How to Write Poetic Riddles and Clues

Prophecies, epic ballads, myths, riddles, and clues are all staples of the fantasy genre, and they often appear in poetic form. Over the next couple months, I’ll be writing about each of these topics and including some of my favourite examples so you can write awesome poems in your own works. This post is all about riddles and clues.

Riddles in the Dark

Some of the most well-known riddles in the fantasy genre are found in The Hobbit, when Bilbo meets Gollum for the first time and they engage in an epic duel of riddles:

“It must have a competition with us, my precious! If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!”

Gollum and Bilbo present each other with riddles, such as the following:

Thirty white horses on a red hill,
First they champ,
     Then they stamp,
     Then they stand still.

[spoiler title=”See Answer”]Teeth[/spoiler]

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under hills,
     And empty holes it fills.
It comes first and follows after,
     Ends life, kills laughter.”

[spoiler title=”See Answer”]Dark[/spoiler]

The duel ends with Bilbo’s stumping question—“What have I got in my pocket?”—and, as Gollum guesses incorrectly, he reluctantly shows Bilbo the way out of the cave.

In this scene, the purpose of the riddles is straight-forward: they serve as a test of intellect. But riddles often hide clues in them, for either characters or readers. Like prophecies and myths, riddles can add an extra dimension to your world, though, in this case, these are little snippets, appetizers that make us hungry to know more.

Below are three more examples of riddles and how they’re used in their stories.

The Mermaid’s Song

“Come seek us where our voices sound,
We cannot sing above the ground,
And while you’re searching, ponder this:
We’ve taken what you’ll sorely miss,
An hour long you’ll have to look,
And to recover what we took,
But past an hour—the prospect’s black
Too late, it’s gone, it won’t come back.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling

This riddle is written in iambic tetrameter and follows an AABB rhyme scheme. Harry encounters it during the Triwizard Tournament, which takes place between the three largest wizarding schools of Europe: Hogwarts School, Durmstrang Institute, and Beauxbatons Academy. After he completes the first challenge as a Hogwarts’ champion, he is given a golden egg, which contains a clue about the next challenge.

This clue is specifically for Harry (and the other champions), and it’s simple: he has to go underwater for an hour and find what was taken from him. This riddle isn’t complicated. There aren’t any complex images or double meanings because it has to be easy enough for a student to figure out.

But, while this clue is for Harry, Rowling also uses it as an opportunity to expand her worldbuilding; it’s through this riddle that readers learn there are mermaids in the Great Lake.

The Rhyme of the Great Charter

“Five Great Charters knit the land
together linked, hand in hand
One in the people who wear the crown
Two in the folk who keep the Dead down
Three and Five became stone and mortar
Four sees all in frozen water.”

Sabriel, Garth Nix

The rhyme scheme of the Great Charter is AABB (though the last two lines cheat a little bit with the use of mortar and water).

In Sabriel, the title character grows up at a school outside of her home in the Old Kingdom. Because of this, she doesn’t know much about the kingdom or the history of the magic systems within it. All she knows is that she comes from a long line of Abhorsens: the people who are tasked with laying the Dead to rest.

When Sabriel returns to the Old Kingdom on a quest to find her father, who has been imprisoned in Death, she quickly realizes that her lack of knowledge is a severe hindrance. Without her reluctant guide, Mogget (a curmudgeonly cat), she would be completely lost.

The above rhyme is the first sliver of history she learns about the Old Kingdom. She knows that Two refers to her ancestors and that One is the royal family. Sabriel serves as a gateway to the Old Kingdom for readers, much like Harry does for the world of Hogwarts. Because we learn about the Old Kingdom through Sabriel, the rhyme is a clue for both her and readers. And, while, at this point, Three, Four, and Five remain a mystery, they allude to more history just waiting for readers to discover.

A Troublesome Spell

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the Devil’s foot.
Teach me to hear the mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
     And find
     What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

Decide what this is about
Write a second verse yourself.”

Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

This riddle doesn’t seem to have a discernible meter, but its rhyme scheme is ABABCD, and it does something interesting in the last three lines. In the phrase, “And find / What wind / Serves to advance an honest mind,” it’s not clear if the use of wind is pronounced wind, as in “blowing wind,” or waind, as in “wind-up toy.” Either use of the word changes the meaning drastically, and it seems that it’s up to the caster to decide. If it’s pronounced waind, then the poem is also using sight rhyme, which is when words are spelled similarly, but are pronounced differently.

After Sophie Hatter is turned into a ninety-year-old woman by the Witch of the Waste, she comes upon Howl’s moving castle, where she meets Calcifer the fire demon. They quickly form an arrangement: Calcifer will help Sophie break the aging spell on her, and Sophie will help Calficer break the contract that ties him to the castle.

One day, Michael, Howl’s apprentice, asks Sophie to help with with the above spell. He tells Sophie that they can’t ask Calcifer because he thinks the spell is for the fire demon; the directions of “tell me” and “teach me” suggest the need for a subject. They look at it a few different ways, but nothing makes sense. So, they finally try to actually do one of the listed actions; they go out to find a falling star. And they do. But, just before Michael catches the star, it has a surprising reaction:

“‘No! No!’ the star crackled desperately. ‘That’s wrong! I’m supposed to die!’

‘But I could save you if you’d let me catch you,’ Michael told it gently.

‘No!’ cried the star, ‘I’d rather die!’”

The spell is a clue in disguise. The characters don’t know it yet, and neither do readers. It’s only after we’ve read the whole story that we see how the spell and the scene with the falling star begin unravelling the mystery of Howl and Calcifer. In the end we learn that Calcifer is a fallen star and that Howl gave him his heart as part of their contract to keep Calcifer powering the castle. But when they both learn that the contract is eating them up, they realize they need to break it.

Writing Your Own Riddles

Whether you’re using a riddle as a clue for your characters or readers, keep these elements in mind:

1. Who is the clue for and when does it work best in the timeline of your story?
2. What is the purpose of the clue? Does it contain important information for your world as a whole, or does your character need it to solve a puzzle?
3. Is it too complex or is there a legitimate reason why it might be hard to solve? The first two examples are both fairly simple, and their meanings are straight-forward. But, in the example from Howl’s Moving Castle, the fact that it’s hard to decipher is what leads to Sophie and Michael finding the falling star, which was an important development in the story.

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