Plot Cards

Some months ago, a friend on Facebook provided an extraordinary link.

The main link was to Kickstarter. It’s an awesome place where people with ideas (of the creative type) can present those ideas to people who can choose to back their projects. It’s like a Mecca for artist entrepreneurs. (And a place I want to patronize, once I have some disposable income again). Typically, the proposer offers something in exchange for the initial backing—the product, once it’s completed, usually.

The specific thing I looked at on Kickstarter were the Story Forge Cards (they have since been fully funded; they will be in production in July 2012). You basically have something which looks like a cross between a tarot deck and Richard Simmon’s Deal-A-Meal.

You shuffle the cards and lay them out in a spread. There are various spreads for various types of stories. The position of the card in the spread tells you what its contents apply to (whether it be to a main character, secondary character, plot, etc.), and its contents are adjectives like cruel, unhappy, bright future, beautiful, daddy issues–you get the picture.

(That’s a simplified description; if you want to see them in action, watch the video.)

If you are a writer, the benefit is obvious: you will never suffer from writer’s block again. When you want to write something, you simply do a spread and write up whatever the cards suggest to your imaginative brain.

I really want these cards. Curse my poverty! Curse the fact that there is no gift-getting holiday for me between July and October!

But, I am not one to let something like a lack of money stop me from having something awesome. So I resorted to that old stand-by: make it myself.

Through hours of painstaking copying, pasting, and inserting Microsoft clip art–not to mention cutting and taping in real life–I made myself an entire tarot deck.

Now, you might ask, “Are you so poor you can’t afford a secondhand tarot deck from a used bookstore?” No, I’m not that poor, but tarot decks are so often about being pretty that they’re not practical. I don’t care about pretty when it comes to working; I want practical. So, aside from a small piece of clip art which quickly identifies the card, everything else on the card is text. I don’t have to memorize what the nine of cups, reversed, means; I don’t have to look it up in a book; its meaning is right there on the card. Move on to the next card, please.

The cards tend to separate well into cards for characters (the major arcana and the face cards from the minor arcana) and themes either for the characters or the plot (the minor arcana pip cards). If you already have a story started, but it’s stalling out, you can draw a card from one of these two divisions and then apply it to the plot or characters you already have.

If you don’t like what you’ve got, you can reverse the card (which usually gives you the opposite condition, although sometimes it’s a weaker or stronger manifestation of what you already have), or just draw another one. The purpose is not to let the cards write the entire story from beginning to end; the purpose is to give you an idea that you can roll with.

Does it work? Yes. I have just finished writing a contemporary romance story (it started out as a short story, but it morphed into a short novella) using my deck.

I only pulled three cards. The first, Death, reversed, was intended for my main character, and it suggested a person stuck in the past and/or mired in grief.

The next card was for the plot–the 9 of Swords, reversed. It foretold an end of suffering and coming back to reality. It also suggested that the past involved warfare or arguments.

The third card was intended for my secondary character. It was the King of Cups, and it suggested a man that was empathetic, alluring, and highly artistic.

I don’t think I could have gotten a more harmonious set of cards if I had picked them out intentionally.

From those I ended up with the story, “The Widow.” My main character, Carol, is still in mourning over her husband, who was killed in Afghanistan two years ago (there’s the warfare in the past). She is living a reclusive life, not leaving the house any more than she has to and not socializing with friends. Her friend, Bonnie, finally lures her out of the house with a gift of creative writing classes at the local college. On her first night there, she runs into (literally) the painting instructor. The next week he almost plows into her again, and, laughing about it, he invites her to get some coffee.

It turns out that Daniel is actually a locally well-known artist, and he and Carol begin meeting every week after class to discuss art and creative endeavors in general. It is on one of these evenings that Daniel becomes inspired to paint Carol. When their class term is over, she begins to model for him, and he taps into her grief to create a 1920’s Impressionist portrait which he entitles “The Widow.” But, in the process of working with him, Carol begins to heal and return to normalcy.

(I am in the process of getting some proofreaders for “The Widow” and hope to have it up for sale by the end of May.)

Besides using tarot cards, you can also use these 1936-edition Deal-A-Plot cards (warning: mega file download). They also help plot out a story, although they are much more specific than tarot cards or the Story Forge cards. For some people, that will be a blessing, but for other people, that will be too constraining–especially in light of the dated descriptions for people. I suppose Hagrid could qualify as a cockney, but he’s the only one I’ve seen in a story since about 1936.

So, there’s a writing exercise for everyone: print out the 1936 cards and give them a try. I am currently working on a new short story suggested by them, and I think it’s going to turn out pretty good. We shall see next month.

12 comments on “Plot Cards

  1. Wallace says:

    Nice idea. I checked and, tho Amazon has a search category already set up for the Story Forge cards, it brought back no results. This means a lot of people have already searched Amazon for them, so the odds of Amazon carring them is pretty good. I also checked out the 1936 Deal A Plot cards and downloaded them, so I guess I’ll have to print them out now and see how it goes.

    I like your idea of a Tarot deck with all the plot points on them. Did you just assign each card the actual meaning the original Tarot card contains, or did you rewrite it specially for writing stories? As an example, the Death card usually represents change, so did it just stay change for you, or did you give it a more story related meaning, something like: 1) the main character has a change of heart about his love interest 2) the main character experiances a change of job 3) the main character is in a debilitating accident, etc.

    I think I’ll try the Deal A Plot for my next story. I’m currently finishing up the details for a short story. I’ll pass it on to you to see how you like it when I finish it.

    I’m surprised no one has converted the Deal A Plot, or some such, into a computer program to generate story outlines. By just looking over the Deal A Plot, it would seem to be a very good candidate to just enter all the cards into a database and then use a random number generator to crank out a plot outline fairly easily. One could get the characters, the occupation, the setting, and the basic style of story just from the cards, so the same from a simple program would be easy. Of course, if one already has the cards and a pair of dice, the same could be done without the expense or bother of buying or writing a program to do it.

    • keripeardon says:

      Kickstarter has some sort of link with Amazon; I’ve seen several people mention selling through Amazon when their project is funded, and the FAQs section says that Amazon processes the money between funders and the entrepreneur.

      The Story Forge website says that they will be selling on Amazon, so that’s probably why it’s ready to go; as soon as they have a product, it will be sold there.

      I used the typical meanings of a tarot deck–I didn’t make them writing specific–but I did alter the text some with writing in mind–namely I expanded on the list of adjectives that the original description suggested to me. I did put in a few possible scenarios, such as “possible death of a loved one” or something of that nature.

      (I still have the file; I can e-mail them to you, if you’d like to play with them. I just can’t publish them on my blog because the text I used is copyrighted for personal use only.)

      A Google search for “random plot generator” does pull up some computer programs, but none as detailed as what you get with Story Forge, and none with as many adjectives and general suggestions as you get with tarot cards.

      • Wallace says:

        Thanks, email me the file if you would, I’d like to see how you interpret each of the cards.

  2. astrobeej says:

    Hey folks. I’m glad to see interest in my Story Forge deck. It will indeed be available on Amazon, hopefully starting in early July 2012.

    Also glad you are enjoying the “Deal-A-Plot” cards. They are the oldest example of this kind of story-telling cards I’ve ever found so far.

    Are you guys familiar with Italo Calvino’s book “The Castle of Crossed Destinies?” The story introduces us to several travelers who all arrive at a castle independently of each other, and after finding that they have been magically struck mute use Tarot cards to tell each other their stories. In his afterword, Calvino calls the Tarot “a machine for making stories,” though in reading the book, I was rather confused how the stories told had any real connection to the cards themselves. Still, it’s entertaining, and talks a great deal about using traditional tarot cards for story generation.

    If anyone would like to keep up to date on Story Forge, go to the website (linked above) and sign up for the mailing list!

    B.J. West

    • Keri Peardon says:

      I was just spreading the word on another author’s blog yesterday (I gave her a link to the Deal-A-Plot cards too).

      I plotted a story with the Deal-A-Plot cards and I’m currently working on it (and it’s going really well). But I also have your cards at the very top of my wish list (yea, Amazon Universal Wish List Button!). Having multiple types of cards is like having multiple insurance policies; never suffer from writer’s block!

      I hope you do really well in your business venture. Maybe you should also need to create software version–like Wallace was talking about–for people who prefer to keep everything digital. Or make an iPhone app that gives you an opening line to a story or a character type, plot device, and setting. Need a story this instant? Consult the app for a little quick inspiration. (Imagine what you could do with just “sneaky, violence, and wedding” or “depressed, adultery, and convenience store.”)

  3. threenorns says:

    “I suppose Hagrid could qualify as a cockney, but he’s the only one I’ve seen in a story since about 1936”

    i guess you haven’t seen “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels”, then? 😉

    • Keri Peardon says:

      No. Alas, we don’t get much British television out our way. We have to watch what we can on Netflix (when we have Netflix).

      I think of cockney as an accent–not a character type–but perhaps I’m mistaken. Is it more like the British equivalent of a redneck?

      • threenorns says:

        “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” is a wickedly funny crime-heist-gone-seriously-awry film by Guy Ritchie starring Jason Statham.

        cockneys are a distinct character type – the accent is a large part of it but with it goes an attitude. if cockneys were animals, they’d be sparrows: cheeky, chirpy, and with a wicked twinkle. get them drunk at a bar and fists will fly (but only in a good cause). although he firmly believes in “barefoot and pregnant”, the archetypical cockney loathes – i mean *loathes* – woman-beaters and child-abusers. he won’t call the cops, though – he’ll protect anybody from the cops or the “revenooers” but once the coast is clear, woe betide the miscreant bec Our Man Cockney will immediately dive on him, fists flailing and boots flying, with a glowing grin and a cigarette that never leaves his lips. next time they meet at a bar, so long’s he’s not relapsed, it’ll be “no ‘arm done, then, mate!” and they’ll have a beer. he has no respect for law or government but it’s “God Bless the Queen!” at the top of his lungs with his whole heart.

        naturally, you’ve got yer bad apples in the barrel but the “light side” cockney is my favourite. the darksiders? they’re just *scary*.

      • threenorns says:

        here ya go: one of my favourite scenes from LS&2SB, illustrating the perfect cockney characters, lol

      • Keri Peardon says:

        Well, I’m impressed at myself, because I understood 90% of what they were saying.

        Is a cockney regional specific–like from London or Birmingham–or is it any lower-income person in England?

      • threenorns says:

        cockney is *highly* *highly* regional. specifically, a true cockney is one who was born and raised within sound of the bells of the Bow Bells (St Mary-le-Bow, aka “Marylebone”, a region called cheapside, in london.

  4. threenorns says:

    ugh – no edit ability – *so long’s there’s been no relapse and add “animals, esp small dogs of the rough-coated terrier type” to the list with women and children.

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