Speculative fiction writer, translator, and editor

by S. Qiouyi Lu

Tarot can be a great tool to get unstuck when writing. Not only do most decks have vivid imagery that can spark the imagination, but the openness of card readings can lead the creative mind to create unexpected associations and consider new options. This post includes a few simple three-card spreads that I often use, as well as a couple writing-specific approaches I take to tarot reading.

Beginning, Middle, and End

This is a straightforward spread to read for fiction. Each card, in the order drawn, represents the beginning, middle, and ending of a story. I typically take these to mean the starting imbalance that pushes the story forward, the climax, and the last note or change.

Gothic Cowboy Tarot by Kit Kellogg. Kickstarter exclusive.

The above spread shows the Hunter, the Rattlesnake, and the Jail. The accompanying booklet suggests the following interpretations for each card:

  • The Hunter – You have the skills to gather the tools. Arm yourself.
  • The Rattlesnake – Don’t stop halfway through. If you want fortune, sever the head, bury the body, and pocket the rattler.
  • The Jail – Feeling trapped? Get crafty or find patience.

The imagery on the card faces combined with enigmatic, open-ended interpretations suggest the shape of a story already: Perhaps a hunter going after their biggest quarry yet ends up failing to extricate themself from the situation that sent them on their journey to begin with. The imagery could be literal, or could be extrapolated into a more abstracted framework, where the Hunter is any protagonist, the Rattlesnake is the protagonist’s biggest struggle, and the Jail is the protagonist’s personal limbo. From there, you can project your own story details to that framework.

You don’t have to use a traditional tarot deck for your readings, either. The deck featured here is a Western-inspired oracle deck that includes its own themed imagery and explanations. You could even do readings with photos or other symbolism that’s evocative for you.

Situation, Action, and Outcome

This spread is, to me, a more choice-motivated and therefore character-driven tool than the beginning, middle, and end spread, which focuses more on the shape of the story and not the people within it. The “situation” is the status quo or imbalance that the character initially finds themself in. From there, the character takes a certain “action” that has consequences, or the “outcome.” How the consequences ripple out tends to be the crux of these kinds of stories.

Golden Thread Tarot by Tina Gong. Buy.

The three cards here are II of Pentacles (reversed), IX of Swords, and II of Swords (reversed):

  • II of Pentacles (reversed) – Loss of balance, disorganized, overwhelmed. There are times when life throws you many many curve balls at one time. You find it difficult to juggle all of the sudden changes that are coming your way. It is likely that in order to deal with these new events, you are neglecting something critical in your life. What can you do to regain balance?
  • IX of Swords – Anxiety, hopelessness, nightmares. The nine of swords represents someone that is trapped by their own negative thoughts. There is not necessarily a situation that warrants the worry, and this card hints that over-analysis leads to crippling indecision and feelings of helplessness.
  • II of Swords (reversed) – Lesser of two evils, no right choice, confusion. The choices that you need to make right now are ones where there are consequences for both. Though you struggle to weigh the options in your hands, anything you do could lead to suffering. The alternative is that you are wading through conflicting options from too many external sources, having to play middle man between [two] opposing forces.

Although the imagery here isn’t as straightforward as the Gothic Cowboy deck, the emotional notes in the card interpretations lend themselves to creating a strong character arc. Whether through passivity or actively making bad decisions, this is the story of a character who keeps making things worse for themself. What the details of those choices and histories are is up to you. I find that this spread, therefore, works best if you already have an idea of what your characters are like.

If you don’t have a physical tarot deck or want to do spreads on the go, you can use digital apps and references. My absolute favorite is the Golden Threads Tarot app, which is sleek, stylish, and informative. The keywords give a brief read on the card, while the description and questions lead to further introspection. Plus, you can do readings directly in the app with integrated explanations. Perfect both for learners and experienced tarot users.

Three Options

This spread is more for sparking inspiration rather than suggesting a certain story shape. The three options could be character choices, plot points, endings, thematic elements… You could also use this as a starting point for a new story, or treat the cards as three guiding prompts to fuse.

The Illuminated Tarot by Caitlin Keegan. Buy.

The three cards in this spread are Four of Clubs, 10 of Spades (Judgment), and 9 of Spades:

  • 4 of Clubs – Solid foundations, stability, celebration.
  • 10 of Spades (Judgment) – Waking up, an announcement.
  • 9 of Spades – The thoughts that keep a person awake, a struggle to make sense of events.

If you’re struggling to come up with a suitable ending, this spread gives three options: A tidy, happy ending; an ending signaling a new beginning; and an open, fridge horror ending.

As The Illuminated Tarot shows, you can also modify a standard deck of cards for tarot spreads by associating each suit with a tarot suit (pentacles, swords, wands, and cups) and making additional adjustments to correlate cards to the major arcana.

Motivation, Grounding, and Conflict

This is a character-centered spread that I use to get a better understanding of my character’s psyche. “Motivation” is what drives the character forward, while “grounding” describes the touchstones and coping mechanisms the character uses when faced with difficulties. “Conflict” here describes internal struggles with the self, but it could also be extrapolated to external conflicts.

Star Spinner Tarot by Trung Lê Nguyễn (Trungles). Buy.

The three cards in this spread are Judgment (reversed), Temperance (reversed), and IV of Cups:

  • Judgment (reversed) – Doubt, poor self-awareness, harsh self-judgment.
  • Temperance (reversed) – Imbalance, excessiveness, indulgence, lack of direction and foresight, something important is forgotten.
  • IV of Cups – Contemplation, reevaluation, inaction, meditation, biding time, apathy.

Here, the cards suggest a person whose inaccurate views of themself drive their choices. When faced with difficulties, the character tries to hide from reality by binging in some way. The character’s core conflict is the struggle to come to an insightful, introspective view of themself.

Reversals and Inversions

Sometimes, the spreads themselves still don’t get me unstuck. But each tarot card has two possible readings, the standard upright one, and the “reverse” of the card, when it’s drawn upside-down. These reverse readings aren’t necessarily opposites, but rather complements to their standard readings.

Golden Thread Tarot by Tina Gong. Buy.

The two readings for the Page of Cups are:

  • Upright – Delightful surprise, inner child, intuition. The Page of Cups heralds a happy surprise of some kind. The fish that plops out of the cup is a signal that one’s unconscious is attempting to make contact, though sometimes one does not understand what is meant to be said.
  • Reverse – Immaturity, escapism, lack of creativity. The inner child as represented by the Page of Cups can at times act exactly like a child. While sometimes full of wonder and happiness, he can also fly off into tantrums and into the world of his imagination, leaving all reality behind.

The two readings provide poles or endpoints to move between. If a character or situation seems too static, try checking the opposite reading of a card you chose to symbolize them and see if you can introduce something unexpected from there, or use one reading as a destination and the other as the starting point to introduce movement and arcs into your plot and character development.

For more resources on learning tarot and choosing decks, I’ve found that Little Red Tarot is a great resource.

Happy reading! Comments are open and moderated. Feel free to share your own tools, spreads, and results below.

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