What’s the Story?

I often field questions from anxious novice readers who have yet to acquire the knack of imaginative story-telling with the cards. Anything beyond the simplest layout puts them into the panicked “Lego-block” mode of interpretation, in which they try to stack up keywords in a way that approximates a smooth narrative but instead resembles a clumsily stitched-together brainchild of Dr. Frankenstein. The complaints are various, but many of them center on “How do I read a bad card in a good position?” (or its opposite number) and “How do I read bad and good cards together in combination?” The most desperate and clueless simply beg for help in reading any card in any spread position. My suspicion is that they haven’t read a single decent beginner’s book on how to blend card meanings in resourceful ways (of which there are many) and simply choose to wing it because someone advised them to throw out the books and just fly on intuition.

The experienced story-teller doesn’t expect to be bailed out by an intuitive epiphany  at every turn. There are numerous robust story-telling “tropes” (metaphoric devices) that serve the same purpose without relying on tenuous insights pulled out of thin air. Effective narrators spin their yarns from the stuff of inspiration, imagination and ingenuity, frequently triggered by the visual interaction of the cards in a series, but just as often derived from shared cultural, social and historical experiences that call up vivid metaphors or analogies to flesh out the bare bones of the reading. Even the most awkward combinations can yield a road-map for these forays into creative word-smithing.

When I approach a spread that doesn’t “jell” at first sight, I back away from a card-by-card analysis and first try to absorb the big picture. I examine any surplus or shortage of interpretive elements, typically by suit, number or rank; for example, an absence of Cups cards in a relationship situation or a lack of Wands or Pentacles in a work or business setting can suggest areas that demand the querent’s active engagement if any progress is to be made. An abundance of court cards might mean a “crowded house” in the querent’s future, either in figurative or literal terms, while few courts imply a solitary road ahead. Many trump cards suggest that “big things are afoot;” a lack of trumps casts a more routine light on upcoming developments. These anomalies offer a powerful wedge with which to lever the story’s baseline, and they can also provide convenient handholds by which to climb the narrative ladder from bottom to top. I frequently refer back to them when presenting the card-by-card evolution.

Once a broad overview has been captured, I seize on any card that stands out from the rest. Sometimes this card is highlighted by the layout (for example, the center card in a line, or a card that has an especially sensitive positional placement in the series). It could also be a single potent trump card or a uniquely relevant court card anywhere in the spread. In the best situations, all of the other cards fall into line with the theme presented by this “high-focus” card, and the narrative revolves seamlessly around that nexus. Other times there is more than one key player on the field, and the story-line can exhibit a parallel or countervailing flow that must be reconciled. Still, the reader should strive to find a single “lead idea” on which to hang the rest of the tale. Failing in that, one is likely to have the anecdotal equivalent of porridge to wade through, and the momentum could very well stall without achieving resolution.

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