Jess Nickelsen: Discombobulated

Tarot for Writers

May 8, 2019 - Tarot for Writers


there's some structure in here, I'm sure of itthere's some structure in here, I'm sure of it

This is a post (shall we be bold and even call it an article?) all about how you as a writer can use a deck of cards to help you brainstorm, structure, and edit a work of fiction. I’ll give a bit of an intro for people who aren’t really familiar with tarot, suggest some decks that might be useful to try, and then explain how I use them. I’ll also include here a few sample spreads to try.

What I mean when I talk about Tarot

When we talk about a Tarot deck, we’re referring to a deck of 78 cards, which include 22 Major Arcana” and 56 Minor Arcana” cards. While there are earlier examples of the form, the tarot deck as we know it came into being as a game of trumps and pips, and eventually morphed into taking on a more divinatory role in the late 1700s. (The history of tarot is fascinating; if you’re interested Wikipedia has a good summary, though there are piles and piles of books on the subject if you feel like going deeper.)

Generally speaking, the Major Arcana deal with the big stuff” in life, while the Minor Arcana depict more mundane, everyday-life scenarios. Some have even posited that the journey through the Major Arcana cards (From 0 - The Fool, to 21 - The World) mirrors that of the Hero’s Journey. I personally prefer to leave them a bit looser” than this, but you may find this association works for you.

The Major Arcana include those infamous cards like Death,” The Hanged Man,” The Tower,” The Lovers,” and oh yeah, The Devil.” Depending on what deck you’re using, these could contain quite disturbing images, or something a lot friendlier:

kitty kahanekitty kahane

How do they work?

At its most basic, you grab hold of a tarot deck, shuffle the cards, and draw several at random. These might be arranged in a specific spread,” or read as-is without any specifics on position. There are just about as many different ways to read the tarot as there are actual readers. Some people enjoy sticking with textbook definitions, while others like to incorporate the kabalah, astrology, elemental dignities, numerological aspects (usually Pythagorean) … and maybe all at once! Some decks are heavy in alternative symbolism, everything from the alchemic to quantum physics (though thankfully the new age preoccupation with the quantum seems to be fading). Other people like to read intuitively,” which could mean they just look at the pictures, or they base their interpretations on feelings they get from the cards, and the relationships between them.

I personally like to work from the card imagery (symbols, what the characters are actually doing), a little numerology (again, this is mostly symbolic), with a dash of Enrique Enriquez’s eye rhymes” thrown in for good measure. (Then again, that all changes when I’m reading with a Marseilles deck.)

At the end of the day, what you’re doing is looking at cards spread out in a pattern. You take a little of what you know” (from either previous study, or just general feeling about symbols in general–oh yeah, Jungians love tarot cards too), a little from the position, a little from the question, and then all the other factors that come into play (the cards might feel busy, or passive, or there might be a lot of Court Cards,” which often represent other people). Then you put that all into the blender of your unconscious / subconscious / muse / pattern-deducing storyteller brain, and you make a tale out of what you see. There IS an art to it, but if you are willing to relinquish your firm hold on definitions, and whether something is right or wrong, and just let the imagery ebb and flow a little, anyone can absolutely read them well.

Yes, some readers do use them to predict the future, and according to people I’ve read for in the past, I too have used the cards to help people look at their, shall we say, life vectors.” But that’s not what this post is about!

Instead, I’m interested here in describing how I can intentionally use a deck to help think wide” with my projects. Get a bit oulipo with them.

OK, so why would I use the tarot to help me with my story / novel / magnum opus?

So that link before? You should check it out. Yes, it’s wikipedia, but there’s a good summary there. I love the Oulipo. Specifically I love using constraints to force myself to approach things in a different way. I love the chaotic in the creative process, and in a lot of ways I find that weird idea-generation/spontaneous ideas out of nowhere to be the best part about writing. I want to try to combine things in weird ways, just to see if there’s anything that can be borne out of the frission between two seemingly unrelated objects.

Using tarot cards in this way–as constraints in your brainstorming, or story-telling process–helps you form new patterns in your way of thinking. They can help break you out of telling yourself the same story in the same way, again and again. I’ve found them particularly good at helping me get through roadblocks in my writing. If you’re so inclined, you can also use them to literally drive the narrative of your story. (After all, it worked for Italo Calvino!)

(And after following the link to Tarot in fiction I really, really want to see Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors!)

Alright, so what deck should I get?

If you’re using a deck to practice divination (the usual sort of tarot-deck business), then I’d say, grab anything that strikes your fancy and work from there.


If you’re wanting to get a deck (maybe for the first time) so you can use them for your fiction work, I’d recommend you get a bit more specific.

This is why: there are a hell of a lot of decks out there, with different themes and artwork, and different underlying systems too. You can go for alien and ufo (there’s even a Geiger deck - too scary for me), horror, fantasy - you name it. I’d actually warn you away from these. (OK, perhaps just a gentle nudge.) As great as a lot of these are (and there are some really, really, bad decks out there too), I’m of the opinion that too much theme is distracting. Furthermore, if you pick a theme that matches what you are writing you might be too inclined to write exactly what you see. While that’s okay, I still think it limits you a bit. Instead of going for something you LOVE, I reckon you should go for something that sits a bit neutrally on your brain palate”.

Something neutral can be interpreted in many different ways, rather than one obvious one. And plus, if your genre or topic changes, something that’s less-themed will probably move from project-to-project a little easier than, say, trying to use the Geiger deck to brainstorm the outcome of your Jane Austen-inspired romance. (Although that could be interesting…hmm.)

More experienced readers, of course, can read on any topic with just about any deck. But if you’re new to this whole symbol-interpretation lark, I reckon the middle ground is the way to go.

A good example of the ultimate-in-neutrality is the Pamela Coleman Smith deck:

the smith-waitethe smith-waite

(trouble in the garden, methinks)

It’s the deck that everyone thinks of when they think of Tarot. And for good reason. It’s the deck that spawned all those other RWS clones.” It’s the Queen Bee of the tarot hive. More importantly, when I use it I find I can see past the artwork and go straight to interpretation.

That said, a lot of people can’t stand this deck. They think it is too sterile,” old-fashioned, or muddy-coloured. Fair enough. There may be some trial-and-error involved. Pick an art style that appeals. Make sure the deck has scenic pips.” While you could plan with non-scenic pips, if you are new to tarot you might struggle with interpreting something like this:

yeah, ok, so it's not that intuitiveyeah, ok, so it's not that intuitive

(CBD Marseille)

You want a deck that’s filled with symbolism, but not a deck that is too prescriptive. That last part may be a bit tricky if you are just starting out. If you’re not sure, I’d recommend going full Pamela.” You can always pass them on later if it turns out they don’t work for you.

You could always get something on your phone, I guess. Fool’s Dog does a good range, with licences for a lot of popular decks. But honestly, I’d go for the cards in my hands. There’s something really nice about holding them, shuffling them, spreading them all out in front of you at once. If you only buy one deck, get a physical one.

I’ve got my deck, now what?

Even if you’re not really into” tarot, there are a couple of good ways you can get a feel for these cards and what they represent. I’d recommend spending a good week or so getting to know them before you try anything too ambitious. But then again I’m a cautious Capricorn. Your mileage may vary.

Spread them out

Spread the Major Arcana out in front of you, numerically. (And chuck that damn little white book away, or at least hide it somewhere.) Look at the cards in sequence. Touch them, one at a time. Does the sequence feel like it builds to something? Is it what you expected?

international icon tarotinternational icon tarot

Are there any cards here that surprise you, or that confuse you? I would separate these out and then one at a time, do some freewriting / brainstorming on what they might represent. A good in” is just to describe what you see. Then describe how it makes you feel. Describe how dominant colours affect the feeling of the card. Look for any sense of balance, or imbalance. Is it a static or active card? What do you think this means?

Do you sense subgroups within this main group? What do you think they mean? What do they mean to you? Move the cards around. Can you form groups with different cards, in different ways? (People do this endlessly, BTW. There’s no right or wrong way to do this really.)

I’d then take a look at the Minor Arcana. If you have room to spread them out in a way that makes sense to you, try that. Look at the relationship between the different suits: Cups, Wands, Swords, and Pentacles. Traditionally Cups relate to Emotions (love, family life), Wands to Enterprise” (work, projects, feeling jazzed and energized–or overburdened), Swords to thoughts, ideas, ways of thinking, education, and Pentacles to stuff.

For each suit, look at the 1-10 sequence. Do they feel as if they move from a early stages” to a mid stage” and culminating with a final stage”? Marcus Katz likes to describe this sequence as akin to the different stages you might go through for a project. For example, at the start you might kick off a project with great gusto, only to struggle mid-way, and have to develop a new strategy before you can push on through to the final part of your project. Generally speaking, Aces refer to the seed” of a stage, while tens are the culmination. Fives can often show a bit of a struggle.

Like you did with the Majors, separate out the cards that puzzle you. Even though I’ve been giving some hints at definitions,” above, if you aren’t using these for divinatory purposes, you really are free to interpret these as you like (and probably even if you are, if you have a system that’s specific to you, that’s all for the better).

Meet the family

I’d also recommend separating out the Court Cards: the King, Queen, Knight and Page of each suit. Line these guys up and take a look at them. They too, are part of their suits, but each person” shows a slightly different approach to that element, relating to both their sex and role. (I’ll hurry to point out now that while their sex defines their role in the hierarchy these cards in no way indicate that they must refer to a man or a woman, or even someone specific. It’s perfectly viable for the Queen of Cups to represent a very feeling man, or the King of Swords to represent a successful female lawyer. They might even represent two different aspects of one person, for example, your main character.)

some of the tarot courtsome of the tarot court

(International Icon Tarot)

Kings generally represent the culmination of their suit. They have taken all of the qualities of the suit and relate to them in a stable, mature way. Queens too represent a mature aspect of the suit, though as they are considered watery” they are associated more with the emotional aspect of the suit. Knights are younger people, impetuous, reactive, passionate. Pages can be younger still (a child, or someone child-like), at a new stage in life. Mistakes are still being made.

An interesting activity can be to separate out these Court cards and see if they can represent anyone you know. Why not go for gold while we’re at it and see if you can identify which of these Court cards might represent the main players in your writing project? (It’s likely that you will find multiple cards represent different aspects of a well-rounded character.)

For advanced players: the next step might be to think about both the positive and negative qualities of these personalities. For example, the Queen of Swords would be an excellent chess player, but she might also have a biting tongue, and could be impatient with anyone who couldn’t keep up with her. (But that’s just my Queen of Swords; yours might be different.)

the rest of themthe rest of them

(International Icon Tarot)

If you’re still struggling with the courts (I did for quite a while) then you can find some good overall information here. What I like about this, compared to a lot of other websites or books that plod through each card individually, is that that Thirteen also looks at what each number has in common, across the suits. For example, the threes. (This is also why the Empress is the third card in the Major Arcana; two people plus baby make three!)

Do I need to, you know, cleanse them in maiden’s tears under the full moon?

Sure, you can totally do that. Sometimes these fancy rituals do help us attach.” If it makes everything feel more special then you go right ahead and put the cards in a silk bag and sleep with it under your pillow. Or charge them on your windowsill in the moonlight with a quartz on top for good measure. Sometimes the whim strikes me and I’ll do some of these things. Other times I’ll just grab whatever’s handy and go.

At the same time, we’re dealing with paper and ink here. The process can be as sacred or mundane as you want it to be. No, it doesn’t matter if someone else touches them. Unless you think it does.

OK, I’m ready to move on. Can we get to the helping me with my fiction part?

Okay, here we go. I hope you had your notebook handy for those earlier bits and you wrote down any flashes of insight you got. Maybe there were some aspects that relate to your current project, or perhaps there were bits you’d like to investigate further. A journal is probably a really good idea at this point.

Here are some ways you can use your deck with your writing:

  1. Practice looking at sequencing. First…next…finally. Draw three cards. See if you can string a small sequence of events together from them. Then move them around and look at what changes. Then go for the next possible combination. The next time you’re planning, try playing around with the sequence of events for your next story or book. Perhaps that final combination is the strongest one!
  2. Once upon a time, there was a …” You can literally plan out a randomized story by just turning over a card at a time, and thinking of ways to keep the story going. See if you can use all the cards. See if you can go down the hall with your story. Record it on the voice memos app on your phone. Are there any bits from this wacky sequence that you might want to develop or focus on? (This is also really fun to do with kids, or I’m sure it has promise as the basis of a drinking game.)
  3. Here’s one my writing group wants to try: deal 10-15 cards to each person in the group. Take a photo of the cards you’ve been dealt and take them home with you. (It might be better if everyone could take their cards home and move them around, but resources may dictate whether this is possible. Potentially you could print out the photo, then cut it up and shuffle those cards around, but if it’s something you want to do regularly, ultimately you should support the artist and publisher and do the right thing.) Using one, two, three, five, or all of the cards, base your next short story on these. The cards can represent people, a situation, the conflict, or your setting. See where they take you.
  4. Put the Courts in a pile of their own and shuffle it. Turn over two cards, and either imagine a scenario between the two characters, or write the actual dialogue. Turn over a third and see if you can add an extra dimension of conflict to your scene. Perhaps you turn over a fourth, to see if you can find some stability, or start all over again.
  5. Plan an actual scene (or story!) using Holly Lisle’s the sentence as your spread. Draw a card for your protagonist, one for your antagonist, one for the conflict, one for your setting, and one for your twist. If you’re not happy with the cards in their current positions, try out several permutations of these and see what changes!
  6. Use the cards to dive deeper into your characters’ motivations. Consider the following two-card spreads: my want vs my need; what I say vs what I mean; what I hide vs what I show.
  7. Use the cards to help you identify blocks in your own writing process: try a spread that covers where I am now,” crossed with where I need to go next.” You could also include positions for specific problems, like where am I going wrong with dialogue?”
  8. Draw a single card before you start writing. Let it inform your approach for the day.
  9. Ask, what have I forgotten?” and draw a single card.
  10. Dare I say it - spend some time brainstorming what isn’t going right on your current project. Develop a small (one to three cards is more than manageable; lots can be overwhelming) spread to pinpoint those problem areas.

Don’t forget, of course, that how you interpret what turns up on the cards, is totally up to you. The best part of tarot is when you flip a card over and think, what the heck?” That’s when really weird and interesting ideas arise.


I realise there’s a lot more that needs to be said on using the cards to help with structure and editing, which I’ve mentioned above but not really gone into a lot of detail about. However: this particular post is probably long enough! I’ve got plans for a follow-up post with some more in-depth spreads (including one I’ve been using on Dan Harmon’s Seven Point Story Structure) and examples, so stay tuned :)

If you’ve got any questions or comments about any of this, feel free to give me a yell. I’m most contactable on and Instagram these days. Cheers!