June 26, 2011

Anatomy of the perfect trivia question

People often ask me, "What makes a good trivia question?," especially as I make myself available for consulting on the subject. This is an excellent query (not a dumb one), because the answer isn't as obvious as it might seem. There are the basic qualifiers, of course—it has to have a discrete, verifiable answer; it needs to be phrased clearly—but there's a lot more to it. Writing the perfect trivia question is an art I've worked at pretty diligently in my quizmaster career (yeah, I'm an artist, so suck on it). I've written some awesome ones, a lot of good ones, a bunch of mediocre ones, and sadly, too many lousy ones. Allow me to present a case study with one of my favorites.

What current Hollywood star’s name is the inverse of a popular casino game?
(Want the answer immediately? Okay, fine.)

I wrote this question in the spring of 2009 and debuted it as the June 8 edition of the NYC BQT. (My trivia archives are pretty well organized, in extremely sharp contrast with, oh, my bedroom.) I can't remember the exact response it got at the time, but it must have been good, because I've since reused the Hollywood Star Casino Game Question as much as anything I've ever written: It's been featured at dozens of private quiz shows, it's appeared in an edition in every BQT satellite city (including last week's L.A. debut), it shows up in more than a few BQT press releases and on our latest promo postcard, it was even featured in the City Scoops article about New York's best quiz events. I can't recall how I wrote it, and that story probably wouldn't be very interesting, but I'll tell you why it works so well.

It's figureoutable. This is what we're talking about with that wacky "figureoutable" sound effect at live shows. It's not a dry, you-either-know-it-or-you-don't query, it's something that the average culturally literate American can puzzle out with a little bit of effort. Not every good trivia question is figureoutable, but perhaps the best are, not just because they might be easier to get right, but because they're simply more fun to answer; the process of puzzling it out is just more entertaining than trying to remember what the capital of Burundi is. (The correct answer is "Who cares?") Some may disagree—there's an argument to be made that figureoutability makes it hard to separate the trivia men from the trivia boys, and I respect that. But that opinion runs counter to my personal philosophy that playing trivia should be fun, even when you lose. The Hollywood Star Casino Game Question is eminently figureoutable; it even gives you multiple entry points (do you start by thinking of Hollywood stars? or casino games? definitely easier to do the latter).

It appeals to a broad audience. I once asked this question: "The Nebraskan indie-pop group Tilly and the Wall is notable for rarely performing with a drummer, and instead using what for percussion?" Watch this video, listen to this great song, for your answer:

Hardly anyone got it right. I liked the question anyway—I mean, they're tap-dancing rock stars!—although I realized there are very few audiences I could use it in good conscience; there needs to be a significant music-geek quotient in the crowd. But the Hollywood Star Casino Game Question covers almost every culturally conscious American; the answer is a star who covers a broad demographic: started as a hipster favorite, now familiar to your mom and your pop, has become a frequent presence in kids' movies. There are few live-trivia crowds it wouldn't fly with, I think.

It's timely, yet has a decent shelf life. The fact that I'm asking for a "current" Hollywood star grounds it in the here-and-now, but not the this-exact-moment. Ultra-timely questions can be great, but they're nearly impossible to use after a certain sell-by date. BQT long-timers know that each year, I like to ask about Super Bowl commercials shortly after the big game, a fun way to test people's powers of perception (and the efficacy of the ads themselves, which I'm a lifelong cynic of). But it has to be shortly after—a week later, memories aren't as fresh, the relevance has faded away, no one cares that the Dodge Charger rather sexistly declared itself "Man's Last Stand." (That was from 2010; this year, there wasn't a BQT till several weeks later, so I skipped the theme entirely.) But assuming this celebrity stays in the public eye for a few years—and that seems to be more than a safe assumption—the Hollywood Star Casino Game Question is a gift that can keep giving. Even if the star fades a bit, the query is still usable, which leads me to…

It's adjustable. Once "current Hollywood star" becomes a stretch in accuracy, we can go with a more generic "actor," or "American actor," or "comedic actor," or "musician/actor." More importantly, we can make adjustments to make it more or less difficult. Easy it up with "What comedic musician/actor, born 1969, has a name that's the inverse of a casino game?" Or even, "What star of Kung Fu Panda has a name…" The ability to dial back the stumpiness is especially helpful for private events, where the generally less-self-selecting crowd dictates that I scale down the trickiness. Conversely, we could make it super-challenging by tweaking to "current Hollywood star" to just "celebrity," or alter "casino game" to "card game." Be careful, though; there could be other "celebrities" whose names qualify (can't think of any), or other "card games" that give us equally valid answers (probably impossible to mentally check every card game ever; "familiar card game" might be a safe hedge, but even then you might need to invoke quizmaster's prerogative to define "familiar"). Such are the challenges of the trivia-writing business, even when starting with an excellent baseline question such as this.

It's Google-Proof…theoretically. Or at least it was when I wrote it; as I said, I've spread the Hollywood Star Casino Game Question around, so now you can find the answer pretty easily via BQT press. True Google-Proof questions are rare (despite their daily appearance our Twitter feed; it's a lot of work), but their advantage is not just in the way they foil cheaters (who are blessedly rare at our live events). They're also simply more original than something whose answer is just laying out there for all to stumble across.

It's entertaining. I covered something of this when discussing figureoutability above, but the Hollywood Star Casino Game Question passes perhaps my most important test for a trivia question: It's entertaining in its own right, regardless of whether you get it right or wrong. A somewhat unlikely juxtaposition of concepts, the realization of how unusual this person's name really is…there's a lot to like here on a purely entertainment level. Sure, that's a matter of opinion. But hey, it's my opinion, this is my blog.

All told, I'm very proud of this question (as if you hadn't gathered). In fact, I'm a little conflicted about actually publishing this post. I mean, the more it's out there, the less I'll feel comfortable using this query at future events. (Even the best question is ruined when you've heard it before, never mind when you've read a long, navel-gazing analysis of it.)

And in case you haven't figured it out yet, I got the answer right here. A great scene in easily his best movie:

Coming soon: An analysis of a terrible question. Fair and balanced is our slogan, after all.


Bill Scurry said...

This was a great piece.

The Big Quiz Thing said...

Thanks, smart guy!

Editor Guy said...

I actually don't agree that this is such a great question. The reason: what does "the inverse of a popular casino game" mean? Things in the world don't have "inverses." Is a Is a god "the inverse" of a dog? Or is a house Doctor "the inverse" of Doctor House? This just isn't isn't what the word "inverse" means." If you want you can SORT OF say that his name is the inverse of THE NAME of a popular casino game, but not the inverse of the game itself. Even this stretches the meaning of "inverse," though.

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