Tips for Plotting a Novel
TERI ANPOWI SAVELIFF AND I WERE TAROT FRIENDS before we were writer friends. Many’s the evening we’ve spent on the phone throwing cards for one another or sharing images from our newest decks. Then I read her charming NaNoWriMo-inspired novel, SIGNATURES, and was delighted to learn we had a whole other dimension of commonality to explore—including plotting a novel!
In this post, Teri draws from our shared worlds, offering three ways to use tarot—a system of evocative visual images—to develop your novel. Here are her tips for plotting a novel.
* * *
Before I published my first novel, SIGNATURES, the main characters and the bookshop where they worked had been inhabiting my head for decades. But characters, and even settings, have lives of their own, and they may insist on telling their story in ways you might not anticipate. As an avid student of tarot, I knew the cards would play a role in my novel. And I was right. Once tough-talking, tattooed Paloma—complete with her tarot deck—strolled into the bookshop and insisted on joining my cast of characters, she and her cards played a very large part in my novel, indeed.
In the past, I’ve often used the images, symbolism, and divinatory meanings of tarot cards to illustrate a point or move a plot along. In SIGNATURES, however, I didn’t merely toss the appropriate card into the story at the right time—I conducted actual readings for my characters. If you have some experience with tarot, I highly recommend this strategy when you need additional backstory for a character, want to test a character’s mettle, or want to explore secondary themes in your novel.
You don’t need to be a tarot expert to find the cards useful, however! Here are three different ways you can use a deck of tarot cards to explore your novel.
Tip #1 for Plotting a Novel
Know a smidge about tarot? Conduct a tarot reading as part of a scene.
One late addition to my cast of characters was Hanz Lippman, an author clinging to past achievements. He enjoyed holding court in the bookshop and flirting with coeds studying his book in their literature classes. I didn’t anticipate developing his character, further, though, until Paloma conducted a reading for him:
“Don’t draw more than one card,” commanded Hanz. “I don’t think I could stand any more than that.”
Paloma made a face and drew a solitary card. It depicted a young man, a small dog nipping at his heels. The man was perilously close to the edge of a cliff, but seemed unconcerned.
“The Fool,” said Paloma. “You seem to be at the beginning of a journey or undertaking.”
“Ha!” crowed Hanz. “I knew these cards were nonsensical bullshit. Tell me, dear, what sort of journey am I beginning? What project am I undertaking?”
“Well, this is usually why my client and I work together,” Paloma answered irritably. “I’ve told you, I’m not a fortuneteller. I would also draw a few more cards to answer the question. One card doesn’t always say enough.”
“My sweet little dove,” Hanz said with a smile, “I am far too old to be a fool, at the beginning of a journey or otherwise. You should have drawn an old man … a man without even a dog to accompany him on his travels.”
“The Fool can also represent someone at the beginning of a spiritual journey … or an emotional journey,” Paloma added.
“None of this resonates at all,” Hanz insisted stubbornly. He turned the card face down and slid it back toward Paloma.
“Of course, you could also be getting ready to walk right off the cliff,” Paloma retorted. “Not looking where you’re going, too confident in yourself. The good news is, the fall won’t be fatal.”
“Good news for whom?” teased Hanz. “I have a feeling you wouldn’t mind if I broke a bone or two.”
Paloma smiled noncommittally and gathered the cards into a single stack.
This reading added some depth to Hanz’s character and inspired me to create for him a much bigger role in my novel.
Tip #2 for Plotting a Novel
Not a tarot reader? Just one image can add intrigue or foreshadowing
Even a single card can add dimension or reinforce a theme in your story. The card may appear very straightforward, such as the card of Justice, usually depicting a blindfolded woman with a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other, or The Tower, often shown with lightning striking its peak and people falling from its windows.
In the case of this little scene, Maggie, the main character in SIGNATURES, draws her own card out of curiosity, and that card adds a bit of foreshadowing.
[Maggie] spied Paloma’s tarot deck sitting on the low round table not far from the window. On an impulse, she shuffled the cards and then drew one from the deck. She had to laugh. “The Lovers,” she smirked.
It so happens that Maggie pulled this card just before she goes on a date!
Tip #3 for Plotting a Novel
Don’t know the first thing about tarot cards? Tarot is character-centric! Let the figure on a card suggest an attitude or trait for one of your less-developed characters. (P.S. The internet abounds with pictures of tarot archetypes. Just Google “tarot cards” for a free treasure trove of inspiring images!)
You don’t need any experience with the cards to put them to work as a literary aid! Since tarot’s visual language can be said to be universal, even the most random tarot draw can spark fresh ideas. For instance, If you are looking to add a character to your story, or describe a character you haven’t fleshed out, you could draw a card to give your character a face.
One of my favorite decks, the GAIAN TAROT, depicts people from numerous ethnic backgrounds and cultures. When I was looking for a bit more information about the character of Paloma after she barged unexpectedly into my book, the GAIAN Seven of Fire suggested her multiple tattoos and air of independence.
Whether you utilize a few captivating illustrations on the internet, purchase an intriguing deck of your own, or become a full-blown tarot enthusiast like me, tarot can enrich and add dimension to your writing endeavors. Above all, have fun exploring a new tool!
* * *
WRITING (AND TAROT) INSPIRATION
If you want to try this tip for plotting a novel there are literally thousands of tarot decks to choose from. You might visit Amazon and search “tarot decks,” to get you started. However, the AECLECTIC TAROT site might be a better place to start. AECLECTIC offers decks categorized by art style, as well as sample images of all decks and even reviews of many decks.
Corinne Kenner’s TAROT FOR WRITERS offers many approaches to applying tarot imagery and meaning to enhance your creative writing project.
You’ll also find dozens of tarot-based writing prompts on this website. Just search “tarot,” using the magnifying-glass icon you’ll find in the top right hand corner of every page.
Need help with your book? Wondering “why hire a writing coach“? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out “Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.
* * *
Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of The Fool, from the RIDER-WAITE (SMITH) TAROT.
Thank you to Llewellyn Worldwide for kind permission to use the image of The Lovers from the LLEWELLYN TAROT.
Thank you to Joanna Powell Colbert for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Fire, from her GAIAN TAROT).
And special thanks to Teri AnpoWi Saveliff for her generous sharing of a few of her tarot-centric novel-writing tips and tricks!