Author Topic: Riddles and how to use them  (Read 610 times)


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Riddles and how to use them
« on: July 09, 2018, 12:30:02 AM »
Riddles and how to use them
By Jubal

Riddles are an important element in many myths, stories, games, and so on. The basic concept - usually a rhyme or poem that conceals some meaning that someone else is required to guess - is one of almost universal applicability. For this article I'm only going to focus on "true" riddles as opposed to the much wider general world of logic puzzles, and pretty much exclusively ones that involve object-guessing based on analogies and information rather than simple puns which can be framed as puzzles. I think riddles are pretty great, and so this article will take you through some of the basics of the genre - a little on some cultural background, and then a discussion of how to use riddles in your creative work and how to write your own. Let's get started!

Riddles in history

The history of riddles is long and deserves far more words than I'm going to put down here, but no introductory article on riddles would be complete without covering it to some extent. Riddles go back to some of the oldest written cultures - our oldest riddles are Babylonian era and have sadly long since lost their answers. One of the most famous riddles to this day is the Riddle of the Sphinx: what walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening? The answer is a human: crawling as a baby, standing in their prime, then walking with a stick in old age (though one seventeenth century luminary did valiantly attempt to argue for "the philosopher's stone" as an alternative answer!) The association of riddles with the sphinx, and the myth of the sphinx killing those who could not answer, may have been a factor in associations between riddles and danger that later found their way into modern works of fantasy.

Moving into the post-Classical era, the Saxons were also lovers of riddles, which probably also shapes their modern associations with a historic world of fireside storytelling. Saxon riddles often had two answers, with a simple "correct" answer lying underneath a heavy double-entendre. Take a look at this one:

I heard there's something growing in its nook,
swelling, rising, and expanding,
pushing against its covering.
I heard a cocky-minded young woman took that boneless thing in her hands,
covered its tumescence with a soft cloth.
Anyone who guessed "dough rising" - congratulations, that's the right answer. Though you'd be forgiven for certain other guesses! You'll also note that this is a lot longer than some of the other riddles we're discussing. It's actually quite short by the standards of Saxon riddles, which often tended to be long and discursive and include many obliquely described aspects of the creation or manufacture of common items. The focus on common items is an important aspect of riddles; whatever a riddle is about needs to be something that the audience will reliably latch onto, so it needs to be an item or concept that will not only be easily recognisable to the reader but of which the details needed to get the riddle will also be known. The modern riddle I take what you receive, but surrender it by raising my flag, for example, is very hard for many Europeans to get as it relies on the reader being familiar with the style of outdoor mailbox common in the US that raises a side-lever (the flag) when it opens.

It's worth thinking about the functions of riddles in past societies and cultures. Whilst they tend to universally be something of a game, the associations in different cultures about what function that game had and when it was played are pretty variable. Many societies seem to have had direct riddle contests as a sort of intellectual sport, probably including at symposia parties in the ancient Greek world but also in many cultures since. Longer riddles like those of the Saxons could be used as a framed way of discussing or presenting information more generally; a longer riddle that goes right through the production process for a certain item can give room for additional useful information to be added. Riddles could be put to innovative uses, too. In 12th Armenia, the Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali used riddles as a religious teaching tool, creating a wide variety of riddles with biblical references as a way of getting his flock engaged with the texts he wanted them to read. This is an interesting reverse of the problem of the reader needing cultural familiarity - using a riddle as a tool to create or provoke cultural familiarity by needing the reader to know the text to find the answers.

It would be wrong to leave this section simply looking at western examples though. Riddles are a worldwide phenomenon, and have been attested from around Africa, across Asia, and into the Americas, though our knowledge of traditional native American riddles is comparatively patchy. The following: Riddle, riddle, I'm no priest or king, but I've clothes as fine as anything is a rough translation of a Bugtong, a Filipino riddle - the answer is a washing line. The bugtong is apparently usually used as a game at a funeral wake, giving yet another context and association for riddling. Chinese riddles are also numerous - they have a range of visual options for puns thanks to the diversity and complexity of Chinese characters which are unavailable in many simpler alphabet systems. Chinese riddles were mostly collected in the modern era; the survival of older riddles from many cultures is likely to have varied depending on how literary the cultures were and whether riddles were considered a folk game unworthy of higher study, or a worthy literary pursuit.

Using Riddles

If you're a writer or game designer, riddles have a huge range of uses. They provide a puzzle for readers/players that doesn't require any further mechanical elements, and is (if well written) a general-purpose fair challenge. They provide a change of pace, too. In books, the presence of a poetic section can break up the drumbeat of paragraphs as they drop onto the page and give the reader something in a refreshingly different voice or tone. In games, they can shift the game from problems that rely on the player's stats or even on more conventional puzzle mechanics to something that requires the player to engage with words and wordplay in a way that's actually quite rare in games. Wording and the meanings of words very rarely matter in game design because you generally need conversations to be predictable to avoid frustrating the player. Riddles give you a wordplay puzzle that can be delivered in enough of a set-piece way that they are less likely to cause such a problem.

The places to use riddles in a plot-relevant way vary, but they tend to be linked to either a threat, an interaction, or a clue. The riddle of the sphinx mentioned earlier, or the famous "Riddles in the Dark" chapter of The Hobbit, are examples of threat-riddle situations: in them, the answer must be found in order to prevent a negative action. Enemies of various sorts may "test" protagonists with riddles, or simply keep them talking as a form of amusement, with a slanted power dynamic adding a sense of urgency to finding the answer. Interactions meanwhile are a case of solving a riddle to gain a positive interaction: the riddle may be being used by a character to test your mental acuity, or it may be a "password reminder" as some sort of security mechanism. In my own game Adventures of Soros, one mission ends with a magic door that rather than having a lock instead asks you a series of riddles which will, if answered, allow you to retrieve an artefact; another example would be the old UK folk song Captain Wedderburn, in which a maiden requires the eponymous character to answer a series of riddles before she will marry him. Finally, riddles can simply give you the clue into some larger puzzle. Say you're a game developer and want to direct the player to find a certain item or go to a certain place - rather than giving it to them on a plate, you could encode key information in a riddle. Say my character is in a farmhouse and I need them to specifically look in the basket of eggs - rather than making the egg basket really obvious in writing or images, having someone leave the classic riddle what has no hinges, key or lid, but inside golden treasure's hid as a clue for them would give another way of framing the challenge that might be more satisfying when completed. Finally, it's worth noting that riddles certainly don't have to be plot-relevant; playing riddle-games for fun is a very reasonable thing for characters to do!

Riddles seem to be common in fantasy settings, but less so in others, which I think is an area where there's perhaps a gap to be filled. The traditional rhyme-and-verse form of many riddles perhaps feels antiquated compared to the feel people want in, say, sci-fi settings, but I don't see why futuristic cultures shouldn't have plenty of riddles of their own. There's certainly a knack to avoiding riddles feeling contrived, and perhaps the limited use of them in modern culture makes it harder for them to feel a natural part of a setting, but I think one can lay the foundations for "this is a culture that does riddles" quite easily if that's necessary to set up the opportunities, and in general I think there's a strong pay-off for people interacting with your work in having access to this sort of puzzle.

Writing riddles

If you want to use riddles, you may well want to write your own. This is especially true if your setting is one where a lot of the classic subjects of riddles are less applicable (such as a sci-fi or modern setting). I'm just going to give a few notes on that here. I think the best thing to do is often to start with the item, though I sometimes find that a good line or association just appears in my head. Let's take some of the things on my desk and talk through how I'd approach writing a riddle for them.

A mug is the first item here. I now need to think about aspects of the mug - things that it does or is that other people will instinctively recognise, and which are generic to the concept of a mug. The fact that my mug is white, or has the url of the University of Birmingham on it, aren't useful details because those won't be recognisable to other people's general conception of what a mug is. What we can say: mugs are usually made of pottery, clay, or china, mugs have handles (usually one), and mugs tend to contain hot drinks, especially tea and coffee. Both of those are brown, which is a useful colour-hook unlike the colour of the mug itself.

I now need to think of some analogies or generic variants of these aspects: similar things in different situations. Brown liquid could be tea but could also be wet mud, clay or pottery can be genericised as "earth", the handle could be analogised to an arm or limb of some sort. Analogies to humans or aspects of human life are especially powerful, and work well with the classic riddle format wherein the riddle is spoken from the perspective of the object. The handle seems like a good starting point for this reason: "I have one arm" or similar.

The next stage is to construct the riddle from the analogies. An especially good trick is if you can build in an apparent paradox. If you look at the Filipino riddle mentioned earlier, that's a good example: it relies on just a single property of the object (having rich clothes), juxtaposed with excluding the category you'd expect to have that object (wealthy people and priests). Another example would be I've golden head and golden tail, and yet no eyes nor mouth to wail. The idea of something with a head but no eyes or mouth seems paradoxical, but of course there is something in that category, using a different understanding of "head" - a coin, which has a head and tail as its two sides. Looking at my one-armed mug, I think a paradox presents itself - specifically, that something with only one arm wouldn't be expected to carry boiling liquid. "I have one arm and no legs, but yet I hold boiling water every day. What am I?" And there you have it, a riddle! You could neaten it up into something more poetic, but it's functional enough already.

Let's try one more, a trickier modern one - my microphone. Aspects: it hears things, it's comprised of a listening grilled section at the top and a base, it's got a wire to attach it to a computer, it's made of metal. It's probably the core functional aspect that's best to focus on here, and the analogy of microphone pickup to human hearing. The paradox is easy enough - it's that the microphone's "hearing" can be done despite nobody being around. I could also use the paradox of it being something that hears but does not speak or make a noise. This then gives me the idea of hooking onto an existing cultural trope that I can expect my audience to know - the idea that if a tree falls in the forest with nobody to hear it, does it make a sound?

When trees fall with no soul around,
I'll find out if they make a sound:
I'll listen long, with naught to say,
And save your words for another day.
What am I?

Ta-da! Again, it's not perfect, but it's serviceable enough. Why not try making one of your own now?


I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to riddles as a genre and format. I think they have a lot more potential than we nowadays sometimes give them credit for, and I hope this has interested you in writing your own riddles and finding uses for them in what you do. There's a lot more to read around the web, too, especially the huge banks of traditional riddles from around the world that exist, and reading and learning riddles is a good way to get more comfortable with the genre. I'd especially encourage you to look at historical or cross-cultural banks of riddles, both because they're some of the best ways to expand your horizons on how riddles have been used by various societies, and also because they'll simply give you more variety than the general banks of modern riddles and logic puzzles you can find on the web.

If you want any help with or ideas for riddles, please do drop a message in the comments below. Thankyou for reading!
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