What Makes a Good Question?

What Makes a Good Question?
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Seth Wilson, a Private Events Manager for Sporcle Live and a Pub Trivia host. He also happens to be a 12-time Jeopardy! champion, so he knows a thing or two about trivia.

What Makes a Good Question?

My last few blog posts here have been about some of the cool opportunities that a Sporcle Live private event can provide. In addition to my work putting together events, I also write trivia questions for them. That’s one of my favorite parts of working for Sporcle Live: thinking up trivia questions to ask strangers. I used to do that for free, so now not only do I get paid for it, but I also am allowed to use the city bus again!

Today, I’d like to talk about a couple of different types of trivia questions and talk a bit about the logic behind putting a game together. The terminology below is my own, but I’ve found it’s a useful taxonomy for thinking about question types.

Types of Trivia Questions

1. You know it or you don’t

As the name implies, this is a pretty standard type of trivia question. It’s the type of thing you see on quiz shows and in Trivial Pursuit: a question with only one possible answer that you have to know in order to get right. Here’s an example: “Q: What architect served as the second president of Mensa and is most widely known for popularizing the geodesic dome? A: Buckminster Fuller.” The only way to get that question is to know about Fuller and his work. (Theoretically, I suppose you could also know every person to have ever served as Mensa president and be familiar with all of them except Fuller and get it by process of elimination, but that seems much more difficult).

A pernicious subset of this type is a Coinflip question. In this type, you can narrow the answer down to two possibilities, which are equally likely. A game I hosted recently asked players to identify the 19th-century American author who wrote essays entitled “Self-Reliance,” “Nature,” and “The Over-Soul.” Thinking back to American lit class, you know it’s got to be one of the two major transcendentalist authors: Thoreau or Emerson. In the game I hosted, teams were split about 60/40 between those two, with more teams guessing Thoreau. Unfortunately for them, it’s Emerson. These questions are especially irksome because they require you to know a lot of stuff, but there’s still an element of luck too.

These types of questions are the backbone of a trivia game, and the type of thing that trivia-heads like because it allows you to flex a little intellectual muscle when you know something that would have stumped the rest of your team.

2. Ballparker

This is a question which does one of two things: it either asks you a question whose answer is drawn from a finite list of items, or it gives you a specific window to narrow your answers down. For example, if I asked you to name the state with the lowest population density of the 48 contiguous states (it’s Wyoming), you know you’ve got a one in 48 chance of hitting pay dirt. Even more specifically, I might ask in which century was the Thirty Years War fought (17th). With something like this, you’re not wrestling with an infinite number of possible correct answers. Sometimes these can be even trickier than the first type, though, as every possibility might start to seem right. The great thing about this kind of question is that they get the team talking, and getting a right answer often requires some input from everyone.

3. Puzzlers

Not really a trivia question per se, but trivia-adjacent enough to deserve inclusion and a good way to spice up a game. This would be stuff like anagrams, before-and-after questions, or word puzzles that make you work a different part of your brain. Occasionally, we’ll throw a batch of these into a game to give you a different type of challenge. People tend to either love these or hate them. I’m quite fond myself, as is Jeopardy! mega-celebrity Ken Jennings. (If you don’t do so regularly, I recommend checking out his Kennections puzzles over at Mental Floss, which are a lot of fun!)

4. Let’s Make a List

Now we’re getting to the hard stuff: a question with multiple answers, of which you have to provide more than one. For example: “Q: The four most populous US cities are New York, LA, Chicago, and Houston. Name three of the next six. A: Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose.” Often, a Sporcle Live event will use this kind of question as a final. Why? Well, partly because they’re harder by their very nature, since they require you to know and deploy more information. We also like these for team trivia because they get the team talking and socializing, and it’s possible to work your way to a correct answer once you generate a list of possibilities.

5. Garden Path

The absolute hardest type of question on offer. I call it the Garden Path because getting to a right answer requires taking a stroll. For this type of question, you have to know multiple pieces of trivia, and then manipulate the data in such a way to meet a specific set of criteria. Here’s an example: The following clues will all be last names of US Presidents. Place those names in the order that they served in office.

  1. Last name of the sixth governor of New York, who was largely responsible for the construction of the Erie Canal. (DeWitt Clinton)
  2. Last name of a fictional character played by Wesley Snipes in 1989 and Omar Epps in 1994. (Willie Mays Hayes, from the Major League films)
  3. First name of the current head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners football team. (Lincoln Riley)
  4. Mononymous MTV VJ who hosted the program Alternative Nation in the 1990s and later went on to host game shows and other TV programs. (Kennedy)

Obviously, this question consists of a four-parter of the first type. But once you have those answers, and all of these are pretty tough, you have to put them in order by dates of term. Lincoln would come first, then Hayes, Kennedy, and Clinton.

We generally reserve this type of question of PCTL finals (coming up soon!) because of the extreme difficulty. Still, it’s another great type of question to get everyone talking and brainstorming, and it almost always requires a team effort to solve one like this.

So that’s a bit of a glimpse into how we put our events together, and the thinking that goes into the questions we send out. It takes a lot of thinking to answer trivia questions, but it takes even more to put a good game together.