In a recent post we discussed the question of consistency in puzzle themes. This is closely related to two other issues that arise in connection with crossword themes: symmetry, and what might be termed economy. There is a de facto convention in US cryptics that theme entries should be placed symmetrically in the diagram, and moreover that carefully choosing a limited number of theme entries is preferable to piling more of them indiscriminately into the diagram.
For solvers who pay attention to that sort of thing, symmetry is of course a help in solving. Moreover, symmetrically placed theme entries mesh nicely with the symmetry of the black squares to create an aesthetically pleasing whole. In fact, even putting aside aesthetics, there is another good argument for symmetry of theme entries. Theme entries reduce the constructor's choices, and they may drastically reduce the options for crossing words. The choices are even fewer if the theme entries are close together, so you can end up with less satisfying entries running in the perpendicular direction. Symmetry prevents those potential jams from congregating in one area of the grid. In short, symmetry helps spread out both the good and the bad of a themed puzzle.
As for the economy in the number of theme entries, it is similarly justified. Too many theme entries means less flexibility for the constructor, and thus a risk of too many undesirable entries. Putting together symmetry, economy, and consistency in themed puzzles results in a certain elegance. In a standard black square cryptic, four symmetrically placed long theme entries, for example, makes for a streamlined and satisfying puzzle, with a decent set of non-thematic entries. We have often done just that for our themes.
And yet, there are other ways to have fun with themes. Instead of heeding the symmetry-economy-consistency triad, one can rely on the anarchic fun of packing as many thematic elements as possible into the diagram and/or the clues, and let elegance be damned. For example, Puzzle #3292 had a "notes" theme, where many entries had musical notes in them (SOLar flaRE, mulTILAne, and so on). In order to support our violation of the economy standard, we had to let go of symmetry as well, so as to stuff more theme words into the diagram. Throwing caution to the wind, we also violated the consistency standard, and included STONE (an anagram of "notes") and TRANSCRIPT (a synonym of "notes"). In all, this added up to 14 theme entries—a challenge for us to construct, and (we hope) more fun for our solvers. More recently, Puzzle #3316 included the word "number" in the clues 15 times, and again, we favored sheer quantity over supposed elegance.
Sometimes, as is our wont, we split the difference. At the time of the Arab spring, we created a puzzle in which the name of every one of the 24 members of the Arab League appeared in one clue or another. We ditched parsimony and symmetry, but preserved consistency. In a puzzle for a Nation issue about Amazon, every single clue had a river in it—a victory for consistency and symmetry, but definitely a defeat for economy.
In fact, we often aim for symmetry, even when at first it seems unattainable given our greedy penchant for more of a good thing. In one recent puzzle, we managed to squeeze the names of 11 magazines, plus the word MAGAZINES in a symmetrical arrangement. Of course, that was facilitated by the fact we had many magazines to choose among. In contrast, when we tried to include JANE AUSTEN, PERSUASION, MANSFIELD, PARK, PRIDE, PREJUDICE, SENSE, SENSIBILITY and EMMA in a single diagram, there was little in the way of flexibility, but we still aimed for symmetry.
In other words, we like to mix it up, and we do not stick to a single aesthetic when it comes to themes.
Today's cluing challenge: how would you clue AESTHETICS? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers' comments), please click on this post's title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver's blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail.