Now, it’s true that I’ve had some trivia experience. However, I wouldn’t exactly claim to be an expert on question-writing. Compared to many of the people I know from that world, I’m a raw newbie. Not only that, there are people out there in the world who actually make their living (or at least a side income) from writing questions, like for example Paul Paquet, who penned just about the best article I’ve seen on writing good quiz questions.

Nevertheless, I’ve been writing trivia questions for a number of years now, and along the way I’ve contracted some opinions on what makes a question good or not-so-good. And what is a blog for if not to toss your unsolicited, inexpert opinions out to a disinterested world? So without further preamble, here are some of the principles I’ve found important in question-writing.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

This is one of those pieces of advice that really applies to any kind of writing. It’s even more crucial in writing for a game, though, because when you’re writing something static like a novel or (say) a blog post, your reader can walk away with impunity. Interaction increases audience investment in the experience, giving you a bit more of a captive audience, especially when the interaction is of a social nature, like trivia. Be a good captor. Write questions suited for your, um, prisoners. Okay, I’m walking away from this metaphor before it turns into an extended meditation on Stockholm syndrome.

I’ve primarily written trivia questions for two sets of people. One set is the Basement Bowl regulars, trivia enthusiasts (and often champions) whose collective knowledge is astonishing. The other set is my co-workers — for several years I published a weekly trivia quiz at my job to promote social mixing, have fun at work, and raise morale. (It worked great until I got too isolated, overworked, and demoralized.) The trivia came in different formats, but the differences were deeper than that. I pitched the questions differently, because the two groups have different ideas of fun. For instance, I might write a question like this for the Basement Bowl:

Some directors’ first films were huge, memorable hits. Others… not so much. I’ll give you a director’s first film along with its year of release, you name the director, for ten points each. The films I’m choosing are feature-length, theatrically released in the U.S., and solely directed by that person.
1. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
2. Hard Eight (1996)
3. Eight (1998)
4. Cars That Eat People (1974)

When I posed that same question for my co-workers, I gave the director’s first three films:

1. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), Catch-22 (1970)
2. Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999)
3. Eight (1998), Billy Elliot (2000), The Hours (2002)
4. Cars That Eat People (1974), Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), Black Rain (1977)

[Answers at the bottom of this post]

On my co-workers’ quiz, I also provided 26 more questions, including people with a very recognizable first few films: Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Moore, David Lynch, Woody Allen, etc. Why? Because your basic group of office workers, who are doing trivia as a fun break, are not likely to be the sort of film fiends who would recognize a lot of obscure early work from now-famous directors. If they don’t have a clue on any of the questions, they’re likely to roll their eyes and never take one of these stupid quizzes again. Nobody likes to be completely stumped over and over again. Which leads me to my next point…

KICKING ASS IS MORE FUN

Trivia is supposed to be fun, and there’s nothing fun about feeling like an idiot. A good trivia game should leave you feeling smart, not stupid. That means that you should pitch your questions to a range with “fairly easy” on one end and “fairly difficult” on the other. Actually, “pitch” is the wrong metaphor — a pitcher is trying to prevent the batter from getting a hit, but a quizmaster should not be trying to prevent players from getting right answers. It’s not very hard to stump trivia players, even the greatest trivia players. In fact, I’d say that anybody can write a question that will stump a given person. All you have to do is ask for obscure enough information. Nobody knows it all, nor should they need to. The experience you should be trying to provide is one of success mixed with challenge.

I aim for about a 70/30 ratio between these two, but of course I rarely hit that. Gauging difficulty is one of the hardest things to do in writing questions, especially in areas where you either know a whole lot or very little. In the former case, all the information feels so familiar that it’s hard to get a sense of what a regular person might know. For instance, I’d have difficulty writing a full Simpsons quiz without a little feedback from somebody who hasn’t watched the show for ages. Is asking for the Simpsons’ address a hard question or an easy question? Seems easy to me, but I don’t trust my perceptions about it.

By the same token, when you know very little about a subject, all the questions seem hard. One of my running jokes in the Basement Bowl is that I always apologize for my sports questions in advance, because I very frequently have only a dim sense of how easy or hard they might be. I look at each one and think, “I sure would never have known that without looking it up!” Knowing I’m going to err, I try to err on the side of success.

So if kicking ass is more fun, why not make all the questions super easy? Well, because if you’re answering questions that practically any literate person could get without effort, you don’t feel like you’re kicking ass. Consider this question: “This network is home to Good Morning America, Cougar Town, Grey’s Anatomy, Nightline, and The Academy Awards. It also shares its name with the first three letters of the alphabet. What is it?” The first sentence is a fair question for general audiences, but the second sentence makes it into a terrible question for almost all audiences. What’s fun about being quizzed on things that a four-year-old would know? (Unless you are a four-year-old, of course — see “Know Your Audience.”) The one situation in which I could see this question working is a buzzer-beater game, in which the questions start out giving an advantage based on knowledge, but if nobody can capitalize on that advantage, it turns into a “fastest thumb” challenge.

On the “fairly difficult” side of the spectrum, as I said, the goal shouldn’t be to stump people. There are some questions in every game that a player just isn’t going to know, and that’s fine. What’s important is to avoid asking questions that nobody would know. Ideally, you want players to look back on the questions they missed and think, “I should have known that!”, not “Who on earth would know that?” The other good reason to have fairly difficult questions in the mix is that sometimes they give players the opportunity to reach out and clock an unexpected home run, which is the most kick-ass feeling of all. (Wow, the baseball metaphors sure are offering themselves to me tonight.)

BORING INFORMATION SUCKS

Here’s a sample question from my “Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Trivia Challenge” calendar:

In 1965, Leo Fender sold his Fender Guitar Company to CBS for what price?
a. $13 million
b. $19 million
c. $22 million

Remember when I said that you don’t want players to look at a question and think, “Who on earth would know that?” Well, an even worse reaction to generate is, “Who on earth would care about that?” Which is exactly what I think when I see this question. The sale amount for a guitar company is a very banal piece of information. About the only person who’d have an emotional attachment to the difference between these numbers is Leo Fender himself. Trivia calendar, Leo Fender is not your audience. In general, this calendar feels like the product of somebody combing through a book of “This Day In Rock History” facts. Which means that you get some pretty good and interesting questions (“Which album by Johnny Cash was the first country album to top the U.S. pop chart?”) but a lot of questions like the one above. If I were this person’s editor, I would emphasize the fact that we’re supposed to care about the answer.

What could make this question better? Well, if it were actually an interesting amount of money, that’d make it reasonable. For instance, if the multiple choice answers were “a) $1,300 b) $13 million c) $130 million”, that’d be a step in the right direction. Each of those answers tells a pretty different story about what that sale might have meant to Fender, and whether the company was valued properly, which is likely to be more compelling information. Of course, it’d be even better if the answer were one of the outliers, but it isn’t.

Another way to improve it might be to switch around what the question is actually asking about: “In 1965, who sold his guitar company to CBS for $13 million?” That doesn’t quite get us there, though, because (in my opinion) it falls outside the realm of something the average music fan could reasonably be expected to know. So we’d want to inject a hint or two in there: “In 1965, what designer of the Telecaster and the Stratocaster sold his guitar company to CBS for $13 million?” Now we’re asking for an association that is fair game for music fans, and we’ve got ourselves a reasonable trivia question.

I’ve got more, but it’ll have to wait, because this post has gone on long enough. Meanwhile, how about some answers?
First films:
1. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966) — Mike Nichols
2. Hard Eight (1996) — Paul Thomas Anderson
3. Eight (1998) — Stephen Daldry
4. Cars That Eat People (1974) — Peter Weir

The Simpsons live at 742 Evergreen Terrace in Springfield, which is famously vague about what state it’s in.

According to the calendar, Ring Of Fire was the first country album to top the pop chart. Wikipedia doesn’t seem to want to corroborate that today — it says the album only reached #26, though it was “the first #1 album when Billboard debuted their Country Album Chart on Jan. 11, 1964.” Not that Wikipedia is an authoritative source or anything, but neither is the RRHOF calendar.

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