cusheamus: what Quadrivial Quandary is and some notes about the process of composing a solution

Guest post from QQ contributor cusheamus about the process of composing a solution.?? (From July correspondence.)

Most popular word puzzles are funnel-shaped. The big open part at the top is where the clue or definition goes, along with all its associations, and often along with some limiting factor, e.g., it has to contain certain letters or it has to be a specific length or perhaps it has to rhyme. The small opening at the bottom is where the word comes out, and lies inertly, often with each of its letters inside a little box, so the word not only has no context but also it's been dismembered, like an organ donor ("I need an 'i' in a fourteen-letter word for 'cold-blooded'").

Quadrivial Quandary is funnel-shaped, too, but joyfully upside-down. The word is still there in the small base of the funnel, but the process moves upward and outward, accreting more associations and a more intricate context as it goes, until it emerges from the big opening as part of a story, having fulfilled its wordy destiny as purveyor of meaning.

For people who are used to the first kind of puzzle, however, making the transition to QQ can be overwhelming, setting off into the pathless wilderness with nothing but four peculiarly intransigent words and a writing instrument, and no earthly idea how to begin.

Without getting into a discourse about what puzzles (of any kind) are for, let me just note what QQ seems to do for me: it's imagination calisthenics and writing warm-up. Not only doesn't it take much time (10-30 minutes most days), but the fact that it can't take a lot of time even if I want it to is a very good thing; there's no time here for fiddly perfectionism. Just get out there and get the blood flowing! This is not the time or place for self-consciousness or competitiveness. It's an ideal exercise for writers at any level, beginning with bright middle-schoolers (provided their teachers don't spoil it by grading their solutions).

I have been composing QQ solutions almost every day for about nine months and can share a few things I have learned about arriving at an acceptable solution. Other contributors will certainly have different advice and strategies.

1. Being comfortably clear about the meanings of the words is the first step. Some you may already know and love, with some you may have a nodding acquaintance, some will ring a faint bell, and others will be utterly unfamiliar. You're at the computer already, so just google around through definitions and etymologies and encyclopedia entries until you have a good sense of how the words are used. Do not rely solely on the QQ definitions of strange words, since those definitions are usually partial and occasionally misleading. Also, sometimes another meaning or usage will give you a idea about how to use a word that's been resisting your advances.

hypernatremic, lincolnesque, will-o'-the-wisp, salient

2. There will always be a word (or two) of the four that will, at the very least, strike a spark. See what other words are attracted to the one you like. For example, what is it the narrator has been eating to make her 'hypernatremic'?

It will be, more or less gracefully, like watching little blobs of mercury coalesce into a bigger puddle. The four puzzle words will start attracting other words, fragments of story, once you've tentatively asked your first couple of questions. I.e., it turns out to be a group of people who are 'hypernatremic' because they have been compulsively eating salty snacks while watching something mesmerizing on TV.

3. The next step is to encourage the four words to develop relationships to each other. Perhaps by this point you will have four separate nascent narratives or only one. Although I have never done it, I have considered that one strategy might be to write two stories, each with two of the words and then find some way, however outlandish, to combine them. What I do instead is just to go on to the next word that attracts me and fit it in with whatever's there already. So, in my example, I now have some 'hypernatremic' people watching TV and the second word,?? 'lincolnesque', now brings to mind a certain kind of beard and I realize the people are Franciscan friars.

The next word in this series is 'will-o'-the'-wisp', so that will have to be the subject of the program they're watching on the Discovery Channel, and it only remains to fit in the fourth word, 'salient'. Perhaps they're looking for information on will-o'-the-wisps, some 'salient' fact or other, so all that's left is for me to think up a reason why a group of Franciscans would urgently need such information.?? (My solution, 3/11/10.)

4. The most devilish part of the puzzle is that it requires that someone reading the sentence and encountering an unfamiliar word be able make a good guess about the meaning of it from the context. The only thing that has ever helped me here is patience, which in this puzzle manifests itself in the willingness to write a longer sentence in which things have the time and space to unfold. That is, I find I must often abandon economy and concision to give the reader room to breathe. It's one of those rare times when I am glad of all those lack-luster words that otherwise weigh down sentences. Open 'er up and let 'er breathe and never mind about brevity being the soul of wit, because when the goal is to use four difficult, unrelated words in one sentence, you'll come up with something fairly tortuous most of the time and the reader has to be given a chance to navigate.

Practically, this seems work out to saying a lot of things more than once, in different words. The underpinnings of the story have to be well enough established that there are, at worst, only a limited number of things that, e.g., 'hypernatremic' could possibly mean.

5. Finally, a suggestion for a way to jump-start the process when you look at the four words and Absolutely. Nothing. Happens. Go online or to a favorite reference work and get a random article or quote and make up a story about that using the four words. Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia, The Top 500 Poems, The New York Times, etc., etc. Even when what you get seems totally unusable it will often be enough to get the ball rolling, if only in self defense.



Introducing QQ’s Omnium Gatherum

The Quandary for April 17, 2010 was:


Here, I announce an omnium gatherum of information, ideas, and stories relating to Quadrivial Quandary.?? I'm not yet sure how we'll organize it, and yes, like some blogs it risks becoming more of a floordrobe than an ordered closet.?? Let's first start building the heap.?? When we begin stumbling over it, then we'll consider how to transmogrify chaos into order.

What goes here??? To start, a few questions for QQ contributors: How do you go about solving the Quandary??? What brings you back to the challenge??? Is there a process you follow??? How do you work Quandary into your day??? Do you talk about your solutions with others?

As for the logistics of posting: for now, this will be a moderated blog, accepting posts on any topic relating to QQ.?? Email me at if you have something to share — a proposed post, or just an idea.

Following shortly: some thoughts from a QQ participant about the problem-solving process and what QQ is all about.

Also, a note about this blog.?? QQ is a community for word lovers, and often word lovers expect a lot of their own writing.?? In this forum though, I would like to encourage us all (starting with myself) to relax and focus on communication over the pursuit of perfection.?? QQ itself is the place for wordcrafting — whatever gymnastics we enjoy, whatever virtuosity we may wish to summon.?? This blog is different, not quite a place for chitchat, but for casual "backstage" discussion about our shared endeavor.

-Rudi Seitz
Founder of

see also —
Apr 17 Quandary: