I am a professional trivia writer. I have written for or am currently writing for Geeks Who Drink, Trivia New York City, and Triviamatic.
There's an Art to Writing Good Trivia Questions
What is good trivia? Is there a difference between writing a great trivia question and a bad one? Does writing trivia take any real skill?
Although there are no classes on how to write trivia questions, it's a developed skill. Of course, there are people who write trivia professionally. I'm one such person. However, it's not easy to make a career of it. That said, developing the skill can lead to jobs. There's no question, writing good trivia questions is a skill that takes practice.
From bars to video games to home gatherings, people play trivia throughout the U.S. and the world. So, if you're writing questions to amuse your friends or just perk up an afternoon gathering, there' always a need. Doing it well makes trivia games better. There's no doubt. This article will explain the art of writing a good trivia question.
25th Annual CU Trivia Bowl—Quarterfinal Game
Good Trivia Questions Are Written to Be Answered
What's the purpose of a trivia question anyway? If you are just asking a group of friends a question over some beers, you might be trying to stump them, so the purpose of the question might be to be so hard nobody can answer it. However, in general, the purpose of a good trivia question in a typical game setting (like a bar or pub trivia competition) is that it can be answered.
Questions can obviously be challenging or not challenging, but the better, more enjoyable questions are answerable. If they're difficult, they make people dig deep in their memories and make them regret they couldn't remember something if they fail to answer. Most of the time, if you can make somebody say "I should have known that" even if they don't answer the question, you've succeeded on some level.
Just a quick note: my thoughts about what makes a good trivia question stem from asking and answering questions in a live setting. In my experience, there are two types of questions (as you can see from watching the video): tossups and bonuses. Tossups are questions asked to teams of players and anyone can answer by buzzing in. Bonuses are asked to just one team and no buzz in is necessary. Tossups generally have one answer and bonuses usually have multiple answers. As I discuss what makes a good trivia question, what defines that is often dependent on the type of question and the design of asking the question to people rather than, say, having someone read the question to answer it. When reading a question live, the process is much more dynamic and interesting. So, with that in mind...
Here's a simple trivia question:
- Q: Who directed The Godfather?
- A: Francis Ford Coppola
Here's another simple trivia question:
- Q: How much did Elvis weigh when he died?
- A: 260 pounds
While these are both legitimate trivia questions, neither of them is particularly well-written. Almost every decent trivia player would know the answer to the first question, which makes it a bit too easy. Almost nobody would know the exact answer to the second question, which makes it too hard. Further, the second question is really an approximation as there are conflicting accounts of Presley's weight when he died and without the coroner's report, one could argue it's not accurate.
Both questions are too short though, and don't allow the opportunity for a player with advanced knowledge to answer the question before an average player. Certainly short, direct trivia questions can have their place as a way to increase the pace of a longer game, but this type of question is often reflective of a writer who didn't put a lot of effort into the question. The question doesn't have to be long to be a good question necessarily. It's just helpful if the question provides some hints along the way. Hints help some players more than others and can help the question writer avoid everyone trying to answer the question at the same time. Finally, in general, trivia questions where the answer is a number are not considered good questions and are best avoided. And just so I say this once, always make sure your answer is correct. Never write a question where you're not 100% sure your answer is correct.
Here are both questions written in a slightly better way.
- Q: Prior to casting Marlon Brando in the title role, what director considered both Frank Sinatra and Laurence Olivier as the Godfather, Vito Corleone?
- A: Francis Ford Coppola
- Q: When this singer died in 1977, he fell off the toilet and was found in a pool of his own vomit. He weighed an estimated 260 pounds. Name him.
- A: Elvis Presley
Each of the questions is now improved. Trivia participants enjoy questions that provide additional information that they might use answering future questions. For instance, knowing that Laurence Olivier was considered for the role of Vito Corleone is an interesting piece of trivia in and of itself even though it's not necessary to know to properly answer the question.
While the questions are improved over the original question, they can still be improved further. In the first question, the phrase "prior to casting Marlon Brando in the title role" could easily produce an answer right away, making the rest of the question something nobody ever hears. While it's not always necessary for one to read an entire question, there's no sense in putting in effort if the first part of the question is all anyone needs to answer it. The second question has a similar problem because most people know Elvis died in 1977 and are going to venture a guess on that piece of information alone. Thus, the two questions are improved by doing the following.
Improved Trivia Questions
- Q: What director considered both Frank Sinatra and Laurence Olivier for the title role that eventually went to Marlon Brando in The Godfather?
- A: Francis Ford Coppola
- Q: This singer fell off the toilet and was found dead in a pool of his own vomit weighing an estimated 260 pounds. The year was 1977. Name him.
- A: Elvis Presley
Writing a Good List Trivia Question
The question above about Francis Ford Coppola involves listing a couple of names prior to offering up the closer hint that allows most people to answer the question. This is a common type of question writing where more information is gradually released. It's basically a list in the form of a question. Here's an example:
Example List Question
- Q: Jaws, Schindler's List, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark will all directed by this man. Name him.
- A: Steven Spielberg
The above is a decent question, but it's pretty certain that many people will answer it based on the first two items alone. List questions are great questions if the list is put in order from hardest to easiest as it rewards that person who's able to make the connection the fastest. Sometimes the list is an obvious one and sometimes it is not. The above question is best written leaving the most well-known movies at the end.
Another Example of a List Question
- Q: Savage, Something Evil, Always, Catch Me If You Can, The Sugarland Express, and Jaws were all directed by what man?
- A: Steven Spielberg
The other way to do a good list question is to throw off the contestants by misdirecting them with the series.
Another Way to Do a Good List Question
- Q: The Sugarland Express, Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark all feature the music of what composer?
- A: John Williams
Obviously, in a buzzer situation, somebody will inevitably assume you are asking who directed the films and may buzz in after the first two clues only to be disappointed. As you can see, a lot can be accomplished with a good list question when it's well-written.
Writing Bonus or Multiple-Choice Questions
Multiple answers questions are great for situations with many groups of people competing against each in a team format. If you watched the video at the top of this article, the bonus question comes in a two team format when one team has correctly answered a tossup.
The "bonus" trivia question requires more work to be done well and is easier to be done in a straight-forward manner. It also allows for many parts and for creating answers ranging from easy to difficult. Here's a simple example:
- Q: Name the top four players in rushing yards in NFL history at the end of the 2012-13 season.
- Emmitt Smith
- Walter Payton
- Barry Sanders
- Curtis Martin
Such questions are easy to write and have their place in a good trivia game. However, too many of these types of questions and a trivia game becomes repetitive and boring. A good bonus question offers the writer the opportunity to construct a really interesting question with really interesting answers and may require more work than the tossup question because the writer may come up with a couple of examples and will need to do some research to find additional answers.
- Q: Although female nudity is much more common in movies than male nudity, some men have not been afraid to bare it all. I'll provide you with the title of a movie, you give me the actor or actors who showed it all.
- The Pillow Book (Ewan McGregor)
- Women in Love (Alan Bates and Oliver Reed)
- The Bad Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel)
- The Crying Game (Stephen Rea)
Now, depending on how hard the writer wants this question to be, the answers can vary in difficulty. I would rate this particular question as average in difficulty, so it's important to know one's audience when writing such a question because your audience will be much more satisfied if it can get some of the answers, though it is not necessary to make it so easy that they audience can get them all. It's always good to have at least one item, like remembering the name of the actor in The Crying Game, that strains peoples' memories.
Often, the idea for a great bonus question will come to me based on a single piece of information and then I'll have to go research the rest. Thus, when the AFC Championship was played in 2013, there was an incident where Wes Welker's wife posted something on Facebook about Ray Lewis. I thought this made for an interesting themed question about wives embarrassing their athlete husbands and I came up with this question.
- Q: It’s bad enough when athletes tweet or say ridiculous stuff after a win or a loss, but it’s quite another fiasco when their wives get into the mix, often embarrassing both the athlete and themselves in what eventually results in some kind of public mea culpa. Given the stupid tweet or quote by their significant other, identify the athlete:
- Following the New England Patriot’s loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl 46, she said: “My husband can’t throw and catch the ball at the same time.” (TOM BRADY)
- To whom was Tom Brady’s wife referring? (WES WELKER)
- Following the Patriot’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship the following year, Welker’s wife posted the following on Facebook about what player: “6 Kids. 4 Wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!” (RAY LEWIS)
- What Super Bowl QB’s wife was notorious for calling into talk radio shows in St. Louis to criticize her husband’s coaching staff? (KURT WARNER)
Ultimately, I find that the best bonus questions are inspired by an idea and then the question morphs around the idea and the answers are found. Sometimes, the answers precede the question.
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- Where is the stadium in the picture above?
- San Francisco
- New York
The Right Mentality
The key to writing great trivia questions is always to be on the lookout for a great piece of information and to always be in a position to write it down or record the information somewhere so you can write it down later. The best questions are generally written on the spur of the moment and not as the result of research. My best questions have come while reading the newspaper or Entertainment Weekly or Sports Illustrated. While I'm reading, I see a factoid of some sort that would either make a great tossup question or the factoid creates some associations that make me think it would make a good bonus question.
The best trivia question writers aren't the best trivia players necessarily. I am not a great player. I'm not sure I'm even a good player. However, I have an appreciation for trivia and enjoy playing trivia games a lot. Combine an appreciation for trivia with good writing skills and a person definitely has the potential to be a great trivia question writer.
Another Full Trivia Game
- Free Trivia: Bar Quiz Questions and Answers #1
Test your knowledge with this great quiz, similar to those played in bars and pubs, or use the questions in your own game.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Allen Donald
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 25, 2013:
Brilliantly approached and so well thought of questions thanks fpr sharing