How to Write Good Trivia Questions

As you may or may not know, Rachel and I love doing trivia. We’ve been going to bar trivia with friends for years. Most of the bars we’ve tried actually hire a ‘professional’ to run the trivia nights or use the questions from a multi-bar trivia company, but some (like our favorite bar in Incheon, Korea, Cheap Shots) require the winners of each week to run the following week’s trivia. Other bars just ask for volunteers (Like the trivia at Wonderland Ballroom in Washington, DC). Sometimes we even hold our own trivia nights with friends where everyone brings in a round of questions and we compete among ourselves. As veterans in both answering and writing questions, we’ve learned a thing or two about how to make a good round. Here are some trivia tips.

One of the worst things you can do when writing trivia. Let’s talk about points. Everyone love points, right? So everyone will love you if you give out like a million points in your round, right? NO. WRONG. DON’T DO IT. Let’s say you and your friends are each making a round of trivia to present at the pub. Throughout the night they each present 10 carefully crafted questions that they put so much effort into, they are like children in pub quiz form. It gets to your turn and you’re giving out 6 points a question, bonus points for the latin root, even more for writing it in Persian. Suddenly, the only round that is important in determining the outcome of the night is yours. You’re devaluing the work of your teammates and for the audience, you’re making the whole night pointless unless they got lucky and had that one obscure interest in common with you. Basically, you will destroy real competition and everyone will hate you and you’ll probably die alone in a gutter full of vicious snakes.

Try not to make questions that are either too easy or too difficult. Ideally, at least 1 team will be able to get each of your questions and at least 1 team will miss each of your questions. How can you judge this? It’s difficult and really just takes experience, but this tip can help: Everyone at trivia is stupider than you think. I mean, not in a bad way, it’s just that when you’re sitting at home meditating on how much you love the Golden Girls, or botany, or John Updike, your questions seem a lot easier to you than they actually will be to real people. If you want to make a round about a very specific topic, make the questions really easy and build hints into them. Also, keep in mind that different bars attract crowds of different ages. 90s cartoons might be a great category for people in their mid 20s, but might be quite difficult if the bar is full of people in their late 30s. Try to keep in mind other differences that affect cultural knowledge too. It’s impolite to do a super America-centric round when your audience is very international.

Build hints into your questions. People like it if they can make at least a decent guess on your questions. If the question is, “What is squab more commonly known as?” you either know it or you don’t. If instead you ask, “If a restaurant serves you squab, what bird are you eating?” your brain has a couple of facts to grapple with and at the very least everyone can make a good guess.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if the answer to your question is a particular date or number, think very hard about whether a normal person would know it off the top of their head. There is a good chance that it is too difficult. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard questions like “On what date did Waterloo occur?” or “How many Beatles songs made the charts?”. You can make the answer multiple choice, but unless the options are wildly different, you’re basically just making everyone randomly guess. Specific numbers usually don’t stick in people’s memory and guessing usually isn’t as fun as recall.

Get creative! Rounds where each question is a little puzzle are a lot of fun. Take a cue from Jeopardy and make Rhyme Time rounds (Personal watercraft endorsed by famous hockey player Wayne: Gretzky Jet Ski) or Before and After rounds (A post-DVD data storage invention that is floating through space on the back of a giant turtle: Blu-ray Discworld). Have a round where you play music, or even better, sing it yourself (Even if you’re not that great, people will love you). Come up with a theme instead of a topic. A topic is something like ‘Tennis Players’ or ‘Colors’. Themes might have the first letter of each answer spell the answer to the last question, have every answer include the name of an animal, or have every question be about people or things called “doctor”. Not only are they fun and have built-in hints, but having a theme makes it much easier to come up with a full set of questions.

I hope this helps some of you who are new at writing trivia. If there are other things that you think are important, put them in the comments!

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  1. Pingback: My Favorite Bar in Korea – World Flavor

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