What are “Pyramidal” Questions?

Adapted from this article by the Missouri Quizbowl Alliance

Questions used in high quality quiz bowl formats contain multiple clues, beginning with the more obscure clues and containing several progressively easier, yet unambiguous, clues about the same answer, and ending with the most well-known clues. By arranging clues this way, more knowledgeable teams have a better chance of answering a question on a more obscure clue before an easier clue that both teams know is read, while the inclusion of well-known facts at the end of the question keep it accessible to a wide variety of teams.

The advantages of pyramidal questions can be best demonstrated with a comparison of the two types of questions. Here is a typical example of a non-pyramidal question (“Tossup 1”):

What novel about Billy Pilgrim was written by Kurt Vonnegut?

ANSWER: Slaughterhouse-Five

The first substantial clue (Billy Pilgrim), combined with knowing that the answer is a novel, will immediately result in every player who is familiar with Billy Pilgrim trying to buzz in simultaneously, devolving the question into a buzzer race. Anybody who has studied a list of literary protagonists would have the same chance of answering the question as someone who has read Slaughterhouse-Five or someone who has studied Vonnegut’s works.

The biggest flaw with this type of question is that it rewards the player who most quickly presses the buzzer, and not the player who knows more about the subject. The goal of quiz bowl is to reward knowledge, but when short questions like this are used, it gives teams with better reflexes an unfair advantage. Additionally, while it is very difficult for a person to improve reflexes, a dedicated player has the potential to improve significantly when the game is based on knowledge and not speed.

Compare that question to this better-written pyramidal question (“Tossup 2”):

The protagonist of this novel marries Valencia Merble, the daughter of the founder of the optometry school he attended. He is kidnapped by aliens who look like toilet plungers; they take him to their home planet, Tralfamadore. Other events in this story include a description of the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. For ten points, identify this novel in which Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time,” written by Kurt Vonnegut.

ANSWER: Slaughterhouse-Five

This question uses several clues ordered by decreasing difficulty to reward more knowledgeable players. A player who has read Slaughterhouse-Five might be able to answer the question very early due to their deep familiarity with the work. An experienced quiz bowl player who hasn’t read it would have a better chance of knowing that Slaughterhouse-Five includes a depiction of the firebombing of Dresden, because it is a common clue in questions about the work. Finally, the question ends with a giveaway clue that makes it most accessible, so even a player with little literature knowledge might have a shot if nobody has answered the question by that point.

Note that the giveaway clue in Tossup 2 contains the entirety of Tossup 1; therefore, pyramidal questions are NOT more difficult than one-liners, because they contain accessible clues at the end. In reality, it is shorter questions that have greater potential to be more difficult. When questions are short, the only way to write different questions on the same topic is to use entirely different clues, and when there are only one or two well-known clues about a topic, a writer will use more obscure clues that are less accessible, resulting in more questions going unanswered.

Another benefit of the pyramidal style is that questions include a good amount of information that players may not know; consequently, not only do pyramidal questions fairly gauge a player’s current knowledge, it also provides significant opportunities for players to learn something from the questions. A player who hears this Slaughterhouse-Five question might remember some of the plot details and be rewarded the next time a question with a similar clue appears, or might find one of the many clues interesting and decide to read the novel as a result.

There are several other stylistic benefits to players found in high quality questions:

  • Non-reliance on useless clues. Clues that are purely trivia or otherwise useless to players are avoided in favor of more pertinent academic clues.
  • Less ambiguity. Every clue in a pyramidal question points unambiguously to the same answer, and the type of answer sought is made clear early in the question by adherence to the “pronoun rule”. By ensuring that the first pronoun in the question refers to the answer, there is no ambiguity in determining what the question is asking. For instance, a good question would use a phrase like “this work” in the first clue to indicate that the answer is a literary work, or start with a phrase like “He wrote about…” to indicate that the answer sought is a person.
  • No left-turns or other trickery. Similar to reduction of ambiguity is the absence of tricks like left-turn questions that entice players to answer incorrectly. For instance, a bad question might describe a literary work, leading a player to buzz in and name the work. To the player’s surprise, they answer is ruled incorrect. A few words later, the question finishes with “Name the author of” the work that was described. “Left-turn” questions like this are insulting to players.

To summarize, pyramidal questions help lead players to the correct answer by using a series of useful clues that fairly reward more knowledgeable teams, while providing opportunities for players to improve simply by playing more questions.

Common Misconceptions About Pyramidal Questions

To fully understand the benefits of using pyramidal questions, it is important to understand what pyramidal questions are NOT:

  • Pyramidal questions are not necessarily harder than shorter questions with fewer clues. While the first few clues of a pyramidal question are designed to be difficult, the last few clues are designed to reward anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the topic. In contrast, shorter tossups tend to feature increasingly obscure “giveaways” to avoid asking the exact same question ad nauseum. As a result, one can argue that pyramidal questions are, on average, actually easier than shorter tossups.
  • A long question is not necessarily a pyramidal question. A tossup on Abraham Lincoln that begins “This sixteenth president of the United States…” and goes on to devote three or four sentences to clues about his early political career is not a pyramidal question because its clues are not arranged in order of decreasing obscurity. Likewise, a question that resembles a dissertation on the role of rivers in the development of civilizations and ends by asking for the longest river in South America is not pyramidal because the body of the question does not unambiguously refer to the Amazon.
  • Well-written pyramidal questions are not long for the sake of being long. Well-written pyramidal questions pack in as many meaningful, uniquely identifying, and interesting clues as possible without sacrificing grammar and syntax.