PENNING A PLOT IS A WILD RIDE—for both the writer and the character whose story is being told. Ups! Downs! Chills! Thrills! And then … that horrifying moment halfway through your draft when you, author, realize you don’t know what happens next!
For ten years, I’ve been helping writers extricate themselves from exactly that hairy spot—using a process called the Plot Clock. Like a AAA road map of their narrative, the Plot Clock shows writers how to organize story events to get their characters to make the changes needed to fulfill their story’s purpose.
TAROT ACES ARE CONCENTRATED UNITS OF PSYCHIC ROCKET FUEL! The Ace of Wands, for instance, blazes with a fire that impels action. The Ace of Cups drips with the sweet honey of love. The Ace of Swords slices swiftly to the truth, and the Ace of Pentacles fills our bags with the gold of family, health, and financial well being.
And then there’s flash fiction. This super-concentrated form of story-telling could easily be called the “Ace of Drama.” Typically between fifty and a thousand words (depending on your definition), flash fiction propels readers through dramatic situations at warp speed. To do so, it challenges its writers to create characters, setting, conflict, and some sort of resolution all within its super-tight framework.
Want to give this literary form of nitroglycerin a try? Check out the prompt below, inspired by my flash-fiction-writing tarot pal Bonnie Cehovet!
Tarot writing prompt
Pick a card, any card
First, choose your Ace.
If you chose the Ace of Wands, write a hundred-word action/adventure story.
If you chose the Ace of Cups, write a hundred-word romance.
If you chose the Ace of Swords, write a hundred-word story of double-dealing or deceit.
If you chose the Ace of Pentacles, write a hundred-word family drama (add an inheritance to the mix for extra credit!).
I’ll go first. I picked the Ace of Swords.
Thomas watched his brother’s fiancée from the perimeter of a dozen parties. Her gleaming hair. Her ridiculously long neck. The maw of her mouth issuing dark laughter. Whenever he got close enough, he wondered, was she laughing at him? He’d redden, unsure. Then his brother’s brakes failed. And his airbag. (Tragic, right?) When the fiancée was released, Thomas swooped in. Who better? She’d recover. They’d circle those same parties. They’d laugh. And, later, they would wrestle in sweaty pleasure, reviling their evening’s casualties. He woke from dreams of it, dark laughter in his mouth. If only she would stop crying.
My Swords-y idea was that Thomas tampered with his brother’s car. Is that clear? I dunno. Anyway, it’s a hundred words. So there’s that.
Flash fiction inspiration
Need more information or inspiration? Click on the links below for further guidelines and places to “flash” your short-short work.
FLASH FICTION ONLINE offers a ton of resources, from excellent examples, to how-to tips, to submission guidelines. Once you’ve tried this exercise, you might consider submitting the results to them!
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THREE DAYS, I wasn’t running late. Actually, I was ten minutes early. My periodontal cleaning was at 2:00, and it was only 1:50 when I pulled into the lot.
A couple of minutes before, headed down shady Capen Ave., I’d noticed the cacophony of azaleas—purple, fuschia, white—flaming up in front of the tiny, old, wood-framed houses that lined the street. I’d been thinking how soft the azaleas smell and about the sweet, green blossoming oaks.
And thinking too that, with ten minutes, I was at a mental crossroads. One finger sign pointed towards the periodontist’s waiting room, where I could catch up on back issues of PEOPLE magazine under fluorescent office lighting. The other sign pointed me back to the quiet, sweet-scented Wednesday afternoon neighborhood I’d just driven through.
A week earlier, my friend George and I were talking about sabbaths and how we miss them—mine on Saturdays, his on Sundays. “But I’ve been taking mini-sabbaths,” George told me, describing the moments of quiet he creates during his busy days.
“It could be just a pause to look up at the sky before heading back into the office, or sitting for just a few minutes on the cafeteria patio, closing my eyes and feeling the sun on my skin.” Seemingly inconsequential, these little breaks refresh him, he said, allow him to remember—in the middle of the furor of life—exactly who he is. That he is.
So, on that April Wednesday, with those ten precious minutes in hand, I let Jen and Lady Gaga and Dr. Oz continue their glossy lives without me. Instead, I wandered past old oaks, down cracked sidewalks, passing green- and yellow-painted houses that leaned just a little to one side or the other in their dirt-and-oak-leaf yards—and breathing in the blooming of spring.
The next day, though, I was caught back up in the whirl. Glancing around, Impatient for someone in the Lowes garden center to point me towards the decorative mulch, I noticed a tiny flicker over a flat of potted heather on the table beside me.
It was bees. Tiny bees! It was the beat of filtered sunlight on tiny translucent wings. It was two … three … eight … twenty tiny bees humming from tiny purple heather-bell to tiny purple heather-bell. It was a whole garden’s worth of bees, glittering, hovering. A whole 21st century urban meadow of bees, humming, shimmering, buzzing around the three-inch plastic pots. Suspended in the middle of that ordinary Thursday afternoon, it was, in fact, an entire sabbath full of bees.
I wrote this quite a few springs ago—but today’s April early afternoon smells just as sweet. Your prompt, if you choose to accept it, is to find ten minutes this week, in the midst of all the busy-ness, to take just a tiny detour, give yourself just a few blocks’ worth of breathing space. You don’t even have to pick up a pen to write about about what you find. Those sabbath moments will write themselves directly onto your spirit, I think, where you’ll be able to read them for many springs to come.
SOMETIMES, I JUST WANT to give a tarot archetype a good shake! The Knight of Pentacles, for example. Sure, he’s got plenty of good qualities: He’s hard working, loyal, and reliable. You can trust him with your last dollar, which he’ll prudently invest for you.
But he’s so freakin’ cautious! Before taking any action, he’ll weigh every possible pro and con—leading you to ask, “How much research is really necessary before you just go to Best Buy and replace the microwave that blew up TWO MONTHS AGO?” (Did I mention I was married to this guy?)
His caution extends to writing, too. Under his influence, we might believe we should know exactly what we’re going to say before we commit so much as a word to the page. Which, for sure, will stop us dead in our writing tracks. For this reason, the Knight of Pentacles might well be the Patron Saint of Writer’s Block.
Tarot writing prompt
Making a list, checking it twice: Simple as it sounds, list-making is a stealth move that will help you slip beyond this knight’s too-careful sway. Put aside ten minutes and pick a topic. You might decide to create a shopping list for yourself or a character, or a list of your favorite girls’ names, or of a frenemy’s worst traits. How about a list of places you’ve lived? Or places you’d like to visit? Cats in your life? Street names in your subdivision? Super heroes? Planets (actual or fictional) most likely to support life?
Whatever you choose, the trick to truly inspired list-making is to push your brain past the obvious (hello, Mr. Knight?), which is what it will dole out at first. Do this by committing to a larger-than-reasonable number of items. So, once you’ve picked a topic, number your page from 1-50 and go! Then, when you’ve got your fifty, choose the most intriguing item from your list. Set a timer for five minutes and take off from that idea, writing as fast as you can. When the timer dings, pick another item and begin again.
Believe me, when you look up from this exercise, that stodgy Knight of Pentacles will be nowhere in sight. (Who knows? Maybe he’ll have finally ambled off to Best Buy!)
The Poetry Foundation has a great little article by Michael McGriffon using list-making to rev your writing engine. It includes a two-part writing exercise that can help you dig deep while you’re moving fast!
IT WAS SO FREAKIN’ COLD that day in the tiny Central Florida town of Oviedo that the anachronistic Oviedo chickens had huddled under the frost-bitten azaleas bordering the Ace Hardware parking lot and hunched in feathery clumps between oak tree roots.
A week before, I’d run a creativity workshop based on Julia Cameron’s ideas. Inspired by my own facilitation, I took myself on a combination Weekly Walk and Artist Date—to do just what I’d asked my workshop participants to do: walk, then jot down what I saw.
So, first there were the chickens.
After leaving them behind, I turned up Central Ave. and crossed a small bit of bridge (an asphalt hump, really, covering a concrete pipe through which a thread of brown water passed). There, I shared cold-weather pleasantries with a young black man on a bicycle, who paused—gloved, parka-ed, and balaclava-ed—to watch the trickle of rusty water lap against the rocks lining its narrow bed.
Bidding the young man goodbye, I wandered across North Central and through the sparse grove of oaks that separates Central from Geneva Drive. There, I came upon the white block Fountainhead Missionary Church with its thick panes of stained glass. How would the light inside the sanctuary appear after traveling through those windows? I wondered. Would it be purple, like sacramental wine? Bottle green, like old hope? Deep sapphire, like a promise placed on a loved one’s hand?
Since there was no one around to let me in to see, I crossed Broadway to Blue Moon Antiques and Consignments. There, I overheard a nicely-suited, middle-aged guy telling the owner that his nineteen-year-old son, newly released from prison, had stolen, then hocked or sold, three boxes of his prized 1960s-1970s record albums, and that he was now touring Oviedo-area pawn shops, antique malls, and thrift stores trying to recover them. But, the store owner told him, shaking her head, none had made their way to the Blue Moon.
I stepped out of the shop just as the man eased his Taurus wagon slowly down the Blue Moon driveway and headed east for Chuluota.
From the wooden stoop, I waved at his rear-view … just in case he looked back.
Tarot writing prompts
The Eight of Cups is a wanderer. Seeking emotional fulfillment, she leave her past behind. She is guided on her quest by her imagination, by the possibilities that beckon from around the next curve in the road. And if she doesn’t find what she’s looking for, there? Welp, she’ll just keep on walking.
Here are three writing prompts inspired by the Eight of Cups.
PROMPT ONE: Write a series of three scenes about a character who sets off seeking something to fill an emotional gap in her life.
Scene 1: Demonstrate your character’s dissatisfaction with a specific situation—then show her walking out the (perhaps metaphorical) door in pursuit of something better.
Scene 2: Make sure to let the reader see what guides your character’s feet along her path. How does she decide where to go?
Scene 3: She’s discovered something! What is it? How did she stumble upon it? And does it really fulfill her unmet needs?
PROMPT TWO: If, on the other hand, like the “record salesman’s” father, your character is missing something specific—due to theft or carelessness—write a scene in which she traverses her neighborhood, trying to find what she’s lost.
PROMPT THREE: Or, perhaps, like me that day, she’s just wandering hoping something interesting will turn up. If so, what does turn up? And how does it change her life?
AS WRITERS, WE MAY FIND we want to access our inner depths. Perhaps we need to discover what it is we truly want to say. Or maybe we find our work sounding stale, predictable, even clichéd. At such times, if tarot’s Moon were your writing coach, she’d counsel quiet and self-reflection. She’d suggest you allow your dreams to arise—as she does—in both the sky of your mind and in the quiet pond of your imagination. She’d ask you to contemplate your dreams and your writing by candlelight … or by her own white moth light.
While the Moon knows our inward travels may be fraught with misdirection and mystery, she trusts us to find our way through the dark, face what we discover there, and interpret our nighttime experiences in ways that will illuminate our waking lives and bring deeper wisdom to our creative work. If we explore our depths, rather than fretting about how to monetize our writing dreams too soon, she believes that what we bring forth under her gentle glow will emerge a-shimmer with the magic of our own inner light.
Tarot writing prompts
Taking a page from the Moon’s pillow book, try any of these exercises to dive deep into a character’s dreams … our your own.
1) Keep a dream journal for a month, a “moon.” (Take a look at this PSYCHOLOGY TODAY article for suggestions on how to do so.) At the end of the month, review your journal and see if any silvery, moonlit story ideas emerge.
2) Delve into a character’s psyche by keeping a dream journal for her! Let her reveal her hidden self to you through her dreams.
3) Moon-mapping: Write about an incident, fictional or otherwise, according to the phases of the moon.
New moon: the incident’s inception, its seed, how it starts
First quarter: how the incident gains traction, its early developments
Full moon: how the incident fulfills its initial promise (or threat)
Last quarter: how the incident and its effects wane
Dark of the moon: like the tide pulling back the ocean to reveal an altered shore, write about what’s left after it’s all over.
4) Write a scene that takes place in broad daylight. Rewrite the scene so it takes place by the barest gleam of the new crescent moon. What’s different?
5) Write a scene in which your character dreams about a situation from her waking life. Of course, dream-fashion, her sleeping self distorts the situation—but in a way that reveals a truth she hasn’t permitted herself to see till now. She wakes, journals about her dream—or tells it to someone—and then acts on the realization her dream has delivered to her. You, writer, take it from there.
LIKE THE SET-UP FOR A BARROOM JOKE, we begin our novels by collecting players: the hero, a good guy, aka protagonist; and the villain, a bad guy, aka antagonist, the one whose job it is to make things tough for our hero … just so she can outwit him and end up, well, a hero, at the end of the day. At least that’s how she sees it. But I’d bet good money our villain sees things quite differently!
“History,” they say, “is written by the victors.” Likewise, most novels are written if not by heroes, at least in sympathy with them. But what about the bad guy? Because, turn a story inside out, and we can see that the hero thwarts the villain’s aims just as surely as the villain thwarts the hero’s. Yet, where’s the sympathy for that?
For example, in this illustration, it’s clear the retreating figure in the red cape has done the good-looking guy in the blue cape wrong—ten-swords-in-the-back’s-worth of wrong! But what if there’s more to the story? What if, in his eagerness to forward his own goals, young Mr. Blue Cloak neglected to take Red Cloak’s rights into account?
What if, before things came to this terrible pass, Red Cloak had tried to assert her claims, but that darned Blue Cloak guy just ignored her and kept tromping towards his own goal, with no thought for how it was undermining hers? Sure, it’s a shame she had to stab handsome Mr. Blue Cloak in the back ten times. But from Red Cloak’s perspective, it may be she just did what she needed to do to protect her interests.
So, why, she wonders, won’t anyone else see it from her point of view?
Well, what if we did? What if we agreed there are two sides to every story: the hero’s and the villain’s? And which is which depends entirely on our point of view?
Tarot writing prompt
Scene 1: Give a character a goal. That’s your protagonist, your hero. Give a second character a goal diametrically opposed to that of the first character. That’s your antagonist, your villain. Her job is to actively counter your protagonist’s efforts. Write a scene in which their competing goals force them head to head. This time, do so from your protagonist’s point of view, creating as much sympathy as possible for her.
Scene 2: Now, reverse their roles, writing about the same situation from the antagonist’s point of view. Show exactly how the former hero’s actions towards her goal undermine the former antagonist’s progress towards her goal. Make us sympathize with the former villain as much as we did with the hero when we were reading the previous scene.
This exercise could be good practice for writing, say, a psychological thriller, perhaps a story in which you want to keep your characters’ respective good-guy/bad-guy roles a mystery at first. In that case, you might want your reader to start by sympathizing with one character, only to realize that she is actually a freakin’ psychopath, who has been playing not only the other characters in the story, but your reader, as well. Then, maybe, the character who was wrongly perceived steps forward into protagonist-hood and heroically saves her own bacon!
Or vice-versa. Because, as I might have mentioned, “History is written by the victors.”
IN TAROT, AS IN LIFE, the “meanings” we assign to people and situations affect our feelings about them. Those feelings, in turn, influence our actions … and our actions impact our outcomes. So it makes sense that we take a minute to re-consider our first-impression interpretations before acting on them.
Tarot, smarty-pants that it is, keeps an ace up its sleeve. When it would benefit us to look beyond the face value of a person, place, or thing, tarot simply hands us a card upside down! These upturned cards, called “reversals,” invite us to explore alternative interpretations of the upright card meanings.
For example, upright, the King of Pentacles signifies a mature, affluent person, one who has earned his current position and who, like the CEO of a corporation, is likely in charge of others’ financial well-being. He’s typically seen as generous but conservative—a guy who will carefully consider your request for an investment, and then perform his due diligence before committing a penny to the project.
Turn him on his head, however, and he may be barely keeping up appearances! For instance, the reversed King of Pentacles could signify someone who’s had a big loss in the stock market and is just managing to tread water. Alternatively, he might run squarely against the grain of his cautious-but-generous reputation, being instead miserly or cold-hearted or even rash. Perhaps he’s malicious and domineering—or, on the other hand, totally lacking in the sort of confidence you’d expect from someone in his position.
All this to say that, while upright tarot cards are relatively straightforward, reversals tend to be trickier and more complex. Which is fine, because life is pretty tricky, too. And since what’s true in life is often even more true in fiction, let’s pay heed to tarot and Joni Mitchell and make sure our characters take the time to look at “both sides now.”
Tarot writing prompt
Write scenes based on the followingbold-faced suggestions (ignoring my examples, unless they seem like fun!).
1. Give your character a challenge to face. For example, maybe that King of Pentacles is your character’s boss, and he’s just turned her down for a raise—after hiking her male office mate’s salary.
2. Let your character have a face-value opinion of the situation. Since her coworker got his raise, your character concludes her boss is biased against women in the workplace.
3. Assign your character an emotion or attitude based on her interpretation of the situation. She’s resentful her misogynistic boss won’t cough up the raise she’s requested.
4. Put your character into action based on her belief-driven emotion or attitude (more fun, of course if this action is going to get her in trouble!). She goes to HR and files a complaint of discriminatory treatment.
5. Fast forward to the outcome of the action. After an escalating legal battle, her boss ends up suing her for defamation of character!
But what if, way back at step one, you turned the situation upside down? What if you shook the abundant possibilities from it like long-saved silver dollars from a piggy bank?
In that case, your character might consider her boss’s reluctance to grant her a raise a signal that the company isn’t doing well. And maybe her research proves that’s true. And maybe she discovers that her boss favors her coworker because that young man was her boss’s deceased son’s best friend. (Hello, subplot!) And maybe her sympathy for her boss fuels her determination to save the company—and maybe she fails, but her efforts catch the eye of the CEO of a rival company, who offers her a VP position, making twice what she’d asked her boss for in the first place!
I dunno. It’s worth exploring. Because, like Robert Frost (sort of) tells us in “The Road Not Taken,” the meaning your character assigns a situation can make all the difference—to deepening her own experience and perhaps that of her eventual reader, as well.
The impulsive young hero at the center of THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO, a historical novel by Karen Engelmann, is an eighteenth-century secretaire named Emil Larsson, who is also on a Fool’s journey of sorts. Emil’s journey starts when mysterious psychic (and Swedish Royalist) Mrs. Sparrow lays tarot cards for Emil in a pattern she calls “the Octavo.”
This layout consists of a central card, which represents Emil, surrounded by eight additional cards, that, Mrs. Sparrow explains, signify people and events Emil will encounter as he fulfills his destiny. Dealt randomly into their positions, these eight cards stand for what she calls a Companion, a Prisoner, a Teacher, a Courier, a Trickster, a Magpie, a Prize, and a Key. It’s up to Emil to distinguish who is whom and which is which!
Tarot writing prompt
As befits an idea that sustains a 400-page novel, this is a long-ish prompt. You might dive in and work through all the steps in one go (long weekend, anyone?). Or perhaps you’d prefer to proceed as Mrs. Sparrow did, when she doled out her reading for Emil, one card at a time, over eight consecutive nights.
Alternatively, of course, you can just dip in when you’re stuck mid-draft and need some literary fuel to get your story back on the road.
PICK AND CHOOSE: To start, you’ll need a pool of images to choose from. A tarot deck is ideal, but so is a stack of intriguing pictures torn from magazines. (If you’re going the magazine route, find at least twenty pictures to work with.) Sort through your images and find one to represent your main character, your Hero. Lay that image on a flat surface with room around it for the rest of its Octavo.
UPSIDE DOWN, BOY YOU’RE TURNING ME: Next, lay the rest of the images face down. Blindly, choose eight images from your upside-down deck or stack of magazine pics. (The point is to make yourself pick these eight images randomly.) For now, set these images aside without turning them over to peek.
ARTS AND CRAFTS TIME: Write the titles of the following eight story archetypes (which differ somewhat from those Mrs. Sparrow assigned to Emil’s cards) on eight small sticky notes:
Prize (what the Hero wants most; that for which he quests)
Herald (the character or event that reveals the quest to the Hero)
Antagonist (also, “Villain”; a person or force hostile to the Hero, which actively attempts to stop the Hero from completing his quest; does not need to be a person: for instance, might be a forest fire or a political situation)
Guardian (also, “Threshold Guardian”; ensures your Hero is worthy of crossing the threshold into their quest, proper; to do so, creates obstacles to the Hero early on that test the Hero’s mettle)
Sidekick (a best-friend archetype, who, notably, gets sidelined somewhere in the thick of the action)
Precious Child (a vulnerable story element; could be an animal, child, or family farm, for instance, which the Hero treasures and which the Antagonist threatens, raising the story stakes and tension)
Trickster (an unreliable, self-dealing character who creates story confusion; whose side is the Trickster really on? Maybe even the Trickster doesn’t know for sure.)
Mentor (a character whose story-relevant knowledge and skills are far more advanced than the Hero’s and who guides the Hero at pivotal points in his quest; notably, the Mentor must be absent at the story’s climax, so the Hero has to face the Antagonist in that final battle on his own)
Turn over your eight set-aside images, now, and randomly affix the archetype-stickies to them. (This randomness makes the story more true to our experience, as we seldom know what role a new acquaintance will play in our life or what effect an unforeseen event might have!)
RING AROUND THE ROSY (-CHEEKED HERO): Now, lay the stickied images around the one representing your Hero. Bravo! You’ve created your Hero’s Octavo!
READY, STEADY, GO! Write one scene for each archetype. Through your Hero’s eight in-scene interactions, be sure to show how his quest is affected by each of the people and/or situations represented by the image and archetype it’s been assigned.
Since these archetypes are present in most stories, once you’ve written your way through all eight interactions, you might find—voila!—you are well on your way to a draft of a novel or novella! Certainly, it’s a good weekend’s worth of work (because you and I both know the lawn—and the dishes and the bills and the litter box—can wait ’til next week).
THERE’S A FERAL KITTEN living in my back yard. She’s one of a small community of cats I feed. They’ve all been neutered, and a handful of kittens have been adopted out, too. For the most part, the cats that have returned come and go—and I remain unattached.
But not so with little Button. I named her on the way back from a vet appointment, where it was determined she was too young for a rabies shot and would need to live in my bathroom for a month before she could be spayed and inoculated. I called a friend to report this—and that the kitten now had a name: Button.
Once Button returned to the yard, I told the same friend I was particularly concerned about this kitten’s well-being. My friend said, “Of course you are. You named her Button.”
Right. I named her—and adorably—and now she lives both physically, in my yard, and vividly, in my imagination. This is the power of naming.
This same friend is named “Mary Katherine,” a moniker about which she is not thrilled. She’d be happy as a “Kate,” but her family has always called her “Mary.” Now, at fifty, she’s stuck with it, and perhaps in the role her family imagines for her, too.
If naming something makes it ours, naming something correctly gives it a life of its own.
Memoir to novel: “A” my name is …
When we’re fictionalizing our lives, using them for novel-writing fodder, the first thing we might do is find a name for our main character that differentiates her from us. This gives her some breathing room, lets her live out her story on her own terms. It creates the possibility that the story we’re telling—even though based in our own experience—could come to surprise us.
Maybe we give our fictionalized self a name that reflects a trait we wish we had. If I were to write a novel using my life as a starting point, I’d likely name my main character “Claire.” I’d do this in hopes she would understand the roads I’ve traveled more “clearly” than I do. That facing at least some of the crossroads I’ve faced, she’d make clearer-eyed choices than I did—choices that would take her down different paths than those I followed. I’d be fascinated to see where such clarity might have led me.
Writer friend Jill Louise, after working on what she believed to be a non-autobiographical novel for ten years, suddenly realized (after ten years!) she’d actually named her main character for the small Midwestern town in which she herself was raised. Oops.
Jill says she now sees this character as representative of her entire life growing up—“the thing that I left,” as she put it. From this, she learned: “You can’t get away from it. You can’t actually write something that’s not about you.”
And then there’s Sarah (not her real name, but a true story). Sarah is a client of mine who is writing a wonderful, wildly fictionalized version of her life—and who has recently changed her main character’s name to one more distinct from “Sarah” than that which she first bestowed on the character.
I’m not sure if changing her main character from “Shari” to “Consuelo” was what turned the tide, but it’s a fact that, recently, Sarah sent Consuelo to face a fictional challenge similar to one in Sarah’s actual life. It’s also a fact that, after writing the scene in which Consuelo meets her antagonist head on and triumphs, Sarah did the same in real life.
Go, Consuelo. Go, Sarah!!
Natalie Goldberg says, “Writers live twice.” With that in mind, name your characters (and your kittens) well. Then, in your second life on the page, let them go forth and do what may have seemed impossible to you the first time around, when you were committed to being the person who carried the name with which you were born.