Planning a quiz? Here’s how to pop the questions

Updated on Feb 28, 2021 07:13 AM IST

What makes for a perfect quiz? Clues that go past Googled facts, and an audience that enjoys discovering what they didn’t know they knew. Here’s how good quizmasters do it

Keep your clues simple and relatable. Like this South American river, that lends its name to a global online brand. (Shutterstock)
Keep your clues simple and relatable. Like this South American river, that lends its name to a global online brand. (Shutterstock)

Over the last year, as I’ve set the news quiz for the Sunday edition of this paper (with Natasha Rego having a blast as she occasionally takes over), a new kind of response has filled up my inbox. Readers tell me how well they did on school quizzes, recalling wins wrested from half-remembered clues.

Many get competitive, telling me they average 8 out of 10 on the HT Quiz, and would I please refrain from sports questions next Sunday so they can get a perfect score? Still others share the quizzes they’ve been setting for students, club members and friends.

One query dominates: How does one set questions that go past Googled facts and are fun to solve or to watch others solve? And what sets a great quiz apart from a merely good one? Here’s what I know for sure:

You must know your audience. Are you crafting questions for school kids? Mildly drunk know-it-alls at the pub? Colleagues trying to impress the boss? Competitive types who play to win? Or strangers solving the clues at their own pace? Work out a benchmark for what your audience might already know and what might seem impossible for them to guess — your sweet spot is somewhere in between.

Q: In this 46-year-old film, the villain has only nine scenes. But actor Sanjeev Kumar wanted to play the baddie so badly, he was willing to blacken his teeth and shave off his hair. He was instead cast in another role, for which he mostly didn’t even need his arms. Name the film. A. Sholay. He played Thakur.

Keep it just out of reach. The best questions use familiar clues to point to something unexpected, or use esoteric information to disguise an obvious answer. Throw in plenty of clues so your contestants can join the dots in those few intense seconds and delight in discovering how much they didn’t know they knew.

Q: This company was almost named Cadabra (as in Abracadabra). The founder, a Star Trek fan, also considered calling it MakeItSo. It was finally named for a long, snaking river, taking advantage of the alphabetical order of site linking at the time. Name the company. A. Amazon

Weigh your words. Good questions are cunning. The hints reveal as much as they hide. And multiple-choice answers (if any) should include options from the hilariously wrong to the confusingly probable. People like to win, but they love working for it.

Q: In 1956, a young Bolivian threw a rock at her. In 1974, in Tokyo, someone tried to attack her with spray paint. In 2009, a Russian visitor flung a teacup at her face. Why is Lisa Gherardini not afraid? A. She’s a painting. We know her as the Mona Lisa.

Make trivia matter. Rope in the time, the location, the theme, the situation, the sponsor, even the contestants if you know them well enough. When the answers are revealed, everything will (and should) seem ridiculously obvious in retrospect.

Q: What two-word term connects Brunch, City, School, Café and Shine, but not Lounge? A: They’re all sections or editions of the Hindustan Times newspaper. Lounge is part of the HT business publication, Mint.

Take control. Don’t bore contestants with facts unless you can spin them into a story. Don’t reference a developing situation, such as a vote count, for statistical data. Never turn suffering or tragedy into a punchline for your clues. And always make sure you know more about your subject than your contestants.

Q: The story goes that in 1791 a Dublin theatre owner introduced this made-up word into the English language overnight. He did it by getting street children to write it on walls around the city, arousing enough public curiosity to make it a talking point, and prove he could successfully invent a word. The story is not true, but what’s the word? A: Quiz.


    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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