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Tarot for Plot and Character

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
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](
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 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.

Tarot Deck by Trung Lê Nguyễn (Trungles). [More information](
Tarot Deck by Trung Lê Nguyễn (Trungles). More information.

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](
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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Self-care Resources for Speculative Fiction Creators

You probably already have an idea of what works and doesn’t work for you. These are tools, tips, and resources that have helped me personally, as well as other resources I’ve tried before.


I have a harder time creating if I don’t have my physical, mental, and emotional health together. No one person or community online can understand the full scope of your physical environment, so it’s important to speak to your doctor about any health issues that arise. In the meantime, here are some tools you can use to help you manage your health.


The USA has moved away from the food pyramid that many of us grew up with. My Plate is now the far more intuitive standard for US nutrition guidelines, with clearer visualizations for food portions and nutrient balance. You can use apps like Lifesum (iOS & Android) to help you meet your nutrition goals.

If you find that the My Plate advice doesn’t work well for you, or you’d like to try an Asian approach to nutrition, Japan has a robust nutrition education program that you can explore. A good starting place is the Japan Dietetic Association (JDA)’s resources in English. The Japanese “spinning top” model is similar to the food pyramid, but its philosophy takes a different approach to nutrition.

Japanese Food Guide Spinning Top. Via (PDF)

As everyone has different food restrictions and preferences, it’s best to discuss your nutritional needs with a registered dietitian familiar with your background.

If you can’t access a dietitian or nutritionist, my general advice is to remember that “diet” doesn’t have anything to do with weight or fitness—the word simply means what you eat. Some people have a vegetarian diet, while others have a more carnivorous diet. I live in California, which has a Mediterranean climate (that is, similar to countries bordering the Mediterranean sea), so I can apply Mediterranean diet guidelines to what’s available locally and what’s traditional in my Chinese heritage to create comfortable meals. If you’re located in a climate like Ohio with a lot of snow and less sun, you can try adapting Scandinavian recipes to your heritage, preferences, and local produce.


As creators, we often spend a lot of time sitting or standing in one spot. Regardless of whether you have a full range of movement in your body or whether you use adaptive devices like a wheelchair, you can still take steps to improve your fitness without spending much money, pushing yourself too hard, or even going outside.

Before engaging in any activity, it’s best to practice breathing. We might always be breathing, but extended stress causes our bodies to breathe less efficiently. The University of Michigan Medicine site has a guide to breathing exercises for stress management and relaxation, and the American Lung Association’s breathing exercises page includes video demonstrations.

Once you practice breathing in a safe setting, or just to get your body to calm down to begin with, you can try physical activities that make you feel energetic and accomplished. Instead of going to the gym, you can try body-weight exercises that you can do anywhere, like DAREBEE’s. Basic stretches like trying to touch your toes (while breathing!) are better than nothing. You can search for yoga classes that fit your skill level—classes range from gentle/calming to high-intensity, and many demonstrations are available on YouTube. Hiking is great for your balance and joints, while basketball and skateboarding help you focus on form and technique. Do something you enjoy!

Additional Resources

In no particular order, here are some techniques and technologies that have helped me:

Understanding shame and resilience: Shame, guilt, and embarrassment are often what lead creators to have doubt in our work. Cultivating empathy and resilience can help us overcome those feelings. I recommend Brené Brown’s work, which ranges from TED talks to narrative nonfiction to self-help workbooks.

Mindfulness: Originating from dialectal behavior therapy (DBT), “mindfulness” is a guiding term for how to stay present in the moment instead of focusing on the past (causing depressive thoughts) or worrying about the future (sparking anxiety).

Some tips to help you manage both your behaviors and improve your environment include:

  • Using mindfulness apps like Fabulous, developed in association with the Department of Behavioral Economics at Duke University.
  • Using noise generators like MyNoise (also available on iOS & Android).
  • Practicing the Pomodoro technique. Many apps like Forest are based on this method.
  • Taking breaks by coloring and playing puzzle games like sudoku, Wordscapes, Word Stacks, crosswords, and logic puzzles.
  • Enjoying media you like, including free library media available through Overdrive and its iOS/Android/Windows app Libby.

Some other apps to help you manage overall health, medications, and wellness include:

  • iOS Health, which has many features that help you keep your health records in one place, including an emergency medical ID and automatic lab results import.
  • Medisafe, which not only reminds you of when to take your meds, but also has caregiver support and reports you can show your doctor.
  • GoodRx for medication prices and coupons that often work with or without insurance.
  • SleepWatch, an app for Apple Watch to help you monitor your sleep along with good sleep hygiene.
  • Alarmy, for those days when you have trouble getting out of bed anyway.
  • Happy Scale, for a more realistic understanding of your weight numbers.
  • Chewy, for affordable pet-focused wellness.


It’s hard to work on projects when I don’t know where all my notes and drafts are. Plus, environmental clutter negatively affects my mood, creating a cycle that leads to creative blocks. The KonMari method developed by Japanese organizer Marie Kondo (who now has a TV show on Netflix) is an emotional wellness-based way to organize, while Unfuck Your Habitat is more of a Pomodoro-like timed technique for organizing clutter, one surface at a time.

If traditional journaling doesn’t work for you, you can digitize your notes using apps like Bear or Agenda. If bullet journaling doesn’t work for you, you can try cloud-based to-do list software like Remember the Milk. Alternatives to balancing your checkbook on paper include software like You Need A Budget. Finally, to manage your paper records, you can use apps like Scanbot to digitize items such as receipts and file them online using tools like Airtable.

Although both and URLs are perfectly fine for your portfolio, you may end up deciding that having your own web address is a better option for your needs. My current host is 101 Domain, which offers rarer country-based domains like my own .LU, as well as affordable rates for standard .COM addresses. Another popular option I’ve used before is DreamHost. For those of you with front-end, back-end, or full-stack developing experience who’d like to save money, I recommend NearlyFreeSpeech.Net.

Writing Software

Every writer has their own opinion on which software is best for their needs. Since your needs will be different from others’, here are a few suggestions for apps I’ve used:

Ulysses: A plaintext, Markdown-enabled app that’s quickly become my go-to writing software for everything from short fiction to nonfiction articles like this one. With various export options, publishing options, and templates, Ulysses gives you finer control over formatting than Microsoft Word. For science and math writers, Ulysses is comparable to LaTeX, and you could probably use both of them together. However, Ulysses isn’t out-of-the-box optimized for poetry.

Scrivener: A popular app that’s much more visual than Ulysses, offering organization tools not available in Microsoft Word or Google Drive while also having native formatting options optimized for writers. However, the learning curve can be rather steep.

Noted: Sometimes it’s faster to capture voice memos about an idea, but sorting through those memos later can be difficult. Noted allows you to add timestamped text annotations to voice memos that are then searchable, all in a clean user interface.

Dragon Dictate: For those who prefer dictating over typing. The more expensive software packages are for legal and medical professionals, but there are mobile apps and more economical software bundles for individuals. Unlike iOS and Android voice recognition, Dragon is designed for long-form use and will gradually adapt to your voice and vocabulary.

duet: duet is a great solution for if you have a Mac or PC and would like to use your iPad or iPhone as an extra monitor to give you more space to work.


We might use language creatively, but sometimes we need that dictionary reference or translation reference. Here are some of my favorites:

Merriam-Webster: A great dictionary of English that stays up-to-date with current language use. They tweet from @MerriamWebster and often comment on online language use, too.

Oxford English Dictionary: The OED is more for historical use of English terms and for extensive etymologies (word origins) not available on Merriam-Webster. However, the OED requires a subscription. Many universities and professional organizations will pay for an OED subscription.

Pleco: A great resource for looking up Chinese (simplified and traditional) terms. Even without background knowledge of Chinese, Pleco can still guide you through word lookup and translations. However, Pleco is a Mandarin-based dictionary and may not be as helpful for Cantonese and other dialects.

WordReference: My go-to resource for Romance languages (primarily Spanish, though French, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, and Romanian are offered as well). If the dictionary definitions aren’t enlightening, the forum results toward the bottom of the page give more context, as well as a place for you to ask your own questions, including ones about a certain cultural or regional context.

I hope this helps! The comments below are open, and I will be moderating responses to ensure that we stay on-topic and helpful. If you are a current or prospective Clarion West student, you may also enjoy my article Self-Care Suggestions for Clarion West Students.

Last updated April 8, 2019.

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Self-care Suggestions for Clarion West Students

Please note: These are suggestions and invitations based on my own experience attending Clarion West in 2016. If my advice doesn’t work for you, discard it. The most important thing is to find what works for you.

You don’t have to do anything to prepare for Clarion West, other than considering what you’ll do for self-care to help preserve yourself during the program. You don’t have to read any books, not even the instructors’. You were selected for the program based on your own work and perspectives. You’re already bringing so much to the table just by being there. There’s nothing to cram for.

You don’t have to turn in a piece every week. In fact, you don’t have to write at all at Clarion West. The more important skill is to read your classmates’ work daily with a careful eye and to articulate feedback that helps your classmate accomplish their goals for the piece. If you don’t manage to eke out any words, that’s okay. Clarion West isn’t actually about learning how to write.

That said, if you do have an idea for the structure of your story but can’t get the words out in time, it’s perfectly fine to turn in an incomplete piece. However, it helps your classmates and instructor to provide feedback if you make some notes on the missing parts, such as including bullet points on the main through lines of the plot or the character development missing from the scene.

You will miss out on things. That’s okay. It’s just not possible for a single person to attend every single hangout, gathering, or party while also trying to write, critique, and do basic self-care. You will have a much more enjoyable experience if you do your best to be present during the events that you are participating in. The experiences and memories are what you make of them.

You’ll need to set boundaries. For some people, boundaries mean going to bed at 10pm every night, even if people are hanging out, even if you’re not done with critiques, even if you still have a piece to finish. For others, it means finding some alone time and guarding it. Whether introvert or extrovert, you’ll manage the workload and avoid burnout better if you find what recharges you and protect that time.

Ask for the accommodations you need. The workshop coordinators are very responsive to requests and feedback. If you’re feeling discomfort or struggling in any way, it’s best to voice that to the coordinators as soon as possible, even if it’s just a note to say you’re having trouble but don’t need any action taken at the moment. That way, someone one step removed remains aware of your progress and can step in before any breakdowns happen.

Spend some time every day outside of the house. Whether that’s going out on the lawn to feel the sun or walking down the street for a meal, getting out from under the roof helps to clear your head and give you both breathing room and perspective. It can be easy to get cabin fever when you stay inside 24/7 because all your needs are provided for.

Don’t forget the outside world. When you’re surrounded by Clarion West, you may develop or exacerbate cognitive distortions, become overwhelmed, or feel emotional. People outside of Clarion West can give you support and perspective divorced from your performance in the program, and they want to hear from you too. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and isolate yourself for six weeks.

You don’t have to get along with everyone. You don’t have to like everyone. But you’ll make your interactions more positive and enjoyable for everyone if you assume the best of people and communicate with a compassionate mindset.

Remember that there is no right or wrong way to experience Clarion West. Some people cite it as the best experience of their life, while others have a negative experience. If your experience doesn’t match up to your expectations, that doesn’t mean you missed out. That’s just how you experienced Clarion West.

Take time to digest and process your experience. Most graduates say that what they learned at Clarion West doesn’t really sink in until two years later. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll go according to your own schedule. Rushing results or pressuring yourself to achieve only adds more stress to an already burnout-prone experience.

Celebrate! Nothing you do at Clarion West is “too small” of an achievement. It’s an intimidating program. So celebrate and keep yourself feeling positive and motivated. In the end, only you can validate yourself 24/7.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email me at Several other members of Clarion West c/o 2016 also have advice and experiences to share at the Team Arsenic website.

Congratulations, and enjoy!