by Paula Chaffee Scardamalia
I’m currently about a third of the way into my current work-in-progress, a contemporary fantasy romance inspired by figures from Greek mythology, particularly the Muses.
As often happens with writing a novel, whether you are a beginner or are multi-published author, I was in a muddle about the middle. After more than 30,000 words, I’d lost sight of my direction through the story woods. So, of course, I turned to the tarot.
But before I did that I re-read a short little book on beats for romance novels. What are beats?
Beats, used in any form of story creation (most popular originally in screenwriting), are plot points, the smallest elements of a story. They can be an action, a thought, a line of dialogue, a decision. Think of them as road markers along the route to The End. If you know where you begin, where you want to end, and what markers to pay attention to along the way, you will have a more pleasant, sometimes faster, journey through your story.
And the longer the story, the more important those beats become. Think what would happen if you decided to drive across the United States and hadn’t determined how many hours you wanted to drive and how to get to the hotel where you intended to spend the night. You could end up having to drive miles off the interstate with tired cranky kids in the back seat going from hotel to hotel looking for a room in a place where there is a big sports event going on.
Not fun. Been there. Done that. Takes all the joy out of the adventure of the journey.
If you are a novelist or fiction writer, I can hear you insisting that getting lost and exploring detours are part of the fun. That’s why you go on the journey.
Right. I get that. Indeed, I tend to write like that, too. But late at night? When you are exhausted? Or expected to be at a conference or presentation at a certain time? Yes, roadmaps and GPS are your friends.
Tarot serves as roadmap, GPS, roadside rest, and fast food restaurant. It gives you that “Oh, thank whomever” feeling. Direction, guidance, sustenance all wrapped up in 78 cards.
So I did what I teach and coach others to do. I took out a tarot deck and, after shuffling, pulled one card for each beat of the story plus a card for the hero and one for the heroine. I also drew two additional cards to represent the wound (or backstory/need) of the hero and of the heroine. Twenty cards in all.
After turning over the first card, I had to laugh. In the opening scene of the book, the reader first sees the hero getting out of a Ferrari. The card I turned over to represent the hero? The Chariot.
The Chariot is that Major Arcana card that is all about movement, focus, daring, success with speed. Sounds like a Ferrari, doesn’t it?
Most of the other cards were equally as informative or inspirational if not as literal. Until I turned over the card that represents the happily-ever-after beat (necessary for a romance novel) at the end of the story. The card? The Ten of Cups.
Cups is the element of Water in the realm of heart, emotions, dreams, intuition and creativity. Ten is the last number of the suit before the royal cards. I call the Tens the tipping points of their suits. You’ve finished that stage or journey through the suit and now you tie up loose ends and prepare to begin again.
On the Ten of Cups from the deck I used, you see a man, a woman, and a child on a blanket under a tree preparing to have a picnic. A perfect happily ever after for my hero and heroine, who have ended their struggles with the world and each other and are looking forward to creating a life and a family together.
The Epilogue beat, the final card, was the 7 of Pentacles. Here a farmer stands admiring his crop of fruit or flowers that are growing, each one a Pentacle.
I found that card also appropriate as I am planning a series and the final scene of the current book should introduce some element that signals the storyline of the next book.
My next step was to record each card and then let flow whatever ideas around that story beat and card image emerged.
This is only one way I’ve used the tarot to help me and my clients and students develop story. It’s also a powerful tool for developing character, scenes, plot twists, settings and even the unexpected. One of my favorite questions to ask, regardless of what aspect of my story I am working on, is–
What am I not seeing about this conflict/ character/ beat/ etc.?
Another easy way to use the tarot that I illustrate in my book, Tarot for the Fiction Writer, is to pull three cards for your main character(s) that represent their past, present, and future.
I’ve also used the tarot to help clients make decisions about which project to work on, what they need to know about agents they might want to work with, and which direction to take their writing career.
At a minimum, using the tarot in your writing (nonfiction, too) will help you shake loose new ideas and insights about your story or career. At best, well, the tarot has a great sense of humor and loves helping out the Muse. It does a great job, too.
Hence, that Chariot. And why I’m no longer in a muddle.
Paula Chaffee Scardamalia is a book coach, dream, and tarot intuitive as well as the author of the novel In the Land of the Vultures and Tarot for the Fiction Writer. For 20 years, Paula has presented workshops across the country at national and regional Romance Writers of America conferences and meetings, the San Diego University Writers Conference, and the International Women’s Writing Guild. Paula publishes Divine Muse-ings, a weekly e-newsletter (since 2009) on writing, creativity, dreams, and tarot. She was a dream consultant for PEOPLE Country Magazine and is the award-winning author of Weaving a Woman’s Life: Spiritual Lessons from the Loom.