mighty fine trivia by James Callan

Category: how to write a quiz

Spurning Jeopardese; Or, State Your Question in the Form of a Question

“Jeopardy! is the bane of all quiz shows,” declared Ophira Eisenberg on the fantastic NPR quiz show Ask Me Another.

Why? Because its schtick infects contestants on other shows, who sometimes give answers in the form of a question. (If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Jeopardy! requires contestants to respond to clues in the form of a question.)

Every few episodes of Ask Me Another, someone says something like “What’s the Liberty Bell?” instead of just “the Liberty Bell.” And then the hosts sigh, snicker, and point out that they are not, in fact, on Jeopardy.

But contestants aren’t the only people who lapse into Jeopardese. Quiz writers sometimes use their own version of the jargon. And they should knock it off.

Jeopardy contestants respond in the form of a question, which means that Jeopardy clues are written in the form of an answer. (That’s why the show calls them clues, not questions.)

An example clue: “A popular exhibit at the Hall of Fame is the actual cornfield used on this ‘corny’ TV show”

To win that question, the contestant must respond, “What is Hee-Haw?” Just saying “Hee-Haw” doesn’t count.

This also means that the clue itself sounds a little odd. It’s not the way you’d phrase that information in real life, either in conversation or in writing.

It’s perfect for Jeopardy, though. It’s fluent Jeopardese.

Writers who imitate Jeopardy’s clue structure for their quiz night ignore an important point: that kind of clue is not a question.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter and players follow you anyway. But sometimes, it leaves them asking you for clarification: “What’s the question?” Confuse them enough and they’ll insert a vulgar intensifier before “question.”

This is a question: “A popular exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame is the actual cornfield used on what ‘corny’ TV show?”

This is an even better question: “What ‘corny’ TV show donated its actual cornfield to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where it’s a popular exhibit?” (This version is also improved because it can ignore Jeopardy’s space constraints — their clues must be short enough to fit on a TV monitor in Korinna font.)

When people ask you, the host, what question you’re asking, they’re not messing with you. They’re genuinely confused. If you read the question out twice and people can’t figure out what you’re asking, you wrote your question poorly.

(Yes, on Jeopardy Alex reads the clues out loud — but they’re also shown written out on the board, and contestants generally respond to that written form.)

That’s not really surprising, though, when you bury the lead and don’t use a question word.

In my experience, following these three guidelines produces questions that are easier to understand: * Start or end your question with the thing you want them to fill in. Don’t bury it in the middle. * Start the question (or the key part of it) with a question word. What, who, where, when — those are the most common. * Follow the question word as quickly as possible with the kind of information you’re looking for.

Some examples from Ken Jennings, a guy who knows how to write a good trivia question:

“What is the better-known nickname for the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944?” — people know from word one that the correct answer is a nickname, or a word.

“The Everything Store is a new book profiling what American businessman?” — This puts the question at the end, but it’s clear that your answer should be the name of an American businessman.

“In 2011, what soda passed Pepsi for the first time to become the country’s second-most popular soft drink?” — The introductory phrase is short, and an important piece of information. And then you find out that you should be thinking about sodas.

As those questions show, you can vary your syntax a little bit. This isn’t a rigid template. Sometimes supporting bits of information work better before the meat of the question. But the question should sound natural. Players should be puzzled by the information you’re asking for, not by the construction of the question itself.

Quiz hosts: Phrase your questions in the form of a question. Drop the Jeopardese. Unless you’re writing for Jeopardy, in which case put in a good word for me because that’s a dream gig.

Ken Jennings in an interview with Grant Barrett on a minicast from A Way With Words:

People think trivia questions must come automatically from a book or a computer. It’s a very tight and controlled art form. It’s like writing haiku or a villanelle or something. It’s this very tight, constrained format that really requires a lot more work than people suspect to get the trivia to work right.

I’ve said that trivia questions land halfway between haiku and jokes on the writing spectrum.

Will Wright’s Five Second Rule

I was reading Luke Wroblewski’s blog for my day job and came across this idea:

Will Wright, the creator of the Sims & Spore, has a belief that games should allow people to succeed within the first five seconds.

What does this mean for writing trivia? Quizzes and quiz rounds should start with their easiest question and get harder as they go. Given Wright’s “success in the first five seconds” thought, though, inspires me to go further:

The first question of the quiz is one that everyone should get right, right away. Asked, answered, minor victory achieved.

(The trick: making that question both easy and interesting.)

(Also: Anyone have a straight-from-the-source cite for that Wright quote? Let me know.)

How to write a quiz: Anatomy of an audio round

Audio rounds. So simple. Such a pain in the ass.

Now that I’ve gotten all zen on you, have some fun with the audio round I put together for May’s quiz at the Old Pequliar. Then I’ll explain what I mean.

If I Had a Stammer: Each of these songs repeats a word or phrase in its title.
Can you name the title and performer for each clip?

  1. The clip: Question 1
  2. The clip: Question 2
  3. The clip: 10May04_Q03_audio_audio
  4. The clip: 10May04_Q04_audio_audio
  5. The clip: 10May04_Q05_Audio_Audio
  6. The clip: 10May04_Q06_audio_audio
  7. The clip: 10May04_Q07_audio_audio
  8. The clip: 10May04_Q08_audio_audio
  9. The clip: 10May04_Q09_audio_audio
  10. The clip: 10May04_Q10_audio_audio
  11. The clip: 10May04_Q11_audio_audio

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Easy, difficult, and challenging: The three kinds of trivia questions

It’s easy to write difficult trivia questions.

It’s easy to write easy trivia questions.

It’s difficult to write challenging trivia questions. So of course, they’re my favorite kind.

(What makes a question “challenging”? You can solve it if you think about it. Or at least make a reasonable guess. It isn’t you-know-it-or-you-don’t, at least not instantly.)

A complete quiz blends all three kinds of questions: Easy ones to keep casual players interested, hard ones to reward dedicated trivia hounds, and challenging ones to keep people intrigued and on their toes. I think a quiz without any challenging questions is not a great quiz.

How to write a quiz: Easy questions first, then hard questions

After February’s quiz, Mehal chatted with me for a minute. Then he mentioned that his team (Annyong!) had collapsed in the second half.

vintage pressure cooker ad

It's a pressure cooker! (Get it?)

Yeah, I said. The second half was harder than the first — but that’s how I like it. (OK, truth be told I don’t like teams to collapse.) I think a good quiz should get more difficult as you go along.

“Why’s that?” he asked. Which is a good question.

Apparently some hosts like to lead off with a difficult round. Players haven’t had as much beer, the theory goes, so they’re sharper.

But most games start easier and get harder as they go along — and pub quiz is a game. It’s more satisfying for players to ease in, get comfortable with the rules, and then start spraining their brains.

Compare with game shows: Jeopardy! is easier in the first half than in Double Jeopardy, and Final Jeopardy is in theory the hardest question of the show. Cash Cab starts with easier $25 questions and builds to more difficult $200 questions. And you don’t your shot at becoming a millionaire until you’ve answered 14 easier (but progressively more difficult) questions.

And at pub quiz, the first round should be easier than the last round.
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