Reading Tarot Backwards: The Playwright’s Guide to Tarot #1

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

Playwright’s Tip #1: Read Your Spread Backwards to Find the Story

For the month of March, I’ve picked out several of the the shortest books on writing that changed my life. I learned tips that not only helped me understand scripts better but that went on to help me read tarot better. In this first of three tarot tips from playwrights, I’ll demonstrate how reading tarot backwards helps you find the story and increase your accuracy.

If you find this interesting, please check out my talk for the Denver Tarot Meetup on applying literary theory to tarot reading, The Playwright’s Guide to Tarot, on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM, Goddess Isis Books & Gifts, 2775 South Broadway, Englewood. $10.

Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays by David Ball

The cover of Backwards and Forwards by David Ball. We apply his techniques to practice reading tarot backwards.

When I was working on my theatre degree at the University of Northern Colorado, I took Playscript Analysis with Mary Martin, who assigned this book. The book is simple to read and consequently I couldn’t imagine it contained anything worthwhile. In consolation, it was fast to read.

David Ball’s premise is that to understand a play, you must start at the end and work backwards. What is the final event that happens? Why did this happen? Because ZZZ. And why did ZZZ happen–because YYY. Of course YYY happened because of XXX, and so on back to the beginning of the play. Every script comprises a series of interdependent occurrences that can be tracked step by step as a series of causes and effects.

The author uses Hamlet as the main example script, and after reading this book I understood Hamlet in an entirely different way. No longer did psychology rule our interpretation of the melancholy prince. In Act I the ghost of Hamlet’s father instructs him to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” Hamlet, a rational, intelligent student, does not take a non-corporeal being at its word. Rather, he sets up a series of tests to determine with certainty whether his father was murdered and if so by whom. The tests prove inconclusive, and as a result, he doesn’t take action. This was not the depressed and listless Hamlet from my earlier English degree! In the final scene, Hamlet kills Claudius. What happened right before that? Laertes says, “The king, the king’s to blame.” Now that an eyewitness corroborates the ghost’s accusation, Hamlet stabs Claudius without hesitation.

How Going Backwards Changed My Life

This book showed me that story is built on actions with consequences, not the psychology of character, the cleverness of dialogue, or the loftiness of theme. Suddenly stories stopped meandering through symbolic labyrinths and became white-knuckle roller coaster rides that started with the inciting incident (the intrusion as Ball calls it) and zipped through curves and loop-the-loops on a one-way track to the thrilling end. Or at least now I could see the series of connected events, each precipitating the next like a line of falling dominoes. But beyond understanding plays better, this helped me understand people better. People were no longer emotionally driven. Now I could see them as wanting something and taking action to achieve it. Everything had a cause and effect, and each action taken was based on a previous requirement being fulfilled or a next goal being desired.

Reading Tarot Backwards

Learning to read backwards helped my understanding of tarot. Reading tarot backwards means that I start with the final outcome card and see how each card supports or leads up to that conclusion. Additionally, I strain out psychological and emotional references, pinpointing actions and their triggers. I may or may not read backwards for the client. But in my mind I am looking both forwards and backwards to determine the causes and effects. Incidentally, if the final card is a difficult one, I address it first so that I can put it in perspective and save the querent worry.

When I lay out a spread, I now see the entire story all at once. Although there are several steps that happen in the initial seconds of looking at a spread, such as finding themes, noting preponderances, and identifying the cast of characters, one of the first is to establish the final card and then place the other cards in perspective based on that. If you turn over the cards one at a time or even read starting at the beginning without considering the ending, there is an increased likelihood you will end up off on a tangent. Instead, consider each card as leading up to that surprising but inevitable conclusion. Reading tarot backwards lets you set up each domino in the story for a clear, linear understanding of the events involved.

The Book

Ball, David. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1983. 96 pages. Who would like this? Anyone who loves writing, who loves Hamlet or wants to see it from a fresh perspective, or who wants to understand the structure of stories better.

The starry canopy of the tarot Chariot parts to reveal a stage card and scenic backdrop in this graphic to advertise "The Playwright's Guide to Tarot" lecture for the Denver Tarot Meetup.
Click the image to see this event on Meetup.
Joy Vernon
Joy Vernon

Joy Vernon is widely recognized as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty-five years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup grew into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Now Joy runs the Greater Seattle Tarot Meetup. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher in Burien, Washington. To learn more, please visit

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