Tarot for Storytellers: The Acorn Spread
One of my favorite things about tarot cards is how versatile they are. They can be used for divination, emotional affirmation, problem-solving, and even for writing novels. As somebody who leans into the mystical in her own writing, I often use tarot in my writing quite literally: a character may be giving or receiving a reading, and I draw their cards for them IRL. But you can also use tarot cards to plot out a book, figure out what a character might do next, or develop your character’s backstory.
Here’s an example spread that can help you develop a character’s narrative arc in a novel: the Acorn to Oak Spread, taken from Tarot Spreads: Layouts & Techniques to Empower Your Readings by Barbara Moore.
It consists of 9 cards.
Your acorn. Where you are now.
Soil: What resources you need to get started.
Sunshine: What you need to know to help it grow.
Water: What you need to do to nurture it along.
Knot: What unexpected delay you can watch for and maybe circumvent.
Trunk: What will help you be strong.
Your oak: Your goal.
Branches: Benefits of your oak.
Leaves: Unexpected gifts from your oak.
Moore suggests you self-select cards 1 (your acorn) and 7 (your oak) before shuffling the deck and laying down the rest of the cards in the order in which they fall. But if you’re totally clueless about what you want to write next, what a side character’s purpose really is, or what’s motivating your villain, you may just want to shuffle your whole deck and lay them in random order.
Here’s an example of what you might get from this spread!
My vague story idea: A 31-year-old woman moves in with her boyfriend’s family during the coronavirus pandemic.
Now let’s dig deeper. Here’s how the cards fell.
Card 1: My Character’s Acorn = The Hierophant.
This represents where she’s at in the very beginning of the story. In this case, she’s kind of a boss, despite the whole living with her future mother-in-law thing. The Hierophant often represents a leader or a literal boss that holds tightly to knowledge and is always prepared for when inspiration strikes. So she might be at the top of her game, feeling like she’s got her shit together even as the world falls apart.
But there must be something more she wants out of life. Something missing. Some obstacles to achieving her deepest yearnings.
Card 7: My Character’s Oak = Nine of Cups
This boss lady is tired. What’s the point of being the boss when you don’t get to sleep? When all you do is put out fires and blabber on through conference calls and stroke the ego’s of people even more important than you? She’s kind of feeling like maybe there isn’t one. What she really wants more than anything is peace and harmony. And this whole global pandemic chaos has made that more clear than ever.
But who’s going to pay for that in this economy? And can she really give up her high-paying job just to sleep more? Will her boyfriend still want her when she’s not bringing home the turkey bacon?
Card 2: My Character's Soil = Son of Wands
Traditionally, court cards like this represent either a literal person in one’s life or a side of your own personality. Since this is for a novel, I’m going to say this represents another character.
So as we look closer at this second character, I notice a few things. This is one confident motherfucker. He’s rising up and grabbing that wand like “yeah, what?” And adding a little wink and a “kiss, kiss” to boot. His goals are coming up roses all over the place, and he seems to have endless energy. This feels like a best friend to me, maybe a "work wife" or "work husband", or a person who might be a future business partner, if our character can get up the guts to quit or 9-5 to pursue something that actually lets her have a life.
Since this card represents the soil or the resources our character will need to tap into to achieve her dreams, it’s clear that this character will play a big role in our story. Perhaps this character is the impetus for clarifying what she wants, or is right there at the inciting incident, egging her on.
Card 3: Sunshine = Son of Cups
Enter another character, this one more compassionate but just as key. This dude is looking forward, but with a lot more calmness and organization. He, too, has achieved great things but isn’t shouting it from the rooftop like that Son of Wands is. This feels like the boyfriend in this scenario since the Cup suit represents relationships in tarot.
Perhaps the sunshine our main character needs is the steady, supportive presence of her man. While she bounces ideas and jokes off of the Son of Wands, she really leans on her Son of Cups.
And maybe some of the tension our story needs to be interesting comes from the push and pull of these two competing men in her life.
Card 4: My Character's Water = The Tower
Welp, our main character is going to have to blow some shit up if she wants to find more peace and balance in her life. Ironic, right?
The Tower represents a super momentous, even destructive moment in our character’s arc. This could be when she quits her job, gets fired, is laid off, or maybe she breaks up with her Son of Cups and is suddenly living out of a hotel room in a strange city not quite sure how she got to this point.
Whatever the case, this has to be big. Life-changing. It’s gotta hurt, like ripping a duct-tape bandaid off of your bicep.
Card 5: My Character's Knot = Daughter of Swords
As if that whole Tower of destruction wasn’t enough, life throws another obstacle at our character. Poor woman. This one is in the form of another character.
The daughter of swords is a clear thinker. She’s sure about what she knows and at ease with her own quality of experience. She uses that logic and wisdom to root herself in the present. She thinks she’s a star and likes being told so.
Maybe that big mouth Son of Wands blabbed about your plans to your frenemy, and she stole your idea. What a cad!
So now not only has our MC just broken up with her boyfriend or quit her job to try this new thing, but the person she was counting on broke her trust! What ever will she do?
Card 6: My Character's Trunk = The Magician
Normally this card means that our character has infinite potential and that all she needs to accomplish her goals is already available to her. But I’m going to take this a little more literally, and say she’s going to go to an actual magician a.k.a. psychic.
Our MC is feeling down on her luck, at rock bottom, and in need of some objective counsel that doesn’t require health insurance (because she ain't got that anymore). So she turns to a psychic for answers.
And in this reading, something clicks. A new perspective on her idea. A potential solution to her woes. A way to make things right between her and one or both of her now estranged Sons.
Cue emotional reunion. But who will she choose?
Card 8: My Character's Branches = Ace of Wands
This feels like a clue to me, a direction for the plot, a suggestion that our MC picks the Son of Wands over the Son of Cups. Maybe she’s decided that she’s more of night-blooming jasmine and doesn’t need the hot light of her hot Son of Cups.
What she’s really looking for is a partner in crime. Somebody who takes big risks — and okay, makes much bigger mistakes. Somebody who will take an equal part in her work, so she doesn’t have to shoulder the burden alone.
But does he want what she wants?
Card 9: My Character's Leaves = Two of Wands
This doesn’t scream romance, but it does speak of partnership. And again, the Wands say our MC is leaning toward that partnership over the stability that her old Son of Cups could provide.
She can create stability on her own. Her cups can be full without him.
We end the story with our MC moving into a new, smaller, cheaper apartment next door to her new partner. Who is gay, it turns out. No wonder he wasn’t that into her.
But regardless of the state of her romantic life, in every other way, her life as never been fuller. With joy. With creativity. With inspiration.
And that, she realizes, is what she’s wanted all along.
That exercise took me less than an hour and produced a pretty clear narrative arc! And honestly, I would read this book. It feels like candy even though I know I should be eating more kale.
Do a few of these yourself and see what pops up. Any stories begging to be told?