As lockdown sees an increasing number of friends and families indulging in virtual quizzes on Zoom, FaceTime and Whatsapp, Simon O’Hagan, former weekly quiz-writer in The Independent magazine, offers the key to the perfect quiz. This piece was first published in 2013.
Everyone loves a quiz – even those, in my experience, who claim not to – so let’s give a rousing fanfare as the Quizzing Season reaches its zenith, a moment for quiz-lovers and quiz sceptics to come together and gorge on the festive challenges that are the heart and soul of any self-respecting publication at Christmas-time.
Like everything else about Christmas, the quiz you choose to do always carries the risk of disappointment. There are quizzes and there are quizzes, and for every humdinger of a question that spreads its own Yuletide joy through the room, there’s the dull satsuma-at-the-bottom-of-the-stocking question that no one really cares about.
For the past five and a half years, I have set a weekly quiz in The Independent’s Saturday Magazine, and there have been plenty of satsumas in the 3,000-plus questions I have dreamt up. I wouldn’t want to compare quiz-setting to writing poetry – except that I just have – but there are times when the inspiration just won’t strike. Colleagues can tell when I’m setting the quiz. I’m sitting back in my chair, staring into space. I’m busy, I tell them. No, really.
The world of the quiz-setter is a bit mad. You’re on the look-out for questions all the time. Everything you read is judged – in part – on what it offers by way of quiz questions. I remember my delight a couple of years ago when I read Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens and came across a fact that made a lovely quiz question. “Where in America in 1842 was Charles Dickens when he wrote that ‘It would be hard for a man to stand nearer God than he does here’?” (*see at bottom) By the end of the book I was disappointed that it did not contain more such facts. It almost spoilt my enjoyment of it. Which is obviously crazy.
Occasionally I enlist help. I’ve got one quiz-loving colleague from whom I solicit trigger words which I hope will lead me on to a question or two. One recent list of his reads: Eucalyptus; Oregon; Shuttle; Caligula; Jereboam; Duvet; Plasticine. Some rich pickings there.
So what makes a good quiz question? Perhaps I can start answering that by saying what doesn’t make a good quiz question. The bad quiz question is of the either-you-know-it-or-you-don’t variety – the question that offers no clues, no way in, no purchase. I was leafing through a pub quiz book the other day. I came across the question, “Who flew the Spirit of St Louis?” Which is a completely fine general knowledge question – easy if you know it, impossible if you don’t – but it’s not a quiz question.
General knowledge is of course essential to being able to answer a quiz question but I think that the best quiz questions should involve a bit of lateral thinking. In my ideal quiz, no one would actually know the answer to any question. All answers would be educated guesses. It’s not about knowledge but the application of knowledge, and, in my experience – having presented quite a few quizzes to live audiences – it’s when people get an answer right that was only ever an educated guess that they experience real quiz satisfaction. There’s a “Whoop!” and a “Yes!” that you don’t hear anywhere else.
In the Reithian tradition, a good quiz question should inform, educate and entertain. Even if you don’t know the answer, it should be something you are glad to have learnt. I came across a wonderful fact recently which instantly screamed “quiz question” – a sensation that all quiz-setters live for and will be familiar with. Wikipedia is the quiz-setter’s best friend and on a random trawl I found myself on the page about hang-gliding. As a result, I was able to ask: “In 1980, which country banned hang-gliding for fear of its citizens trying to escape?”
I doubt there’s anyone who read that question who had ever come across the fact. So we’re immediately into the realm of the educated guess and when I’ve tried it on people, there are only ever three countries that get mentioned – Cuba, North Korea and East Germany. That the answer is East Germany is more than a mere fact. It’s got the potential to be an entire Tom Stoppard play.
One of the country’s leading quiz-setters is Marcus Berkmann. When he’s not writing books, he presides over a distinguished pub quiz in north London, and he runs a quiz-for-hire company called Brainmen. He’s the best quiz-setter I know. He doesn’t just write his quizzes – he scripts them. One of his regular gigs is the literary shindig that is the annual PEN (originally known as Poets’, Essayists’ and Novelists’) quiz, and it was in this context that he came up with what he tells me is his favourite quiz question: “Which winner of the Booker Prize spent part of his gap year working as a grouse-beater at Balmoral in 1973?”
“I love that because at first glance it’s pretty difficult but then you start to narrow it down,” Berkmann says. “Even if you haven’t got a mental list of Booker Prize winners, there are clues. You know it’s a man, and you can roughly work out his age. And then there’s Balmoral, a grand country house...” So – are you there yet? The answer is Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Booker with a novel well known for its stately home setting, The Remains of the Day. As Berkmann says: “It’s just the most brilliant fact.” Perhaps when Stoppard has finished his play about would-be hang-glider escapees from 1980s East Germany and the authorities’ attempts to stop them, he could start writing a play about the 18-year-old Ishiguro delivering dead grouse to the Queen Mother in the grounds of Balmoral.
I think what the hang-gliding and the Ishiguro questions tell us is that the best quiz questions are far more than facts – they are stories. And we journalists love a story. But they are not the only type of good quiz question. I’ve had a look back through a bunch of questions – mine and other people’s – and here’s my list of the 10 Types of Great Quiz Question:
1. The Amazing Fact
See above, but here’s another one: In which Asian country are more than 800 languages spoken?
2. The 50-50
I like a 50-50 question. There’s a toss-of-the-coin element that always gets an audience going. Example: Which is bigger – the Isle of Man or the Isle of Wight? I set this question myself and I still have to look up the answer.
3. Kim’s Game
There are some images so familiar to us that we think we can reproduce them in our heads with perfect accuracy. But can we? Example: On the cover of Abbey Road, in what order (left to right) are the Beatles crossing the zebra crossing?
4. The Great Leveller
Example: How many varieties of Quality Street chocolates are there? I love this type of question. You could have a PhD from Harvard and it still wouldn’t be any help.
5. The thing you’re glad to know
All questions should fulfil this criterion. Here’s a good example: “Nirvana” comes from which language?
6. Tip of the tongue
Recent news events provide good tip-of-the-tongue material. That thing you know you know but can’t quite bring to mind. This question has been around quite a bit this year – I’ve used it, and I’ve seen it in other quizzes, and it’s a good example: Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter are better known as which pop duo?
7. Extreme lateral thinking
This tough one is courtesy of my friend and Independent colleague Chris Maume with whom I occasionally set a pub quiz: What’s the link between Wayne Rooney and the Stereophonics album Just Enough Education to Perform?
The straightforward-seeming question that can completely flummox: Who is the vice-president of the United States?
9. The Christmas Cracker
Some quiz facts are just excellent jokes, and if you take the Christmas cracker approach to answering them you’ll probably get there: What is the journal of the Magic Circle called?
10. What links...
A quiz mainstay, always satisfying, uniting three or four entirely disparate-seeming things or people – eg: Malcolm Lowry; Dylan Thomas; David Bowie; The Drifters – what’s the connection?
So now you know. Our Christmas Quiz (not set by me this time) is in the Christmas Eve edition of the paper. Have fun!
1 Papua New Guinea
2 Isle of Man
3 George, Paul, Ringo, John
6 Daft Punk
7 He had the words tattoo-ed on to his arm
8 Joe Biden
9 The Magic Circular
10 “Under” – The Volcano; Milk Wood; Pressure; The Boardwalk
(*And that Dickens quote: It was the Niagara Falls)
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