Storytelling media run “hot” and “cool” in Marshall McLuhan’s estimation. As a crossword constructor who also writes fiction, I can testify that there’s a lot of crossover potential between the two, and narrative crosswords are still a largely unexplored frontier of the form. Such crossover pretty much has to come from within the crosswording world, though, because on the rare occasions that the outsiders from film and TV try to look in, they usually either get out quickly, or fail disastrously. Consider:
The most-loved movie about crossword-lovers in the last decade, and probably of all time, was Wordplay. Warmly received by critics as well as crossword fans, it earned a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and $3 million at the box office, not terrible for a documentary. It’s the exception that proves the rule: there’s more understanding of puzzling in any two minutes of the film than in all of any other onscreen portrayal I can find, with the possible exception of the Wordplay-inspired episode of The Simpsons.
The most-viewed movie about crossword-lovers in the last decade was All About Steve, a Sandra Bullock production with a cruciverbalist protagonist named Mary, a 6% Rotten Tomatoes ranking, box office earnings of $40 million, a place on several critics’ “worst” lists, and a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress of 2009.
The film is no better at portraying crosswording than it is at portraying love. Mary ekes out a living– a small one, but still– as the sole, self-edited cruciverbalist for a fictional Sacramento paper. This is already laughable to anyone who knows the economics of the profession. Nobody earns a living at crosswords alone without being involved in syndication. Mary then gets fired because, in the throes of romantic obsession, she writes a puzzle “all about Steve,” her blind date. You know, like when Will Shortz got fired for a week because of that puzzle he wrote himself, without even using a pseudonym, that was all about Jodie Foster.
Oh, wait, that’s impossible: no newspaper crossword is constructable that has all its clues germane to one person, especially one person whom the constructor has dated once and doesn’t really know. Given the promotional material released for the movie (see right), the producers seem to have confused newspaper crosswords with the acrostics often labeled “crosswords” used in K-12 education.
“Aw, come on,” you might be saying. “This is just kicking a movie while it’s down.” Fair enough. Let’s look at TV instead, and this time at a show the critics mostly like. Rubicon revolves around a conspiracy, clues to which are encoded in various crosswords published around the country. So far, so good: crosswords love their encoded messages. Then we actually see one of these mysterious puzzles on the screen:
It’s mysterious, all right. The biggest mystery is how a multi-million-dollar production can’t spare the hundred bucks it would take to get somebody to come up with a plausible crossword grid, one without unchecked squares, two-letter words, incomprehensible numbering and utterly unsolvable clue-answer pairs like “What lucky lepidoptera larvae eat (MARSILEA QUADIFOLIA).”
Should we even bother mentioning that this answer, a MacGuffin in the pilot episode, is 5 Down in the grid above but 34 Down in the clues?
Now, let’s consider an approach from the opposite direction. Let Brendan Emmett Quigley tell you about his failed New Year’s Resolutions, and his April Fool’s Day, using fill-in-the-blank clues and their filled-in answers. (Caution: May not be actually autobiographical.)
“In 2008, I said I was going to take piano lessons. Instead I OWNED GUITAR HERO. Remember when I said I was going to drink less? Instead I TOOK UP SMOKING. And that thing about the gym membership? Instead I GAINED TEN POUNDS.”
“Yesterday, while waking up in the morning, I nearly choked on a SALTY TOOTHBRUSH. At work, when I tried to open a link, it was really a RICKROLL. I couldn’t get out of my office because of the VASELINE ON THE / DOORKNOB. And I couldn’t get to sleep because of the SHORT-SHEETED BED.”
You might argue that these puzzles, despite the vivid pictures they paint, are really just fact-finders with a sense of humor. Decoupled from the narrative in the clues, the first puzzle has a theme of embarrassing resolution-fail, and the second a much tighter theme of practical jokes. But the first set of answers would be much more awkward to clue without the narrative device, and the second set owes a lot of its humor to the idea of all these pranks befalling one poor, put-upon soul.
Narrative crosswords also afford some opportunities to experiment with tone. As we discussed earlier, puzzles don’t have to maintain the friendly, easygoing tone found in a typical New York Times Sunday grid– like any art, they can inspire the full spectrum of human emotion. Just because you can doesn’t mean you necessarily should, of course… but the narrative crossword allows the puzzlemaker to exercise more control over those responses, which is useful when trying something different in this field.
Something like satire. Francis Heaney’s recent “The Final Crossword,” for instance, paints a Mad Magazine-like portrait of the nasty, embittered “Willy Shortz” on the day The New York Times goes out of business. The centerpiece is an improv quip: ALL YOU / TWEEDY OBSESSIVE / NITPICKERS CAN GO / BLOW ME. But numerous other clue-answer pairs round out the exercise…
“Sport I plan to spend all my time playing now that I don’t have to crank out this crossword every damn day” (PING PONG)
“9-digit ID you should be sure to include in any online comments complaining about this puzzle” (SSN)
“Death, as of print media” (END)
Finally, check out this relic from 1945, published in an Australian magazine by one “K. Wood.” Despite its use of uncrossed squares, grammar errors and one answer I just couldn’t get without help, it’s remarkable both for making every single entry a theme entry, and for shining a light on the issues of the day. The solution follows, so if you’d prefer to do the puzzle yourself first, click here.
For YEARS you have had to WASTE many HOURS in a fruitless SEARCH through the STORES for goods ONCE readily available. You have had to DRAG your wary feet along one STREET after another, to be faced with DOORS placarded, “QUOTA Sold,” and your spirit sank to the LOWEST. Among other SCHEMES to keep you from buying anything was the lack of MERE courtesy. How often the shop assistant TOSSED HER head in the air and remarked, “Doncha know there’s a WAR on?” From some, the requests for the goods you SEEK make you the TARGET for an even CURTER ANSWER, accompanied by a discourteous LEER suggesting you ARE a SAP. Tradespeople apparently did not APPROVE of trade, though willing to serve favored persons from the REAR of the counter, but the casual buyer had to buy useless items for the SAKE of getting what he did want. Another difficulty to BESET the shooper is the QUEUE, a real endurance TEST this! No wonder that the shopper, after being forced to EAT humble pie by the TON, is feeling very SOUR. It is possible to PUSH people around too much.
It is to be hoped that the shopkeeper who EVADES his duty to the public MEETS his reward by being a LOSER in a LARGE way. For him, the ROT, to use a slang TERM, will soon set in. A much SADDER man will RUE the day he lost the good will of the public.
At LAST the SCENE is changing. Soon the shooper will not need to ROAM for miles, and he will be able to RELY on finding ALL his WANTS within easy REACH at the NEAREST shop, which will be only too glad to accept his ORDER. It is a safe BET that it will PAY those shopkeepers who ERRED to change also, hoping THEREBY to REDEEM themselves in the public mind. A wise man he, who DEEMS it will pay to reform promptly, or the shopper will soon tell him, “Quota BOUGHT!”
Yes, you will be able soon to pick and CHOOSE. Business as USUAL will bear out the old ADAGE — “The CUSTOMER is ALWAYS RIGHT!”
The multi-parter crossword might barely qualify as a type, since it only exists in combination with other forms and doesn’t need a lot of explaining. It’s what happens when a constructor and/or editor decide that one idea is simply too juicy to be confined to a single grid. Here’s a two-part narrative crossword by Merl Reagle.
I arrived at the crime scene at 9 a.m. The kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Ladey, SPELLED IT OUT FOR ME.
“First,” she said, “someone STOLE A KISS.”
“Wait,” I said, “I thought there was a KIDNAPPING.”
“Yes, but we woke him up. Then a pinky ring went missing.”
“Real jewels?” I asked.
“No,” she said, JUST PASTE. Then I saw the HANDWRITING / ON THE WALL.”
“Graffiti?” I asked.
“No, just letters.”
“Ah,” I said, “a CAPITAL CASE.” I thought, All right, fine, I can PLAY THEIR / LITTLE GAME.
“Then I found these,” she said, and even I was shocked. There were CHALK MARKS on the floor… Someone had WHACKED THE ERASERS!
I narrowed it down to two suspects. Naturally, they both LOOKED INNOCENT. Let’s call them DICK AND JANE. I could tell right away that she was HOOKED ON PHONICS. And he—well, let’s just say that he was IN A CLASS BY HIMSELF.
I laid out the evidence; they could see that I’d done MY HOMEWORK. But neither would talk. So I said, “I’m going to COUNT TO TEN.
And that did it—they immediately started crying. I said, “Well, I hope you’ve LEARNED YOUR LESSON. Maybe you’ll both be let out early FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR. But only if you SHOW AND TELL me exactly what happened.”
They agreed. And that’s when the FINGER-POINTING/FINGERPRINTING/FINGER-PAINTING began.
Multi-parters have been pretty rare so far. Reagle also put out the above Burns and Allen/Groucho pair, “The Can(i)nes Film Festival.” Critics on this blog and elsewhere seem to have been much more enchanted by the first example, “Kindergarten Crime Spree.” The New York Times let Alan Arbesfeld do a two-parter once, in 1998, as a special April Fool’s Day event, and in 2010, Mike Northangel did another as a special Times contest. To date, this is the complete list published in papers, to my knowledge.
Why so scarce? Well, as a regularly published single author (but syndicated, Sandra Bullock!), Reagle is in a position to do multi-parters without tying them to some major self-justifying event, a position most freelance newspaper contributors lack. And multi-parters can be risky: they’re a gamble that the theme in question is worth the extra space. Like the decision to make a movie three hours long instead of two, this can pay off big… but you’d better be sure it’s worth the investment.
Next week: what about that FINGERPOINTING/FINGERPRINTING/FINGERPAINTING troika? What does it mean? We’ll tell you as much as we can about the variable crossword, given that we live in an uncertain universe.