The Mind-Building Fun of Genuine Riddles

I’m forged in heat, but I’m not a weapon;
Monsters love me and yet I’m sweet;
I’m round but I’m not a ball.

Here’s a riddle I made up for my kids. My seven-year-old eventually guessed it. Probably you will, too.

Here’s the break down of how it’s put together and what makes it hard to guess. (The breakdown will definitely give away the answer if it’s not already apparent.)

  1. Reframing. If I simply said, “What is round, sweet, and baked in a hot oven?” No one would have any trouble. By changing “baked” to “forged in heat” I retained the clue but framed it in a less obvious way. Reframed phrases are less specific, and more archetypal. Pleasingly, it is this “reframing” that allows the riddle to straddle the line between prose and poetry, as the archetypal way of saying something tends to be closer to poetic diction.
  2. Separate the clues. When the clues are piled on top of one another, the mind more easily finds the common associations. By separating them into different statements and inserting “but” or contrast statements between, the riddler makes the de-riddler work harder.
  3. Wrong Order. Normally we would say “round, sweet, and baked” in that order. In the riddle I reversed the natural order.
  4. Contrasts. The format of a positive statement followed by a contrasting negative both helps and hinders the de-riddler. It helps in that it rules out possible senses in which the clue can be taken…
  5.  Misdirection. …but the negative statements hinder by doing the opposite of what the hopeful de-riddler expects. “Not a weapon” sounds like a clue, but it actually directs the de-riddler to think of weapons. “Not a ball” consistently had my children (and even my husband) guessing answers that were distinctly ball-shaped.
  6. Subtlety. Best of all, “Monsters love me,” directs the mind to misinterpret “sweet” as a metaphysical quality, when actually it is a physical sweetness that is referred to.
  7. Asymmetry. The middle line also demonstrates that two positive clues can be contained in one statement; the change in format may lead the de-riddler to neglect one of the clues.

Here’s another riddle I created for my children.

On the end of my slender stem, I unfold like a many-petaled flower.
Yet I am hard as wood.
I am used in decoration.
But I am created naturally without the help of human hands.

  1. Similes. This functions as another form of misdirection. “Like a flower” gets the mind working in the direction of delicate fragile things. Importantly, however, the riddle becomes elegant if the misdirecting simile is also necessary to the solution; in this case the riddle would have too many answers without knowing the shape of the object.
  2. Completeness. Like a good definition, a good riddle should rule out all close answers. Without the last sentence, for instance, “Carved wooden flower,” would be a possible answer.

From these examples, we can learn some things about how to solve riddles – by reversing these strategies. 

  1. Deframing. Try commonplace synonyms to de-elevate the archetypal language of the riddle, if you suspect that something has been re-framed.
  2. Combine the clues. In the second riddle, you could separate out the important words and combine them…
  3. Reorder the clues. in a natural order…. 
  4. Simplify. …while leaving out the confounding negative statements. So: woody, flower-shaped, natural growth. Easier, right? 
  5. Direct Associations. While the negative statements must remain in the background to help limit answers, they won’t positively suggest answers. So as in the above tactics, seek to trigger associations from positive clues, not negative ones.
  6. Explication. Seek various senses in which vague or broad terms can be taken and try them with the simplified clues.
  7. Examine. Look through the riddle for clues you may have been disregarding because of asymmetry.
  8. Delimit. In what sense is a simile meant? Talk yourself through the senses in which it may or may not be taken.
  9. Comprehension. Make sure your solution fits all the clues, including the negative ones.

Overall, I think triggering associations is the most efficient and quickest way to solve a riddle. When that fails, one is thrown back on an exhaustive examination of all the possibilities; and without a searchable encyclopedia in front of you, that can leave you wondering whether you’ll ever get it. Despair and fear of feeling stupid are two reasons many people fail to solve riddles.

(If you a the riddler, make sure to remind your de-riddlers that this is not Twenty Questions! They may only ask one type of question: “Is the answer X?”)

There is one more element I can think of that make riddles really excellent. And that is if the answer is something commonplace and not too difficult to understand or think of. 

Why?

Because your subtlety as a riddler, and not the exotic nature of the answer, ought to make your riddlers groan when they finally give up and hear the answer – or shout with pride when they solve it. 

Here are two riddles from my children.

I feed my mother and shelter her many guests.
However far I fall, I am not injured.
My shape does not change, but my color will.

Ian Roberts

***

I am every color but only one at a time;
I serve you through thick and thin;
I make your home beautiful, yet my home is a can.

Alexandra Roberts

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