Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tricksy Titles 

Titles are supposed to grab a reader's attention, inform her of the book's genre, and sum up the contents of 400 pages--all at the same time.  That's a lot of responsibility for 2-5 words to bear.  Little wonder then, that some titles manage to give certain readers a completely wrong impression of what the book's actually about. 

Here are classic titles that mixed me up.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

What I thought it was about:  A solemn treatise on racism in the post-Civil war south.  Tragic, powerful, moralizing, with nothing much happening for 200 pages.

What it turned out to be: An addictive romance with a satirical bite set in Regency England.  Mr. Darcy has too much pride, Elizabeth Bennett has too much prejudice, and as they fall for each other, they learn their faults and strive to overcome them.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

What I thought it was about:  A sinking ship, obviously.  Either the whole story is leading to the ship sinking (like the Titanic) or the ship sinks in the beginning, leading the characters to face a survival situation.

What it turned out to be: An epic adventure revolving around... say it with me now... rabbits.  Yes, rabbits.  After a prophetic bunny named Fiver has a vision of their warren's destruction, his brother Hazel leads a ragtag group to find a new home.  The place they eventually settle is called Watership Down--hence the title.

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

What I thought it was about: Either a nonfiction book about the history of 3.14 or a literary tale about a mathematician obsessed with 3.14.  Maybe said mathematician finds love and learns life lessons--but clearly no one is in serious danger.

What it turned out to be: A boy named Pi and a tiger survive on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.  This one should have been called Watership Down.  At least it had a sinking ship in it.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

What I thought it was about: ? ? ?  I'm used to classic books using metaphors for their titles (To Kill a Mockingbird, A Clockwork Orange) but in this case I literally couldn't tell what the metaphor was supposed to be.  My brain, in its infinite kookiness, ended up with a cross  between a Venus Fly Trap and my least favorite loaf of bread.

What it turned out to be: High-schooler Holden Caulfield whines about phonies, wanders around, and spends his entire savings while accomplishing nothing.  At one point toward the end of the book, he has a vivid image of a group of children playing in a rye field near the edge of the cliff.  He wants to catch them before they fall off.  Yeah, I can't imagine why I didn't get this title.  It's so obvious.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

What I thought it was about: Literary fiction just loves to couch its title in metaphor. That's how they lure you into reading it--you want to know what they're talking about.  (I'm talking to you, Catcher in the Rye!)   I didn't know what the seagull referred to, but one thing was sure there was 0% chance that the main character was a gull.

What it turned out to be: Apparently, I was wrong.

What about you?  Any titles that tricked you?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Weeky Update: 11-21-13

I tend to get rather depressed after finishing up a big project.  Yesterday, for example, I completed Company for NaNoWriMo, my YA paranormal romance about a ghost and an imaginary friend.  The story's fine as far as I can tell.  But I still feel sad.

When you're in the process of pure creation, you lear to tune out the inner critic.  There's no good or bad, just fun or boring--and if it's boring you force yourself to write until it's fun again.  But as soon as you finish, you realize you've only really delayed that judgement.  You have a story--now what?  Is it any good?  Is there a market for it?  Is it worth spending the hours fixing it up?  Do you dare let anyone read it?

When you're riding high on inspiration--much like when you're dreaming--those bursts of emotion mean so much more than narrative structure or logic.  Then you try to explain to others what made it so interesting and they nod vaguely or else give you weird looks.

That's one of the many reasons to reward yourself after finishing something.  You may think that the feeling of accomplishment is its own reward, when really the accomplishment is sort of a let down.  A tangible reward is better.  Mine is to see Catching Fire on the weekend and maybe even spring for some popcorn.  If I'm really lucky, I'll go to Barnes and Noble and pick up some new books.  Hopefully, that will cheer me up.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Book Review: The Scorpio Races

Title: The Scorpio Races
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Genre: Fantasy, YA


Every fall on the British Isle of Thisby, the capaill uisce rise from the sea.  Men risk life and limb to catch and ride these carnivorous horses in the famed Scorpio Races.  Four-time champion Sean Kendrick thinks running this race will be business as usual.  But Puck Connolly has other plans.  The first girl to enter the races, she's fighting for her family and fighting for her home, and she inspires Sean Kendrick to risk everything for a chance to gain his deepest desire.  But the race can only have one winner, and that's if you survive it first....


You come for the carnivorous horse death race.  You stay for Thisby.

The gray and dreary isle, where small town life is interspersed with attacks of capaill uisce, is so vividly drawn, you can almost smell the salt and sheep entrails.  It's a rough place, but the two protagonists love the it and that love translates to the audience.  I want to drink beer at the Black-Eyed Girl, chat with the butcher's wife, and eat sweet sticky November Cakes at the Scorpio Festival (the recipe's in the back).

Much like life on the island, this book is slow.  Slow and beautiful as the gliding prose that wings you away to a different world.  Slow and tense as the building suspense right before a dramatic bombshell is dropped.  Slow and stretched as a moment between two character with all the unspoken feeling laid out before them.

But always slow.  Even the action feels slow, which might to do with the fact the characters rarely initiate it.  Puck, for all her surly personality, tiptoes around the most dangerous part of the race.  Sean Kendrick doesn't even have a reason for racing until halfway through the book.  With carnivorous horses and the word "races" right there in the title, you expect a pulse-pounding roller coaster, not a quiet portrait of small town life. The Scorpio Races was a good read.  It just wasn't as exciting as I'd hoped.

Rant (Spoilers)

The Scorpio Races has a sense of authority to it.  It is exactly what Maggie Stiefvater means it to be, no more, no less.  I respect that.  I further respect that if she'd made the changes I'm about to suggest, the book would have morphed into a different creature altogether.  That's fine.  But it won't stop me from giving my two cents.

Warning: Spoilers Abound

Puck doesn't ride a capall uisce in the race.  Instead, she rides her beloved mare Dove, a plain old non-flesh-eating horse.  I hoped she'd change her mind or be forced by circumstances to accept a capall uisce, but it never happened.  And this one little decision eliminated a good half the danger of the book.  Rather than having to confront a man-eating equine every time she needs to train, Puck actively avoids them.  Which means her "training" consists of timing the other riders and fretting about feeding her horse expensive hay.

Sean Kendrick, on the hand, does ride one of the capaill uisce, a blood-red stallion named Corr.  Moreover, he trains the other carnivorous horses in his employer's stable and is the person to call when any of the capaill uisce start acting up.  You'd think this would make his segments more exciting, but he's so damn good, you never really fear for his life.  Puck describes him this way: "with Sean, there's never a move he's unsure of."  And that's what makes his sections boring.  He's too self-assured.

But the major problem with Sean Kendrick is that there's no real reason why he should race at all.  If he participates, if he doesn't, if he wins, if he loses, really it's all the same.  It takes about two-thirds of the way into the book for a reason to emerge.  And most of it has to do with Puck.

Now it's no real surprise that when you have a young female lead, a young male lead, and the young man rescues the young woman from an attack flesh-eating horses, that there's going to be some romantic tension between them.  But, life-saving thing aside, the two don't really start to interact until after the rider's parade, over halfway through the book.  This means that for two hundred pages, they barely exchange more than a dozen words between them.  And without Puck to interact with, Sean Kendrick hardly
speaks at all.

The last point is the villains of the story, Benjamin Malvern and to a lesser extent his bullying son Matthew "Mutt" Malvern.  Benjamin Malvern is a rich and powerful man who likes to play games with those underneath him, although what he means to achieve is never really made clear.  Sean Kendrick points out, "I realize I have never once known what he's truly thinking behind those clever, deep-set eyes."  We don't know why he's protecting his son at one moment, provoking him in the next, denying Sean Kendrick the deepest wishes of his heart but yielding before Puck.

So these are the changes I would make.  First, Puck would ride a capall uisce.  Second, she and Sean Kendrick would interact sooner.  Third, Sean Kendrick would have a reason for riding in the races by page 50, 100 tops.  Fourth, Benjamin Malvern would have an aim and motive for manipulating our heroes.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Weekly Update: 11-16-13

Sixth grade, 2nd trimester marked the last time I ever got a B on a report card.  Actually, I got 2.  My GPA was a 3.8.  I cried.  At least part of my frustration was knowing that my academic rival, who like me had gotten a 4.0 on his first trimester report card, had beaten me by again scoring perfect grades.  Studying like crazy, I got a 4.0 on my next report card to his 3.7.  I was elated.  I'd won not only this semester, but the whole year.  This joy was private, however.  I never said a word to him.  For all he knew, we were never in a competition.

Sixteen years later, it's time for NaNoWriMo.  The goal is to get 50,000 words in one moth.  My good friend Michelle has gotten together a group of writers all dedicated to completing a novel in November and sends us daily emails with words of encouragement and everyone's word count.  So naturally, I have turned this kind and loving gesture into a competition.  It's not enough to write 50,000 words.  I have to write it first!  Especially since I narrowly "lost" last year.  Sure I posted 54,000 words and completed the task 4 days early, but someone got to 50,000 1 day before me and I can't let it happen again.

That's why reaching 34,000 words in 15 days (or 2/3s finished at the halfway mark) isn't good enough.  For who should be beating me, but the kind and encouraging Michelle (currently at 36,000 words)?  I won't have it!  (Waves fist at the sky and gnashes teeth in agony.)  I cannot lose 2 years in a row!  Victory shall be mine if I must type until my fingers bleed!!!


Did I mention I'm overdramatic, too?  So many lovely traits come out when you're feeling the pressure.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Dissecting Fantasy: Games

In this 3-part installment of "Dissecting Fantasy," I'll look at how to represent intellectual play in speculative fiction using mazes, riddles, and games.  Coinciding with the film releases of Ender's Game and Catching Fire, this installment looks at games.


Sources: Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Yu-Gi-Oh, Star Trek

Why We Love 'em

Games are an enticing blend of action and strategy, competition and team work, skill and luck.  As kids we'd go outside to play Hide-and-Seek, Tag, and Dodgeball, then come inside and play Checkers, Monopoly, and Uno.  Games take many forms.  In the  real world, they have physical limitation: space and technology, money and friends.  In speculative fiction, the only limitation is your imagination.  Everything is off the table--including moral compunctions--and the stakes are incredibly high.  Are you ready to play the game of your life?

How to Build 'em

It's hard to just pop out an original idea for a game.  If you have one, great.  If not, you can begin with a simple game and embellishing with new rules, new equipment, and new player combinations.  Or you can smush two games together.  Hide-and-seek Checkers.  Uno Tag.  Once something strikes your imagination, develop it further by considering these aspects of gameplay:

Objective and Rules

All games are based on competition.  Someone has to win and someone has to lose.  The objective tells the player how to win.

Usually, it's pretty simple.  In The Hunger Games, which drops adolescents into an arena and has them fight to the death, the last one alive wins.  In Ender's Game, where children play a strategic version of laser tag in null-gravity, the objective is to "kill" or "disable" your opponents while keeping a requisite number of your own team "alive."  Sometimes the objective varies slightly depending on the player.  In Hide-and-Seek, the hider's objective is to reach home without getting tagged, whereas the seeker must tag the hider before he gets home.

The situation becomes more complicated when you add rules.  Rules determine how the player must play the game--what they can or cannot do in order to keep the game fair and fun.  Rules are tiresome.  They bog down the story with exposition and limit the resourcefulness of the players.  Keep them to the absolute minimum.

What if, however, your game does have a complex amount of rules?  In high school, I used to watch an anime called Yu-Gi-Oh which was based on a card game so complex, I had to actually get a deck of cards and read the rules before I understood it.  But I enjoyed the show.  In a case like this, do not, do NOT sit down and explain the rules to the audience.  Shove the player into the game and explain the rules as it becomes necessary.  This, by the way, is the same way most people explain a new game to their friends--by making them play it.

However, if you want to include the official rules in the appendices for clarification, I'm sure the audience wouldn't mind.


What's the biggest obstacle to victory in a game?  Nine times out of ten, it's the other players.  This is where the author has fun, drawing up the different personalities of the competitors.  But before we get to that, let's have a look at how they face up against each other.

Is it a team game or individual?  Can there be one winner or many?  How many people can play at a single time and how does this affect the play?  Is it a tournament, where people fight against each other one-on-one, until the two champions collide?  Is it a free-for-all Battle Royale?  Do players start off in teams and eventually compete as individuals?  Do they start as individuals and form teams?  Do teams get reshuffled?  Do you boot off members of your own tribe?

All these things facilitate the character's relationships.  It goes without saying, if you want drama, place friends and loved ones on opposite sides with your hero, and have your hero have to work with enemies and rivals.

Generally, your hero's opponents should have some leg-up on him.  Some, if not all of them, need to be bigger, stronger, smarter, more experienced, better-connected, tougher, richer, or more ruthless.  If your hero waltzes in with an advantage--if they are considered the best of the best--do something to knock them down a notch.  In Ender's Game, Ender is the most brilliant boy in battle school, so the teachers manipulate the game to make it more difficult for him.

Field of Play and Equipment

Here's where the imagination really comes into play.

In a normal game, you're limited to whatever 2-D space is available: a schoolyard, a cul-de-sac.  But in speculative fiction, you can utilize air space, if you want, and build whatever terrain you desire: jungles, volcanos, ice plains, the ocean.  Still, before you go crazy, consider what role you want the field to have.  Is it meant to be a neutral place for the players to wage war upon each other?  In that case, keep it simple--a flat smooth field, a court, the airspace over a farm.  But if on the other hand the field is meant to be an obstacle in and of itself, go crazy.  One arena mentioned in Catching Fire, (the second book of The Hunger Games Trilogy) contained beautiful flowers, glistening fruit, and vibrant butterflies--all of which were extremely poisonous.

Think, too, about how long you want the game to go on.  As a general rule, the game lasts for a few hours, a simple enclosed field is best.  If you want it to go on for days, you'll need a larger space with shelter and access to food and water.  Think of a baseball field versus the island on Survivor.  Be aware of the physical boundaries of the game.  What keeps people in the zone of play?  Are there penalties for stepping out of bounds?

The next thing to consider is equipment.  In real life, you can play several games with simple equipment (like a ball) or no equipment at all.  But screw real life, this is fantasy and what good is fantasy if you can't have massive flame throwers and laser-shooting dinosaurs every now and then?  In Yu-Gi-Oh, they bust out larger-than-life holograms just to make a card game more exciting.  Equipment is also where money becomes an advantage.  If someone can afford a T-Rex with a ray gun and all you've got is a Deinonychus with a paintball gun, the odds aren't exactly fair, are they?

Purpose and Stakes

Why are people playing this game to begin with?  With most games, the answer is "for fun," with maybe the additional benefit of getting exercise, practicing a skill, spending time with friends, or proving something about oneself.  Quidditch functions like this.  But if your game is a little more dangerous, sinister, or downright psychotic--if you wonder why anyone in their right mind would play this game--then you need to dig deeper to find the game's purpose.

A little history of the game--who founded it and why--can be helpful.  But the game may have evolved since then.  It's more useful to look at who currently maintains the game and why.  When in doubt, follow the money.  In The Hunger Games, the Capitol hosts the games, provides the equipment, and pays the prize.  They maintain the game because, to them, it's a tool display their complete power over the districts and prevent them from rebelling.

But the government isn't the only ones putting in money.  A sizable amount of citizens spend money to give additional equipment to their favorite competitors.  Ordinary Capitol citizens put in money because they've grown emotionally attached to contestants or have bets riding on them.  It's all entertainment to them.  Poorer district citizens sacrifice their small savings on the slim hope that their children survive.  And here's the thing to remember: a game may have different purposes to different people.  What's frivolous entertainment to some, may be life-and-death to others, may be cold manipulation to someone else.

Stakes are similar to purpose, but it deals more concretely with the costs and rewards of winning and losing the game.  Sometimes, you pay an entrance fee to play and sometimes you gain a huge prize for winning.  But money is the most common and least interesting of the stakes.  What has more value is a person's sense of dignity, his principles, his loved ones, a people he represent, a life long dream.

A game is about risk.  There's always something to gain and always something to lose.  On a petty side, it might be money, pride, or reputation.  In more extreme situations, the hero's life may be on the line or the lives of his people.  In Ender's Game, humanity itself was at stake.  Of course, the more dangerous and stressful the game, the more it costs our hero just to participate.  He may face injury; he may start slowly losing his mind.

Also Consider...


People play games in certain ways.  It's not necessarily stated in the rules--it's just the convention.  People in the past have used certain strategies to win; others copy them.  Over time, it's just assumed that there is a "right" way to play.

Here's where your protagonist can gain a slight advantage.  Presumably, you've stacked the deck against him.  He's outnumbered, outgunned--maybe he's never even played the game before and has no idea what he's doing.  But all that can turn into an advantage, if he invents a novel approach--something that defies the convention, something that his opponents have no idea how  to fight against.

By the way, it's not just your hero who can defy convention.  If the committee in charge of the game decides on a rule change, the whole game can get shaken up.  In this case, everyone might be clawing for a new strategy, with very interesting results.


You know what happens when you give people rules?  They go out of their way to break them.  In a game, this is called cheating.

And you know what?  Cheating is actually pretty fun.  Bad guys do it all the time, with classic maneuvers such as modified equipment, bribing/ pressuring important officials, or downright sabotage.  But did you know good guys can cheat too?

Two caveats, though.

Caveat #1: A Hero Must Be Forced to Cheat Due to an Extreme Situation, Such As...

...The Game is Evil

If the game demands human sacrifice or supports an oppressive regime, your hero can cheat any which way he feels like and the audience will cheer.  Cheat big, cheat little, cheat subtle, cheat obvious.  Whatever he needs to do to destroy the game itself.

...The Game is Rigged

Not just a little rigged.  There is no possible way for the hero to win.  The classic scenario is the Kobayashi Maru in Star Trek--a simulation of a defeat that Kirk wins by re-writing the program.  This kind of cheating favors the clever and the prepared.

...The Stakes are Impossibly High 

In this case, the game might be fair and reasonable, but factors outside the game has put so much pressure on the hero, he desperately needs to win.  Think dying mothers and loved ones held hostage.  Expect this kind of cheating to occur at the last minute.  Initially, the hero tries to play fair, but when some disaster convinces him he cannot win on his own, that's when the temptation to cheat becomes too much.

Caveat #2: The Hero's Method of Cheating Shall Not Harm Others...

...Especially Innocents

Depending on how evil his opponents are, the audience might forgive the hero for roughing them up a little.  But the hero cannot physically hurt opponents who are neutral or nice.


Well, he tries not to.  The nature of cheating is that, by not abiding by the rules, you leave room for others to get hurt.  The hero's scheme might get out of hand and accidentally injure or even kill someone.  In that case, expect lots of guilt and regret.

...With Bonus Points if He Protects Others.

The hero doesn't always cheat for himself.  Sometimes, it's his teammate or even his rival he's concerned for.  Said person might not appreciate it, but the audience usually appreciates his unselfish intentions.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Weekly Update: 11-8-13

NaNoWriMo began with aplomb last Friday.  That same weekend I went to Vegas.  Between visiting my great Aunt Mary, losing $2 at the slot machines, and trying several flavors of delicious gelato at the M casino buffet (Rum Rasin was my favorite), I somehow managed to eck out 5,000 words.  My writing got rolling on the weekdays.  By Thursday evening, I was up to 18,306 words or 65 pages.

On Thurday night, my ipad deleted my documents.

All of them.  Two years worth of documents.

A similar thing happened last year around this time.  I had been typing up my NaNoWriMo when a glitch wiped out a couple thousand words.  But this wasn't just a few pages.  This was several hundred documents.  You know how many hours I put into NaNoWriMo?  You know how many hours I lost?


Because, thanks to last year's glitched, I'd backed up all my important documents.  As soon as I'd finished my 18,306 words, I emailed myself the document.  My uncle's going to try and recover my work, but even if such efforts fail, at least I know most of my writing's saved.  Still, I did lose some of my minor stuff, including next's Sunday's "Dissecting Fantasy" blog.  And I felt shaken and insecure about my technology.  What if I had lost something important?  It's kind of scary.

P.S. My uncle did recover my files from the cloud, so everything turned out all right.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dissecting Fantasy: Riddles

In this 3-part installment of "Dissecting Fantasy," I'll look at how to represent intellectual play in speculative fiction using mazes, riddles, and games.   This week I'll examine riddles, a horrifically under-utilized obstacle, which works especially well in fantasy.


Sources: Fairy Tales, J. R. R. Tolkien's  The Hobbit

Why We Love 'em

Riddles are miniature word-based puzzles.  They usually contain some kind of paradox that you can only solve by looking at the world in a non-literal way.  And they're fun.  I remember collecting riddles as a kid, first trying to solve them and then passing them off as my own to stump the adults.  It made me feel smart.  Whether I solved the riddle or peeked at the answer sheet, there was always a wonderful "Oh!" moment when the code was cracked and the solution revealed itself like a crane from a sheet of origami.

How to Build 'em

Bear with me, because I'm no expert.  I can only analyze what makes a riddle work and speculate how to create one.  From what I can tell, there are two different methods, plus a cheat.

Method #1

Start with a common household object. Something everyone knows but no one really looks at.  Pencils, nails, tables, chairs, tea kettles, earrings, and radishes.  The less people think of them the better.  Then apply a solid dose of figurative language: either a metaphor, personification, or pun.  Tables have legs, potatoes have eyes, refrigerators run, and newspapers are read.  If you can't find a pun, don't despair.  You can always create an elaborate metaphor, which is the more sophisticated route, anyway.  So turn canes into legs and teeth into horses--anything goes.

It's not enough, however, to imply one thing is something else.  If possible, try to focus on the paradoxical element of it.  Things are suppose to work a certain way.  Water flows downhill, the sun sets in the west.  If something breaks the rule, we want to know why.  And so we have riddles, like this one, from The Hobbit:

"A box without hinges, key, or lid,
Yet golden treasure inside is hid."

The paradox is that there is no way to open the box to put the treasure inside or take the treasure out.  But if you start thinking of how to get the treasure--ie, by breaking the box--the metaphor starts to unfold.  The box is a shell, the treasure is a yolk, and the answer is an egg.

Here's another:

"Little Nancy Etticoat
In a white petticoat
And a red nose.
The longer she stands
The shorter she grows."

Little girls are not supposed grow shorter but rather taller over time.  So what object grows shorter with the passage of time.  The answer, in this case, is a candle.

In both instances, concrete details hint at how to solve the riddle: the golden treasure, the white petticoat, the red nose.  Even the paradox itself is a clue.  The briefer the riddle the better.  Bonus points if you can work in a rhyme.  If you can't memorize the riddle in 5 minutes, chances are it's too complicated.

Method #2

Rather than start with a common object, start with a broad, abstract concept, though still something any elementary school kid would understand.  So no Theory of Relativity allowed.   You can either construct a metaphor as before or simply list off ways in which it interacts with the world.  Then choose the most interesting ones and put them together in a list that befuddles the reader or seems to contradict itself.

Here's riddle that nearly got Bilbo eaten in The Hobbit:

"This thing all thing devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down."

Notice that this riddle doesn't really have a paradox--it's just so all-encompassing that you have to stretch your imagination to figure out what it is.  The answer, by the way, is time.  Though the riddle uses a bit of personification to make it seem like some kind of monster, most of the riddle is simply a list of the things time does.

Here's a riddle a tour guide told my family a while back.

"What's greater than God,
More evil than the Devil.
Rich man wants it.
Poor man has it.
If you eat it, you die."

What got me stuck was the "If you eat it, you die."  I kept picturing all kinds of poisons, but none of it seemed to fit with the rich or poor man.  At last the tour guide directed our family's attention to the first part of the riddle: "What's greater than God?"  "Nothing," my mom guessed, and that was the answer.

When you compile your list, don't go for the most obvious descriptors.  ("The friend of clocks."  "It lives between stars.")  Look at the concept from all different angles.  Go for both huge mind-blowing concepts ("all things devours"  "greater than God") and smaller, more concrete examples ("gnaws iron, bites steel" "if you eat it, you die").  That's what create the paradox: what object could be so big and so small at the same time?

When people try to solve riddles, they usually start by compiling a list of things they can see, either with their eyes or with their imaginations.  By choosing something they can't see, you'll be able to stump them, even if the answer is right there in front of their nose.

Cheat Method

Even though I've analyzed what makes a good riddle tick, actually writing one requires more time, patience, and work than I'm usually willing to devoted.  Fortunately, I write fantasy, and that means I'm not limited to the real world.  Anything goes.  And that means I can think up a paradox that will stump my readers and then make up an answer out of thin air.  This is the cheat method and it's so much easier.

For example, in a story I'm currently working on called Three Floating Coffins, Princess Sophia asks her suitors to bring her "a gift worth my kingdom that can fit in the palm of my hand."  The answer turns out to be an amulet containing magic.  In the past, a similar amulet was used by Sophia's ancestor to win the kingdom in the first place.

Of course, even if the audience had guessed "Magic," they couldn't have known the specifics.  That is the information the author (me) conceals until the last moment.

I'm hardly alone in this.  In the fairy tale "What the Rose did to the Cypress," (The Brown Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang--no relation) a princess asks her suitors "What did the rose do to the cypress?" and executes them if they guess wrong.  The answer winds up being a complicated story of how a woman (Rose) cheated on her husband (Cypress) and would have killed him but for the intervention of his dog.  Thereafter Cypress decreed that his wife should be treated like his dog, his dog treated like his wife.  (It's back before the days of political correctness.)

Normal riddles work because they test your brilliance.  Cheat riddles work because they promise you a story.  The author leads you on a journey into the heart of the world; seeking the answer to the riddle, you come to understand all aspects of the land's beauty, cruelty, and wonder.  That's how you can build a cheat riddle and not have the audience feel cheated.  The riddle is an excuse to explore the mysteries of your world.

So how do you build them?

First off, you need to know why the riddle exists.  A normal riddle exists for its own sake; a cheat riddle is built into and dependent upon the plot.  Usually, it spurs on a quest.  The classic scenario, as I've shown, is that of a suitor who must solve the riddle to win the hand of a princess.   But it can be anything.

I, personally, like to come up with the solution before I come up with a riddle.  In Three Floating Coffins, the amulet plays an important role in the story, as the magic eventually falls into the hands of an evil man who plots to take over the kingdom.  Magic, therefore, is the focal point, and I made up a riddle for it by drawing on the paradox of the amulet being tiny but invaluable.

However, the opposite could work just as well.  You could come up with an interesting riddle first and spend the rest of the book trying to figure out what it is.  It all depends on how you write.  The main thing is to tie the riddle into the plot.  The tighter you tie it, the better the cheat riddle works.

Also Consider...

The Prize and the Penalty

Let's go back to the non-cheat riddles.  Suppose you spend days or weeks or months crafting and refining one only for the reader to spend less than thirty seconds reading it.  It almost feels like a waste.  You need to stretch the riddle by attaching it to an important plot point.

The hero must solve a riddle (or series of riddles) in order to get something he needs or wants.  It might be a magical sword or the princess' hand in marriage.  Or, like Bilbo Baggins, it might be something as simple as being shown the way out.  The riddle becomes an obstacle; solve it and you get a prize.

Of course, if you answer wrongly, there may be consequences.  This traditionally involves some manner of gruesome death, with bonus points if the asker of the riddle is entitled to eat you.  Then again maybe the penalty is small--instead of gaining an item you need, you lose an item.  Maybe the penalty is not against you, but a loved one--Rumpelstiltskin claiming your firstborn.  Or maybe you can guess as much as you want without cost, but the time it takes to solve the riddle will severely hinder your quest.

When you think about prize and penalty, think not just about your hero, but the person asking.  Why do they bother with riddles?  Princesses who want to avoid getting married often use it as a screening process; on the surface, it seems civilized, but it can tally up a high body count.  And unlike, say, a joust, it can go on indefinitely with no winner.  Is the riddler a monster or a human?  Weak or strong?  Cocky or bored?  As you discover their personality, the prize and the penalty becomes clear.

The Action Solution

The other major problem with riddles is that they're passive.  The hero listens and then sits around and thinks.  Don't get me wrong; their thinking process can be quite fascinating.  But for cheat riddles especially, it's not enough to think.  Your hero has to get up and do something.

Going back to my Three Floating Coffins, the princess didn't just want an answer to her riddle--she wanted the suitor to present her with the magical amulet.  Which led to a whole new set of problems--how do you go about obtaining it?  The riddle, in other words, sets off a larger test.  You must first solve it to know where you're aiming; get it wrong and you're on a wild goose chase.  But even if you get it right, there are still many obstacles between you and your prize.

Then again, it may be that you can only solve the riddle if you get up and seek a solution.  In "What the Rose Did to the Cypress," the princess' many suitors all assumed they knew the answer.  They guessed wrong and got their heads chopped off.  But the hero, rather than try to think his way out of it, deliberately set out on an adventure.  In his case, the riddle was impossible to solve without making this journey.  It doesn't have to be that extreme, though.  Maybe the adventure gives the hero a wider view of the world, which in turn helps him to solve the riddle.

Even if your hero is in an enclosed space, he can still take action.  He can goad the riddle-master into giving him multiple guesses.  He can try to bargain or bribe the riddler for hints.  If it were me, I'd try to find out all the wrong guesses other people tried.  Maybe even observing the riddle-master helps.  Poker players learn each other's tells--maybe the hero can learn the riddler's "tell" and use it to his advantage.  Conversely, maybe the asker doesn't let the hero sit and think.  Maybe, he attacks him.  Maybe the hero is in hostile territory and must fight, swim, climb, or run for his life while he thinks.

Riddles are, in the end, problems.  Think of how you solve problems.  Do you just sit quietly and think?  Or do you do something--anything--write, rant to a friend, take a walk, take a bath, play with a toy, eat, beat your head with your hands--until a flash of brilliance comes.  So don't discount action, whether big or small.  Even Bilbo Baggins who was basically trapped in a dark cave with nothing to do but think fidgeted and pinched himself and gripped his sword, all in an effort to solve riddles.