coverIf you type the words into Google, you’ll find that random story generator sites are everywhere on the Internet. It seems like people have discovered the randomness of computers can help them shuffle up a bunch of basic archetypes and come up with a plot outline they can write to.

But there’s a set of random story generation tools out there that pre-date the Internet by most of a century—and while not as old as some people claim they are, they’re nonetheless old enough, and well-used enough, that they can make a great tool in any writer’s toolbox. I’m talking about tarot cards.

Pick a Card, Any Card

Playing cards in general have a fascinating history. You might assume there are just two kinds of decks: the standard spades, diamonds, clubs, hearts set and the tarot kind, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, for a very long time there were multiple different sets of cards in play with different suits altogether.

For a good overview, you might check out The Devil’s Picture-Books, by Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer. (Quite a fascinating character was Mrs. Van Rensselaer, this NY Times article (PDF) suggests. How I would love to have been a fly on the wall at that Historical Society meeting!) She wrote a follow-up book, Prophetical, Educational, and Playing Cards, which is also interesting.

But be prepared to disregard most of what she says about the origin of tarot cards—a fanciful theory that ties them back to ancient Egypt as a pocket-sized depiction of sacred paintings from the temple of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus. Nobody has ever found a shred of evidence suggesting that the paintings survived hidden for almost 2,000 years in this form.

Most recent scholars, including the fellow who basically invented the “modern” tarot deck, place their origin firmly in Italy in the 15th century (a couple of centuries after the first playing cards appeared), when they were created as a variant deck to play a special trick-taking game called Tarocchini. It wasn’t until three hundred years later that they started to be used for cartomancy—and it wasn’t until 1910 that the Rider-Waite-Smith, the deck everyone now associates with “traditional” tarot imagery, was invented.

The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

rider-waite-2-swordsmarseilles-2-swordsBefore 1910, the tarot cards everyone used had “pip” cards, like a standard poker deck’s non-face cards, for the four suits. (Example at left.) It was mystic A.E. Waite and his collaborator, illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, who came up with new meanings and symbolism for the tarot, including inventing entirely new symbolism to replace the featureless pip cards, creating the deck most commonly used for fortune-telling to this day. (Example at right.)

That’s right—the “ancient” mystical tarot, seen most famously in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die (which uses a deck that is not actually the Rider-Waite-Smith deck but whose symbology is based on it)  is actually only just over a hundred years old. (And you won’t see any discussion of it in Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s books, since they were both written prior to 1910!)

Tarot cards can, naturally, be used for fortune-telling. I don’t personally hold with trying to read the future from a random dealing of pasteboards, but as fortune-telling methods go they’re probably no more or less effective than horoscopes or fortune cookies or any other form of predicting the future. Which is to say, they let people fill in their own blanks, and decide retroactively down the line that some random event “must” have been what they were predicting.

As such methods go, they do offer a lot more latitude for interpretation than a lot of other methods because, like clouds in the sky, they can be read into whatever natural pattern the human faculty for pattern-matching can fit them into. Indeed, they might be more useful psychologically, as a sort of Rorschach ink blot for the soul, than in trying to tell the future. Let the patient fill in his own meaning, use it as a talking point, and go from there.

But the important thing for our purposes is that, in terms of being made to try to predict a story, they can also be used as archetypes to create a story from scratch. And that’s where Tarot for Writers by Corrine Kenner comes in. Out of curiosity, I picked it up in the Kindle edition, and here is what I found.

Tarot for Writers

As guide books go, Tarot for Writers is a bit of an odd duck. It’s neither fish nor fowl—not 100% tarot guide or 100% writing guide, but an intermingling of both. Written from the point of view of a writer who is also a practicing tarot mystic, and intended for tarot users who are interested in writing and writers who are interested in using tarot cards as inspiration, certain aspects of it are bound to fall flat to both tarot users and writers.

Advanced tarot users will probably be displeased that about 2/3 of the book’s page content is dedicated to thumbnail descriptions of every card in the deck—stuff they already know or can find elsewhere in greater detail than this book can provide, but absolutely crucial for writers who don’t plan to delve any deeper into tarot than just this one book and need it as a handy reference. Writers, on the other hand, who have no interest (or belief) whatsoever in mysticism or fortunetelling and just want to use the cards as a random story generator will probably giggle like mad at Kenner’s new-agey description of the psychic cleansing rituals one should undergo before using them. And they might just outright guffaw at Kenner’s completely serious assertion that one should also look to the cards for advice on choosing a publisher and the like.

That being said, the writing advice that makes up the first third of the book is generally solid. It starts out with some basic discussion of card spreads used in fortune telling—not really covering it in great detail, but enough that you can use it for telling your characters’ fortunes or generating story plots. Then it goes into more in-depth discussion of brainstorming and writing techniques using individual cards, several cards, or whole spreads. It includes discussion of dramatic structure such as the Hero’s Journey or Freytag’s Pyramid, with spreads based on them, and suggested writing exercises to try, alone or with a group. This is solid writing advice from someone with workshopping experience, it is easily the best part of the book, and is what makes it worth paying for. She’s doing a lot more here than just saying, “Learn what the cards mean, then pick some and write about the meanings.” She’s getting specific, and some of this advice could prove very useful.

As for the last 2/3, the card interpretations, “serious” tarot users can complain they’re fairly basic or simply disagree with her interpretations (and as I’ve seen from the other reviews on Amazon, a number of them have) but you have to bear in mind who the book is meant for. Serious tarot users already know for themselves what the cards mean, so they don’t need to bother with Kenner’s descriptions, but they still ought to get their money’s worth out of her writing advice. However, writers who don’t plan to go “seriously” into tarot don’t really need more than what’s here. And with the emphasis Kenner places on various mythological archetypes, and the way she ties each (Major Arcana, at least) card to an aspect of writing helps bring home to writers the rich metaphysical and mythological symbolism inherent in the cards. And if you’re writing rather than fortunetelling, what more do you want?

And one fairly clever thing, I thought, was that Kenner points out writers don’t need to limit themselves to the “official” meanings, or even her specific interpretations of the cards. If they want to write about some element of the background art, or use the card’s description for a play on words that has little to do with its symbolic meaning (e.g. instead of writing about “stagnation,” having characters go to a bar named “Stag Nation”), they can. The important thing is what inspires you, and there is no “doing it wrong” when it comes to being inspired.

Of course, if you want to use tarot cards in writing, and you know how to write already, you don’t have to buy this book. You could just read The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A.E. Waite, the man who invented the modern tarot deck (and available free from public domain sites everywhere) to learn what the cards mean, then pick some and write about the meanings. But if you’re looking for decent writing advice crossed with a good introduction to tarot, and don’t mind ignoring the bits you don’t like, then Tarot for Writers could be the book for you.

There were some minor annoyances, such as a few typos and places where one card was referred to by the name of another suit. And I really don’t like the way Kindle books are fully justified; I wish it was DRM-free so I could run it through Calibre to give it left-only justification. And in terms of flipping back and forth to check out what each specific card in a spread means, it might be more useful to have a paper copy of the book instead. But all in all, I think it was worth the $10 I paid for it.

My Preferred Deck

hanson-2-swordsIf you want to try the book out, you don’t even necessarily need a tarot deck. There are plenty of free tarot web sites or apps out there that can generate readings for you in the standard layouts or draw one card at a time. If you are going to get a tarot deck, I tend to like the Hanson-Roberts tarot, which keeps most of the symbolism of the Rider-Waite-Smith but with a more modern colored-pencil art style.

As a side benefit, it’s also the cheapest usable tarot deck out there; you can get a miniature but still quite usable version in the $7 Tarot to Go! set or a full-sized (playing-card sized) version for $13. Regardless, when you get a tarot deck you definitely want to go with one that keeps the symbolism from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck rather than simply having random illustrations; the symbolism is an important key to remembering what the card is all about.

As tools for breaking writer’s block go, it’s not bad. I’ve used it a couple of times myself. It’s amazing how creatively your mind can fill in the gaps when you give it an outline, even one created entirely at random. And don’t be afraid to shift cards around in the layout if the plot works better in your head that way. Remember, there’s no “doing it wrong” when it comes to getting inspiration.


  1. I’ve known for a while that tarots are useful for this purpose. In fact I remember telling a friend about it while we were visiting a fancy bookstore, and drawing odd looks from other patrons. But I doubt the utility of such a book. A general-purpose Tarot interpretation guide should be sufficient. Yet another thing to look into…

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