As an aspiring writer, one of the most important things you can learn from Lewis Carroll’s riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, is the power of ambiguity and reader engagement.
Carroll’s riddle is legendary precisely because it defies the usual expectations of a riddle. A riddle is supposed to have an answer, right?
Not this one.
Carroll served up a puzzle with no solution, a mystery with no reveal. This was no accident, no oversight. It was a deliberate choice that amplifies the absurdity and unpredictability of Wonderland.
This is the essence of Carroll’s genius and a potent demonstration of the impact a writer can achieve by defying conventions and reader expectations.
However, another lesson to glean from this episode is the importance of understanding your audience.
Post-publication, Carroll was inundated with letters from readers demanding an answer to the riddle. In response, he added a preface to later editions explaining that the riddle was designed to be without an answer. Yet, the readers persisted. Eventually, Carroll conceded and provided a potential answer: “Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!”
This answer, while a clever play on words, was ultimately an afterthought. A compromise. But it reveals another aspect of Carroll’s genius: his ability to adapt and respond to his readers, to engage with them even beyond the pages of his book.
Other answers have been proposed over the years, including the clever “Poe wrote on both,” but remember, these are all attempts to bring order to chaos, to find sense in the senseless.
Your conclusion from this should be the understanding that sometimes, it’s the unanswered questions, the unresolved mysteries, the sense of wonder, that keeps readers engaged and coming back for more.
- Did Alice in Wonderland feature other riddles?
Absolutely, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass,” are brimming with riddles and puzzles, embodying Carroll’s love for wordplay and logical conundrums. Consider the enigmatic conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, or the bizarre exchanges during the trial in the Queen’s court. However, none of these riddles quite captured the public imagination like “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”. They each serve to underscore the dreamlike, nonsensical nature of Wonderland, while offering readers a tantalizing challenge to decipher their hidden meanings.
- Have other writers used riddles similar to ‘why is a raven like a writing desk’?
The tradition of embedding riddles in literature is a storied one, and many authors have followed in Carroll’s footsteps. J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance, used riddles as a crucial plot device in “The Hobbit,” where Bilbo Baggins and Gollum engage in a high-stakes game of riddles. Such riddles require the reader to think laterally and engage with the text on a deeper level. However, few have managed to create a riddle as beautifully baffling and enduringly enigmatic as Carroll’s unsolvable conundrum.
- What are some tips for crafting a riddle in a work of fiction?
Crafting a riddle for a work of fiction is a delicate balancing act. The riddle must be challenging enough to engage the reader, yet not so obtuse that it frustrates or confounds them. It’s helpful to begin with the answer and work backwards, devising clever, indirect clues that point towards the solution. Consider the context of your story and ensure your riddle is relevant and enhances the narrative. Remember, a riddle is not merely a puzzle, it is a form of storytelling, and as such, it should be imbued with the same elements of conflict, tension, and resolution that drive your narrative.
- What are some mistakes to avoid when using riddles in fiction?
Avoid making your riddles too obscure or too easy. Too obscure, and the reader is left frustrated and disengaged; too easy, and the reader feels patronized. Make sure the answer to the riddle is satisfying. It should feel like the natural conclusion to the clues provided, not an arbitrary or contrived solution. It’s also crucial to integrate the riddle seamlessly into your narrative. It should not feel like an unnecessary add-on, but rather an integral part of the story that contributes to the plot, character development, or world-building.
- What are some practical exercises writers can use to craft their own riddles?
One practical exercise to develop your riddle-crafting skills is to start with everyday objects or common scenarios and try to describe them in a roundabout, cryptic way. Focus on unique characteristics, unexpected similarities, or uncommon uses. Another exercise is to study existing riddles, both in literature and standalone. Analyze their structure, their clues, and their answers. Understand what works, what doesn’t, and why. Finally, try to incorporate riddles into your daily writing practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
Remember, like any form of writing, crafting riddles requires practice, feedback, and revision.
Examples of riddles for different genres
While Carroll used a riddle in his tale of absurdist fantasy, riddles can form part of almost any genre. Here are a few examples for popular fiction genres.
Riddle: “I’m the heart that does not beat. If you’re smart, you’ll never meet. I’m always there in the corner, out of sight. In the castle, I stay out of the light. What am I?”
Solution: A dragon. Dragons are often seen as the heart of fantasy stories, though they don’t have a heartbeat in the traditional sense. They are smart and elusive, often hiding out of sight or in the corners of the map, and in castles, they stay hidden, often in the dungeons or beneath the castle itself.
Riddle: “I am the bridge between two hearts, I’m both soft and hard, I have no parts. In the game of love, I’m the winning card. What am I?”
Solution: Love letter. In romance, a love letter acts as a bridge between two hearts, conveying emotions and feelings. It’s soft because it’s made of paper and hard because of the emotional weight it carries. In the game of love, it’s often the winning card, signifying deep affection and romantic intention.
Riddle: “I can carry you to other worlds, without a spaceship or a magic word. No need to pack or prepare, just open me up, if you dare. What am I?”
Solution: A wormhole. In science fiction, wormholes are often depicted as shortcuts through spacetime, allowing characters to travel to other worlds or times without the need for a traditional spaceship.
Riddle: “I’m the silent partner in every crime. I leave a mark, but serve no time. Capture me, and the mystery unwinds. What am I?”
Solution: Evidence. In a crime thriller, evidence plays a crucial role, serving as silent witnesses to the crime. They leave their marks at the crime scene but are not subject to punishment. Capturing and interpreting the evidence helps unravel the mystery.
Riddle: “I have keys but no locks. I have space but no room. You can enter but can’t go outside. What am I?”
Solution: A keyboard. This riddle is simple and fun, suitable for a children’s book. It makes children think about everyday items in new and interesting ways.
Are you ready to solve the riddle of your next work of fiction?
When well-crafted and integrated seamlessly into the narrative, a riddle can add depth to your characters, complexity to your plot, and richness to your world. It’s a technique that has been used by many authors, from J.R.R. Tolkien in “The Hobbit” to J.K. Rowling in “Harry Potter.”
Avoiding extremes, whether too obscure or too easy, is crucial when creating a riddle. It’s essential to maintain a balance that engages the reader without causing unnecessary frustration. Remember, the answer to your riddle should serve as a satisfying payoff, a resolution that feels both surprising and inevitable.
So, as you embark on your next writing adventure, consider incorporating a riddle into your story. Challenge your readers, invite them to think, and create a deeper, more interactive narrative experience. Who knows? Maybe your riddle will be the next to captivate readers’ imaginations for generations to come.