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I'm asking about classic riddles as they appear in books and kids' literature, based on metaphors - not maths problems or tasks, or deceitful questions but just an old good-natured rhyme describing the subject in a way that makes it tricky to guess. Let me give some examples from J.R.R. Tolkien for what I mean:

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

Answer:

time


Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

Answer:

Wind

Writing these riddles is a tricky business, because you must balance difficulty, come up with clues corrupted enough not to be trivial, and simultaneously not too obscure, and get the final result in rhyme form.

What are some techniques of coming up with such a riddle?

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    $\begingroup$ I've voted to close as Too Broad - this isn't specific enough. Please narrow this question down. $\endgroup$ – Doorknob May 15 '14 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ Whatever you do, don't write it like this travesty that I made. $\endgroup$ – Joe Z. Apr 13 '15 at 21:26
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Before you proceed, here's the riddle I came up with, through composing this answer. Obviously, the answer = spoiler follows close behind, so if you want to try to guess it, do it before proceeding below the line.

Eight hours of death. Beneath your head -.
a colored box that's full of dreams.
It listens to your tales unsaid.
Soft gifts of birds escape its seams.


Start from the end: the answer. Think about your target audience - if it's a kids' riddle you won't give them a riddle with 'Euler's Constant' for an answer. Make sure it's not too obscure, unless you're aiming at a very specific audience.

Let us try something nice and simple. Oh, out of top of my head, since I'm feeling sleepy, a pillow.

Pick a set of associations which can describe the subject, themes realated to it.

  • feathers/down
  • sleep
  • soft
  • cloth
  • bed
  • under head
  • square
  • pillowcase
  • dreams
  • container [contains feathers]

Turn some or that into either metaphors or unclear synonyms. Think of ways of bundling some of them, possibly unrelated. Try to have the metaphors related.

If you have difficulty coming up with metaphors, see my crude recipe from Writers.SE although it's always better to craft these by hand.

Craft roughly half the required number of them for now. I'm aiming for a four-liner, so two will do.

square + container + dreams = a box of dreams

feathers - fluffy; taken from birds - fluffy gift of birds

Now is a good moment to start looking for rhymes. Professional poets will wince, but I cheat with rhyming dictionaries. RhymeZone has fewer hits but of higher quality. Rhymer finds much more but some of them are quite poor.

Dreams:

1 syllable:

beams, beam's, creams, deems, eames, gleams, hiems, nemes, reames, reams, reims, schemes, screams, seams, seems, siems, steams, streams, teams, team's, teams', teems, themes, weems

2 syllables:

basim's, esteem's, extremes, hakeem's, hakim's, kareem's, pezim's, racemes, redeems, regimes, regime's, supremes

3 syllables:

joachims, joachim's

Let's look for something promising. Oh, a pillow has seams. Now, what can we write about seams? Sometimes the fall apart, sometimes feathers come out through these. We already have a line about feathers, so let's consume that one. Synonyms, extra adjectives, to pad for rhythm, and we have two first very nice lines.

Colorful box that's full of dreams
Soft gifts of birds escape its seams.

Now, since we consumed the 'gifts of birds' we need to resupply our store of metaphors to fit to half of the remaining lines. So, one. Similar noun, difference between them and the metaphor is ready.

Sleep - death - 8 hours. "Eight hours of death." Tell me if that's not a nice metaphor.

Another visit to rhymezone and... nothing promising. "Breath-death" is totally ridden into ground. Let's pad with something at the end instead. Straight from the list above, 'head'.

"Eight hours of death under your head".

1 syllable:

bled, bread, bred, dread, dred, dredd, ed, fled, fread, fred, freda, pled, schwed, sffed, shred, sled, sledd, sped, spread, stead, swed, szwed, thread, tread

2 syllables:

abed, behead, embed, imbed, instead, misled, misread, numed, purebred, retread, sayed, unread, unsaid, unted, unwed, widespread

We have one cheap lockpick: 'instead', there's half the universe you can write ending with 'instead'. But let's pick something more ambitious. 'unsaid' has a nice poetic ring, and we should be able to come up with something neat and moody, since we have quite enough actual hints made.

Listens to your confessions unsaid.

Nice, but we're one syllable too long. Another modern poet's friend comes in handy: Thesaurus.com. The wrong rhythm is after the caesura, and we don't want to touch the rhyming word for now, so 'confessions' gets the axe.

Who'd think, lots of results but only three 2-syllable synonyms. Still, 'stories' will be acceptable. Let's go with it.

Listens to your stories unsaid.

We can reshuffle some lines - you're rarely at such liberty with other poems, and the new arrangement both gives a nicer rhyme scheme, and composes second and third verse into one sentence:

Eight hours of death under your head.
Colorful box that's full of dreams
Listens to your stories unsaid.
Soft gifts of birds escape its seams.

There.

edit:

...and then you show it to someone and they suggest some nice corrections. Thanks, Joe Z.

Eight hours of death. Beneath your head -.
a colored box that's full of dreams.
It listens to your tales unsaid.
Soft gifts of birds escape its seams.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what sort of meter you were aiming for here. It's kinda inconsistent. $\endgroup$ – Joe Z. May 15 '14 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeZ. Iambic tetrameter. I agree, especially the third verse misses the mark, but then - that's one line that contributes the least to the overall riddle, so editing her into something with better rhythm should be quite easy. (and I've had enough for today. Maybe sometime.) $\endgroup$ – SF. May 15 '14 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking iambic tetrameter too, but then I thought maybe since most of the lines didn't fit, it might have been something else... $\endgroup$ – Joe Z. May 15 '14 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ For starters, change "under" to "beneath", and "colourful" to "a coloured". $\endgroup$ – Joe Z. May 15 '14 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ Also, although you've probably forgotten all about it, I'd probably rearrange the bottom three lines so it goes unsaid, seams, dreams. Otherwise the last line feels like it was just stuck on there. $\endgroup$ – Joe Z. Apr 13 '15 at 22:31
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1) The Answer must be simple. (One word, no sentence, no theorem etc...)

2) The Answer must be something that ANYONE could think of - regardless of age , even though in this case you are thinking of kids. Don't pick some specific toy i.e., think back at those old kid books where you learn words. That's the type of word you want. (Time, Wind, Clock, Mouth, Flower, Table, Dog, etc...)

3) Then it gets tricky, you can choose to describe your word physically, or describe its actions, or describe its impact etc... I find it makes a better riddle if you stick to one of those. Metaphors are an obvious choice to describe it.

4)The writing pattern, I'm no writer, I'm not sure what to call it. I like using similar structures for the sentences, or using repetition.

5)Try not dealing with anything too abstract

Example:

I silence birds and stop Mills,
Hide hills and make rivers still.
Under my blanket animals slumber,
I cannot stay, but I may linger.

OR more grim (this one is a bit more obscure/abstract though, treating with stuff kids might not understand) :

What heart did men of old fear,
When my breath came knocking yesteryear.
Harrows the old and weak down to the bone,
And makes the dead as hard as stone.

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