video on my writing channel that explains how and why I use tarot to help with the structuring of a plot issue. In it I explained how I wasn’t sure which way my main character’s plot should go and the creative ideas that could help juice up their story. I did a spread where I had two lines, or options, to consider. One was about following the career narrative, and the other was about following the romantic narrative.

Ultimately, I wanted to know which one I should follow first and which should come up second, toward the end of the work. I pulled extra cards for both routes to help me delve deeper, creatively.

On the one hand, I could have my main character choose career, as indicated by the first card I pulled (The Magician - meaning she has all the tools she needs to carve her future). But the extra card I pulled, (5 of Wands – showing stick-wielding people in a violent struggle who cannot find common ground), allowed me to consider that she could kill off one of the villain’s minions and have almost everyone on her side turn against her. The other route suggested love in a big way with The Lover’s card (marriage, love, balance, etc.), which showed how her relationship with another character could go swimmingly; maybe a baby on the way? But the extra card I pulled, Strength (you cannot get any more obvious about what strength means), got me thinking about how fighting The Big Bad and his remaining henchmen could put her baby and love at risk. All I had to do then was sit back, ponder my options, and go with whichever route seemed best.

Final thoughts

Tarot sounds complicated, but it’s extremely helpful on so many fronts. You don’t need to limit its usefulness to stories or character development, you can apply it to writing poetry or painting. Tarot has endless possibilities, it’s merely a matter of trying, even for a laugh. You’d be surprised how many atheists and skeptics I know who use it for non-religious or spiritual reasons and using it for writing shouldn’t be any different. Allow it to be the pal you hate to have around but know you need to help you think clearly. I’ve included a few more spreads that I’ve developed and used over the years, so check them out and make your own revisions to find what works for you and your work in progress.

Find out more about Sylvia's work via:


IG: @sylviabdavidson_author


YouTube vlog:



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