Today, we are pleased to welcome author George Hagen as our guest on Live to Write – Write to Live. I recently shared his novel, Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle, on a weekend edition, and have since been wondering about exactly how one goes about creating original riddles. Thankfully, Mr. Hagen is the helpful sort who isn’t stingy about sharing his hard-earned insights. To help us become a bit savvier about how to put clever wordplay to work in our stories, he has provided this guest post. We hope you enjoy it and would love to hear any riddles you come up with!
Three years ago I was preparing to write a story for my 10-year-old daughter. My previous books were adult novels, so this was new literary terrain. Because she was fond of riddles, I decided to model my hero after her. Young Gabriel Finley employs riddles to beat his enemies–a flock of carnivorous birds called valravens.
I must admit that before taking on this story, I had always found riddles annoying. They can be juvenile, absurd, and they generally employ really bad puns. Even as an adult their tricky answers made me feel stupid and incompetent.
Small wonder that children love them! They are the nemesis of all-knowing parents; they render us slow and dimwitted.
Traditionally, the riddle is the triumph of wit over power. Shakespeare’s fool mocks King Lear with his riddles. The Norse god Odin teased kings, and Oedipus defeated the Sphinx by solving his puzzle. Riddles run rampant through Eastern and Western culture. If David hadn’t a stone to sling at Goliath he would probably have downed him with a pun.
I wound up with 37 riddles in my novel–the greater number of them, my own inventions. The early ones took forever to compose, so it became imperative that I understood a thing or two about them. My research revealed that riddles can be categorized into two types: enigmas and conundrums.
Enigmas depend on a metaphor or allegory.
Take the riddle of the Sphinx, for example. Perhaps you recall it from a Greek drama course. What begins the day on four legs, passes noon on two legs and reaches evening on three? It’s a metaphor, pure and simple. If you haven’t guessed it already, these are the stages of human life, babyhood on four legs, adult life on two, and the elderly person’s dependence on a cane or stick.
Identify the metaphor and you can solve it. It requires a flexible mind, a classical education, or a quick bit of googling!
Conundrums, on the other hand, are riddles that employ puns. Sometimes the play on words is in the question, sometimes it’s in the answer.
Here’s a common schoolyard riddle: what has six wheels and flies? This riddle depends on your interpretation of flies. The answer is a garbage truck (think of flies that buzz). Conundrums force us to imagine a word’s multiple meanings.
It can be torment, or an exquisite triumph.
But either way, solving them has a lot in common with crossword puzzles and exercise. The more you do them, the better you get. My first riddles took a day or two to compose, but by the thirtieth, I could invent one in a matter of minutes. Think of the mind as a muscle: the more it stretches, the more flexible it becomes.
Many adults leave riddles behind with childish things, but it is worth noting that they exist in almost every discipline. Einstein composed the famous ‘five houses’ riddle. Look up Bach’s tricky Crab Canon or M.C. Escher’s mind-bending visual compositions of birds turning into fish, and his staircases that seem to be going both up and down at the same time.
These geniuses understood something about mental playfulness; it keeps a creative mind limber–something of benefit to us all.
So, are you ready to make one up? Take a word with two meanings. I just came up with the word bitter, which can also be interpreted as ‘bit her.’ Now think of a question. Why did the Queen stab the lemon at dinner? Answer: She thought it bitter.