How to write good trivia questions

On Friday night our household ran our annual trivia night, which helps us cover the rent for our guest rooms. (We host Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who need to come to Melbourne for hospital.)

I didn’t write this year’s questions, because I wanted to be able to be on one of the tables, but I’ve written the questions a few times. I thought I’d write about what I think makes for a good collection of trivia questions.

The first time I wrote questions for the trivia night, I didn’t do a good job. I thought it was a good idea to choose weird obscure questions. I thought people would find it amusing. It actually just makes people feel crap that they can’t answer the questions. It doesn’t make for a fun night. I wasn’t asked to write questions for a few years after that.

These are my suggestions for writing good trivia questions:

  1. Make sure there is only one correct answer, or a few correct answers. The reason for this is that you want to make sure it’s clear if people have the correct answer or not. If you have a question like, ‘Name three towns in South Australia,’ it’s going to be hard to assess the answers because there would be so many possilbe correct answers, and you couldn’t possibly know them all.
  2. Make sure the questions aren’t all on one topic. Sure, you might have a round of sports questions, but make sure the questions are about a wide range of sports. I’ve been to trivia nights where half the sports questions are about Australian Rules Football. This is great for people who like that sport, but it’s going to be incredibly disengaging for people who aren’t. If you do have a particular topic that you do want to be getting people thunking about, I’d suggest seeing if there’s a way you could put one question related to that topic in each round. Because of the nature of our project, we’ve wanted to have a focus on questions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture. (This isn’t about tokenism or political correctness. It’s about reshaping the way we think of our society.) I think the best way to do that has been to have one question in each round. So for the sports round there’d be a question about an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander athlete, in the music round there’d be a question about an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander performer, et cetera.
  3. Choose a lot of easier questions and just a few hard questions. Through the mistakes I made the first time I wrtoe questions for the trivia night, I learned that it wasn’t actually about writing hard questions. It was about testing each team’s knowledge. People are going to do better and have more of a fun night if they’ve had a reasonable challenge. So I try to choose questions that I can be fairly confident that most tables will be able to answer if they work together. I’ll still make sure each round has got one or two hard questions that only the best teams will be able to answer. But those questions should be the exception. When most of the questions aren’t too hard, there’ll be close scores. It will feel like everyone’s in the race until the end. There’ll be a lot of suspense around who will get the harder questions right, because that will be what makes the difference.

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