How to Forge a Story, Tarot-Style: A Review of Story Forge Cards

I’m going to show you how a story is born.

People ask where my ideas come from all the time. I even answered that question over at The Author Spot just recently, so you should check that out. But before you get sidetracked by that awesome tangent, I want you to stick with me for a few minutes and watch a miracle unfold. Then I want you to get out your credit card or your PayPal address, because you’re gonna need it. I have absolutely zero vested interest in promoting any product for any company or individual, but I will happily evangelize for people who are doing amazing things that make life awesome in the creative world. One such person is B.J. West, creator of Story Forge Cards and the highly successful Kickstarter campaign that made it possible for me to buy them.

My fellow Creative Commoners podcast host, Corey Bishop, discovered these cards back when we did a show about Kickstarter (he actually contributed to the campaign while on the air), and we later had B.J. West on the show (listen to Part 1 and Part 2), as well as actually used the deck on two other episodes. One you can listen to here, and the other one will be airing in a couple weeks. We’re enthusiastic enough about the product that we will likely have recurring episodes where we use the deck and encourage listeners out there to submit their own success stories with them.

You may be asking if you actually need a deck of cards to help you come up with story or character ideas. I mean, maybe you’re the kind of person who likes your ideas to come straight from the wild and ferment into delicious stories, like old-time sourdough left out in the open air to collect yeast over time, as opposed to more modern methods that use a pre-engineered starter of some kind. Maybe you’re like me and you absolutely abhor outlines or any other “device” designed to force the creative beast that lives in your soul into a box.

Well, I can’t blame you for feeling that way. I’m an idea purist, and when I first saw these cards, I too was convinced it was a gimmick for people who couldn’t use their imaginations unless they had a crutch. At best, I thought they would be a fun little novelty, like Mad Libs. At the worst, I was concerned that any story that came from these cards would be stilted and contrived and all too formulaic. My inner-curmudgeon was in full “get off my lawn” mode, and I’m sure yours is right now as well, but I urge you to just wait.

It wasn’t until we taped the first Story Forge episode on Creative Commoners and actually used the things that I realized how all those assumptions were wrong. In fact, the cards were the opposite of constricting. The purely genius design of Story Forge is how very open it is. B.J. West is no stranger to storytelling or the creative process. The only thing he’s encouraged the user to do here is to think their way to a story that’s all their own. Ever feel like you are having trouble breaking through a wall and coming up with a new idea? These cards are like an enchanted war hammer.

But it’s not enough for me to just write about how awesome they are. I went ahead and did a sample layout for you and will post the pictures here so you can see what the process looks like. If you want more of an idea that you can listen to or watch, visit the links I posted above for the podcasts or go to the Story Forge site, where there are plenty of demonstrations. But my hope is, by the time you finish reading this here blog, you’ll want to go over there and buy your very own deck and try this for yourself. It’s nothing short of exhilarating.

So let’s get started.

Here are the contents of the Story Forge box. The cards are not small. Think Tarot again. They’re the size of a 3×5 index card. I like this aspect of them. They feel substantial. Powerful. And the deeper you get into a story or character background layout, the more powerful the cards actually start to feel. But I’ll get into that in a minute. The little booklet is simple and well-written, and it provides a wealth of layout diagrams, from the classic hero’s journey to film noir, to character backgrounds and action story. But don’t feel hemmed in by the diagrams or even the cards themselves. Each “suit” (destiny, wealth, will, emotion, identity) comes with two blank cards so you can make your own.

For the purposes of this blog, I chose the Once Upon a Time layout, which is pretty quick and simple, and (I think) a good way to get a basic idea off the ground. I have done this one a few times now and I think it’s very well suited to short stories. But here’s what it looks like:

Now, the text below the diagram is something I have to admit I don’t pay TOO close attention to. I mean, certainly factor it in if you really want to understand the elements of classical story structure. But if you feel like that’s putting baby in a corner, then disregard for now. To me, I think just the act of turning the cards and placing them is really what gets the juices flowing and makes this experience special. More on that later.

So I shuffled the deck really really well, cut it, and got started. Here’s card #1 (feel free to play along):

Notice how the card has two options on it. The one on the other side is the polar opposite. Now, you wouldn’t be breaking any rules if you flipped the card over and used the other option instead of the one you turned up originally. If the Sloth side works better for your story than Industry, by all means. That’s the beauty of this. Options. Anything it takes to pry open your mind and let the creative juices out.

So, the first card is always intimidating. I’ve found that the best way to get rolling with something like this is to already have a kernel of an idea in mind in terms of what you’re looking to write. Say you came up with something awhile back but it just felt dead in the water or didn’t have any real meat on its bones. For me, in this case, I had wanted to write a story about a geocaching expedition gone very much awry, but I had absolutely no inkling of how to handle the plot.

With this card, I basically interpreted it as a very ardent hiker and geocaching enthusiast who is on a mission to find every last hidden cache in her state… only at some point, it became more like an obsession (backstory: her husband and daughter were killed tragically, and this has become something of a soul-searching expedition for her…something I pondered when I was thinking about the character and what might be driving her on this task).

Next card:

The Black Bird. Now, keep in mind that these cards are drawn randomly and I’d already had an idea this story was going to be supernatural/artifact-driven. This isn’t and will not be the first time things like this happen with these cards (alluding to how they almost feel mystical in the way they give you direction, or seem to know where you’re already heading).

In terms of the story, I wrote down in my notes that naturally she’s starting to find a pattern of notes/objects/artifacts in these caches that’s leading her somewhere. These are things I would usually plan to work out once I started actually writing. Next card:

Illness. Okay, so she’s growing closer to something happening. I wrote in my notes that perhaps she’s maybe opening a door of some kind, and the closer she gets to doing so, the more of a physical effect it’s having on her. Perhaps it’s making her sick. Again, a detail I can fit in or work out in the course of the actual writing. Next:

Again, this was a COMPLETELY RANDOM DRAWING. It’s at this point, I started to feel my mind tingling. Something was happening here. My brain and the creative wellspring from which I draw so many of my story ideas were basically feeding off one another like mad. Doors were opening, and I don’t just mean in my burgeoning story plot. I was writing down notes so quickly I doubt I’ll be able to read it all later, but the thing is, I don’t think I’ll need to read it all, because the moment left a very deep impression in my memory, the way most of my story ideas do (which is why I have typically eschewed notes as anything other than reinforcement devices).


Madness. So I started thinking, while on the other side of this door, in this other realm, she finds her family intact. First she’s frightened, then fascinated… but then she starts to believe that this alternate family is truly hers, and that the alternate version of herself is actually the invader. Now, this is treading in Fringe territory, and I don’t believe I would wind up writing it this way exactly, but this is all about making a general sketch. Details are subject to change, and that’s perfectly okay. The important thing is that the part of the brain that spits out ideas was working.


These cards represent two separate draws, but I just decided to condense them into the same picture. The first is Delusion. And again, this is perfect and fits in with her madness scenario. She’s losing her grip, she’s deluding herself into believing things that aren’t true (that this other family is actually hers) and I think it’s driving her to make a decision she could come to regret.

Then comes the Grifter card. And this one was a real challenge. Obviously I would have to introduce a character who would try to initiate some sense into this woman, but what exactly does he get out of it? What is his role in this whole thing? Did he place these objects that led to her opening the door and thereby set some sort of trap? Something to ponder.

And finally:

The Aversion card was also interesting. It could refer to any of the characters I’ve established, but ultimately what came to mind was that the main character gets the opportunity to stay in this world she stole for herself (and at what great cost), only to find… the family she hoped to have back no longer wants anything to do with her, thereby wrapping it up in classic Allison fashion.

Here’s the whole thing from up above. Isn’t it a beauty? To me, the formation has power. There is not just one idea in there, but INFINITE ideas. I could come back to this very same layout tomorrow and have a whole new story idea. It might not be a bad idea to take pictures or write down certain compelling layouts so you can refer to them later.

Now, you will notice that these cards did not give me any answers at all. I provided them for myself. The deck is really nothing more than a series of guideposts that will hopefully lead you to a great idea to work from. You might have looked at these cards and saw a completely different plot, and that’s why these cards are so amazing. I would love to know what you might have come up with.

Now, it doesn’t end there. Like I said, Once Upon a Time is a pretty simple layout. But I decided to step it up a notch and do the Hero’s Journey next. I’m not going to reveal all those cards here, but I will show you what the diagram looks like for comparison:

And an hour later, I had this:

What you see there is quite possibly my next novel. Or its skeleton anyway. Next, I plan to do several character background layouts to get a true sense of the people who are going to populate this book.

This layout was my favorite so far. With every turn of the cards, I grew more excited and apprehensive. It was (and pardon my enthusiastic mysticism here) almost like waiting to see what the universe was going to throw at me. And similar to the above layout, where it seemed oddly serendipitous, I had many of those moments with this one too. Such that the last and second to last cards I turned were the ending I already had in mind before I was even halfway through the layout. I was covered in goosebumps. It was a spiritual thing.

I have suggested to B.J. West that something like this really would lend itself well to a mobile app, but there is something about handling these cards that adds to the experience. And it’s hard to describe what. I feel almost like something would be lost if I were flipping these cards on a computer.

At any rate, hope I’ve convinced all you storytellers out there–whether you’re writing novels, short stories, movies, comic books, or play tabletop games–to pick up a deck of these cards. You can even use it as a party game. Teachers could use them as a classroom aid. The possibilities really are endless. I was a token doubter. Now I’m a rabid convert. When I think of all the things I can dream up with the help of these cards, I become a little giddy.

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