How not to write questions on mystery novels

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How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Nabonidus » Mon Apr 21, 2014 7:37 pm

I finished reading Eco's The Name of the Rose this weekend, and thought it might be interesting to look it up on http://www.quizbowldb.com/ to see how often it was asked about and what parts of the novel the writers had focused on. As I'm sure the vast majority of people on this forum know, TNOTR is (among other things) a detective story about murders committed at an abbey. It isn't revealed until the final fifty pages of a ~500 page novel who killed the monks and how it was done.

But all of the listed tossups on TNOTR describe how the murders were committed and half state explicitly who the murderer is. About a third of the tossups on Umberto Eco also state one or both of these facts. Likewise, all of the tossups I could find on Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett works give away the ending of the novel. I'm sure there are plently of other books with strong mystery/detective/secret elements that have similar issues.

Now, I recognize that "spoilers" are frequently unavoidable and often neccessary in lit questions. In fact, a lot of works probably benefit from foreknowledge if you're reading them with a critical eye. However, you would expect anyone who knows and likes a book well enough to write a tossup on it to be aware of the fact that it belongs to a genre whose devices rely on concealed informantion. To begin a tossup on Eco by stating "This author wrote a novel in which [method of killing] by [name of major character in TNOTR]..." is disrespectful to the intent of the author and to anyone listening who plans to read the work (or watch the Sean Connery adaptation).

If the ending of The Name of the Rose was as well-known as that of something like "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", there would be no point in keeping it back, and if it was as brief then it would be almost impossible to skirt around those details. Obviously, neither of these is the case - there are plenty of reasonable and equally informative clues available. Neither the people who have read the book or the people who have yet to read the book benefit from clues to the ending. It seems to me like deciding to write a question on a mystery novel and including the identity and modus operandi of the killer is just indefensibly poor judgment in question-writing.

I'm not entirely sure if this is the right subforum for these thoughts as I've just joined, but I'd love to hear anyone else's opinion on writing this sort of tossup.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Cheynem » Mon Apr 21, 2014 7:44 pm

The reason why it is included as a clue is because it is memorable and thus a vivid, evocative clue, just like the ending of "Murder in the Orient Express" in which it is revealed that the butler did it, is equally memorable. If you don't want to hear spoilers, don't play quizbowl. It is ridiculous to think of a disrespectful approach to writing questions, in my opinion.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Ndg » Mon Apr 21, 2014 7:53 pm

For what it's worth there was some discussion on this a while back.

(Not that I'm saying it can't or shouldn't be brought up again)
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by grapesmoker » Mon Apr 21, 2014 8:37 pm

are you fucking shitting me
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Auroni » Mon Apr 21, 2014 8:42 pm

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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Matt Weiner » Mon Apr 21, 2014 8:42 pm

grapesmoker wrote:are you fucking shitting me
don't answer this, it will spoil the end of the thread
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Cheynem » Mon Apr 21, 2014 8:46 pm

He was dead all along.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Banned Tiny Toon Adventures Episode » Mon Apr 21, 2014 8:47 pm

Auroni wrote:Rosebud's his sled.
Thank you for saving me from 2 long boobless hours
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by jonpin » Mon Apr 21, 2014 8:49 pm

I'm not done with calculus yet, don't spoil the importance of the integral!
I'm reading a book on early 20th century Germany, don't spoil how the Nazi movement ends!
I'm reading Hamlet, don't spoil that Ophelia dies!

Do you understand how terrible your suggestion is? Repent and sin no more.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by vinteuil » Mon Apr 21, 2014 8:51 pm

This is also discounting the fun of rereading a detective story/mystery novel, which is very much nonzero if the work in question is good.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Nabonidus » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:06 pm

Cheynem wrote:The reason why it is included as a clue is because it is memorable and thus a vivid, evocative clue, just like the ending of "Murder in the Orient Express" in which it is revealed that the butler did it, is equally memorable. If you don't want to hear spoilers, don't play quizbowl. It is ridiculous to think of a disrespectful approach to writing questions, in my opinion.
The Name of the Rose is long enough and evocative enough that anyone who has actually read it should be able to think of plenty of other potential clues with equal bearing on the players' ability to answer the question. To include a clue in the final question, it should be at least as good as every other potential clue you can think of - which "here's the big reveal" isn't, because lit questions are meant to encourage people to read world literature and quite a lot of people don't like reading mysteries they already know the answer to.

Now, I don't mind knowing the ending to most works ahead of time. Death of a Salesman doesn't suffer from how famous its ending has become. But details of a mystery novel's ending are not just "vivid". Those books are written in such a way that the experience of reading them (the misdirection, the slow reveal of new information, the subtle shift of suspicions, etc.) rely on the withholding of certain information. Yes, the cadence of the prose and the characterization are left intact. But if you tell someone the ending of something like Murder on the Orient Express ahead of time, they can be left admiring the general machinery of the novel without the opportunity to experience it in motion.

Maybe disrespectful is an overly harsh word to use, but it certainly seems unjustifiable for a writer with many clues at their disposal to pick ones that are inconsistent with the artistry of the work in question. I've heard several quiz bowl questions on MotOE. But if Agatha Christie had published it with a foreword revealing the ending, would it have aged well enough to be worth asking questions about in the first place?
vinteuil wrote:This is also discounting the fun of rereading a detective story/mystery novel, which is very much nonzero if the work in question is good.
It is plenty of fun to reread good mysteries with an eye to detail, but that experience is not at all equivalent to reading it for the first time with the knowledge of whodunnit and nothing but.
jonpin wrote:I'm reading Hamlet, don't spoil that Ophelia dies!
Spoiler: Hamlet isn't a detective story anyways.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by jonpin » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:16 pm

canonomics wrote:Now, I don't mind knowing the ending to most works ahead of time. Death of a Salesman doesn't suffer from how famous its ending has become.
Because it's the name of the fucking play! If the play was called Willy Loman, it'd be a shock that he dies at the end, and knowing that might affect one's viewpoint on the work.
It is plenty of fun to reread good mysteries with an eye to detail, but that experience is not at all equivalent to reading it for the first time with the knowledge of whodunnit and nothing but.
Even by your own standards, it's not "nothing but", as every other clue has told you something about the work!
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Cheynem » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:17 pm

The point of writing questions is to get people to answer them and buzz on them, not necessarily get them to read the book. Like it or not, unfortunately, the endings to particular novels are usually some of the most famous things about them. I'm not trying to intentionally deride you, I just feel like your approach to this is a bit misguided and possibly harmful if done wrong.

For instance, the ending of Murder on the Orient Express is actually the most famous part about the book. The ending to Murder of Roger Ackroyd is certainly the most famous part. To ask someone to write a tossup on these things without using the most famous clues seems problematic. That's not to say that perhaps you don't always need to spoil endings in works (I've written many literature questions without using clues about the ending), but a lot of times the ending is referenced because it's clearly famous and a substantial, buzzable clue.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by the third garrideb » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:20 pm

canonomics wrote:
jonpin wrote:I'm reading Hamlet, don't spoil that Ophelia dies!
Spoiler: Hamlet isn't a detective story anyways.
Oh, no?
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Nabonidus » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:24 pm

jonpin wrote:Because it's the name of the fucking play!
That was the main reason I chose it as an example of how a work that isn't a mystery can often afford to wear its ending on its sleeve.
jonpin wrote:Even by your own standards, it's not "nothing but", as every other clue has told you something about the work!
If you omit the quotes and relatively minor details given in power and the giveaway ("Adso of Melk and William of Baskerville are characters in this book by Umberto Eco") then the only remaining clue might well be about the killer.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by AKKOLADE » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:35 pm

canonomics wrote:
jonpin wrote:Because it's the name of the fucking play!/quote]

That was the main reason I chose it as an example of how a work that isn't a mystery can often afford to wear its ending on its sleeve.
jonpin wrote:Even by your own standards, it's not "nothing but", as every other clue has told you something about the work!
If you omit the quotes and relatively minor details given in power and the giveaway ("Adso of Melk and William of Baskerville are characters in this book by Umberto Eco") then the only remaining clue might well be about the killer.
endings are clues, dude
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Muriel Axon » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:38 pm

Cheynem wrote:The point of writing questions is to get people to answer them and buzz on them, not necessarily get them to read the book. Like it or not, unfortunately, the endings to particular novels are usually some of the most famous things about them. I'm not trying to intentionally deride you, I just feel like your approach to this is a bit misguided and possibly harmful if done wrong.
I don't agree with him entirely, but I think there is some sense to what Derek is saying. Obviously in questions about stories and books that are very short (so you need to include the ending to scrape together enough clues) or where the ending is the only thing that's super-famous (so you need to include it to give people with some knowledge a fair chance to buzz), you might have to risk spoiling it for somebody. But if there are enough buzzable clues that you don't need to include a spoiler, I think it would be preferable not to include it, at the discretion of the tournament writers/editors. I don't know about others, but one of the main benefits I get from quiz bowl is learning about books I might want to read, and the presence of spoilers can detract from that.

EDIT: I should note I'm referring only to books where the ending is surprising or is otherwise, for whatever reason, the main reason anyone reads the book. I don't expect people to hide the fact that at the end of To the Lighthouse, a bunch of the Ramsays reach the lighthouse, or that at the end of As I Lay Dying Anse gets a new wife.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by AKKOLADE » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:41 pm

Muriel Axon wrote:
Cheynem wrote:The point of writing questions is to get people to answer them and buzz on them, not necessarily get them to read the book. Like it or not, unfortunately, the endings to particular novels are usually some of the most famous things about them. I'm not trying to intentionally deride you, I just feel like your approach to this is a bit misguided and possibly harmful if done wrong.
I don't agree with him entirely, but I think there is some sense to what Derek is saying. Obviously in questions about stories and books that are very short (so you need to include the ending to scrape together enough clues) or where the ending is the only thing that's super-famous (so you need to include it to give people with some knowledge a fair chance to buzz), you might have to risk spoiling it for somebody. But if there are enough buzzable clues that you don't need to include a spoiler, I think it would be preferable not to include it, at the discretion of the tournament writers/editors. I don't know about others, but one of the main benefits I get from quiz bowl is learning about books I might want to read, and the presence of spoilers can detract from that.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Nabonidus » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:45 pm

Cheynem wrote:The point of writing questions is to get people to answer them and buzz on them, not necessarily get them to read the book. Like it or not, unfortunately, the endings to particular novels are usually some of the most famous things about them. I'm not trying to intentionally deride you, I just feel like your approach to this is a bit misguided and possibly harmful if done wrong.

For instance, the ending of Murder on the Orient Express is actually the most famous part about the book. The ending to Murder of Roger Ackroyd is certainly the most famous part. To ask someone to write a tossup on these things without using the most famous clues seems problematic. That's not to say that perhaps you don't always need to spoil endings in works (I've written many literature questions without using clues about the ending), but a lot of times the ending is referenced because it's clearly famous and a substantial, buzzable clue.
Lit questions are written in such a way so as to reward people for having read the works in question, over people who have heard of the book or know the major characters' names. It seems kind of inconsistent to take that premise for granted but say that quiz bowl has no preference for people reading the books the ask about. At very least, I expect that most people who write questions (myself included) write about things they consider worth reading.

It's true that endings are often very famous, but in that case they are only suitable for a giveaway and can easily be replaced by something like "FTP, name this Agatha Christie novel in which Hercule Poirot solves a murder on a snowbound train". The Name of the Rose does not have a particularly famous killer, and any reference to the name of the character responsible could potentially be replaced by something to do with the Italian peasant girl, the heretics and the inquisition by Bernard Gui. F. Murray Abraham did get second billing for the movie, after all.

In what way do you think it would be harmful to keep the reader in mind when writing the occasional question on a mystery?
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Cheynem » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:45 pm

I think I probably said something about this in an earlier thread, but I think it's rather dangerous to say something like "try not to include spoilers." On some level, everything is a spoiler. On some level, spoilers make the best clues because they're usually very unique and interesting. Certainly you don't have to go out of your way to do something spoiler-wise, but I could see very bad things happening if writers and editors, especially inexperienced or uncertain ones, try to eliminate spoilers in their writing.

Again, quizbowl is about writing the most buzzable, playable questions, not in guiding you to literature. That's certainly a good side effect of it and I don't want to discourage that, but we cannot sacrifice question quality for it.

To use a meatier example, let's say you're writing a question on Psycho. What are the two most famous things about it:

1. The shower scene where Marion Crane is killed by what appears to be Mrs. Bates
2. The fact that Mrs. Bates has been dead for years and that her son Norman is the killer

This is relatively well known now, but they're both spoilers--Marion dies about a quarter of the way in and the other revelation doesn't come to later. If we try to write a question on Psycho without using spoilers, we're already down two of the most famous clues. But let's say that I guess only the "ending" cannot be spoiled, so we can include the clue about the shower scene (already we are running into a quandary about what's a "real" spoiler). But even then we cannot write a fully descriptive summary without at least hinting toward the ending--it's not Mrs. Bates doing the killing, it's someone who appears to be or is dressed as Mrs. Bates, which at least hints at the second spoiler. Rather than try to fight our way to a spoil free presentation, I think it's just easier to say "write a good tossup, use the famous clues." I don't know much about Name of the Rose, so maybe we could just stand to see punchier tossups on that, but I think simply saying "no spoilers" is a bit risky.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by pajaro bobo » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:47 pm

canonomics wrote:
That's a broken link for me.
This is what he meant to link.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Nabonidus » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:51 pm

Dr. Loki Skylizard, Thoracic Surgeon wrote:endings are clues, dude
I think you've misunderstood this part of the conversation? I was saying that one might reasonably hear a tossup on The Name of the Rose and come away from it knowing only:
  • some quotes and minor incidents with no impact on the reading experience
  • the names of the authors and protagonists which are known from the beginning of the novel anyways, and
  • the name of the killer and/or how he killed people, both of which are huge reveals
The ending would be a late middle clue, likely after power.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Nabonidus » Mon Apr 21, 2014 10:06 pm

Mike:

I see what you're saying and agree with it all to some extent. That said, I don't think there are any cases where a spoiler is the only good clue for a certain segment of a question, and I think your concerns can be limited by applying this line of reasoning only to works that are

a) widely seen as being "mysteries" and/or "detective stories".
b) long enough that alternate clues are available
c) not a matter of common knowledge already

Psycho fails C and maybe A. Still, here's the only question on it from the database:
In a critical study titled The Moment of this work, David Thomson invites the reader to imagine Elvis Presley as the title character.� Early in this work, one character's decision not to take a used car for a test drive prompts the exclamation �Well, it's the first time a customer ever high-pressured a salesman!� from California Charlie. Opening on Friday, December 11th at 2:43 pm in Phoenix, Arizona, this work features four-foot tall Mitzi Koestner in a scene in which a private investigator named Milton Arbogast falls down a flight of stairs. Another scene spliced from approximately seventy different shots makes use of chocolate sauce to represent blood. Near the end of this film, Sam Loomis saves Lila, Marion Crane's sister, from the title character, portrayed by Anthony Perkins. For 10 points, name this Hitchcock film featuring the Bates Motel and an infamous shower scene.
One could easily take out the "portrayed by Anthony Perkins" or move his name to the FTP section and be free of the spoilers you mentioned. I wouldn't recommend doing so for the reasons laid out above.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by AKKOLADE » Mon Apr 21, 2014 10:09 pm

canonomics wrote:
Dr. Loki Skylizard, Thoracic Surgeon wrote:endings are clues, dude
I think you've misunderstood this part of the conversation? I was saying that one might reasonably hear a tossup on The Name of the Rose and come away from it knowing only:
  • some quotes and minor incidents with no impact on the reading experience
  • the names of the authors and protagonists which are known from the beginning of the novel anyways, and
  • the name of the killer and/or how he killed people, both of which are huge reveals
The ending would be a late middle clue, likely after power.
don't care, endings are clues
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by UlyssesInvictus » Mon Apr 21, 2014 10:26 pm

I'm going to parrot Shan and say I see where Derek is coming from, but that I also think the complaint in question doesn't apply to The Name of the Rose. The ending is quite clearly famous by now, but a great clue precisely because it's not notable enough. Like Derek said, the apparent quixotic aim of QB literature questions is to reward people who have read the book over those who haven't, but I'd additionally argue that it should also reward those who are aware of literature over those who have completely no awareness of the subject at all. The ending to The Name of the Rose is something that a person who is well-cognizant of Eco but hasn't read his works might presumably know (e.g. me, and many others I'm sure) and should be rewarded for knowing over someone who only knows Eco = The Name of the Rose, in the same way that I know some of my friends still don't know the plot to Psycho: sure it would spoil Psycho for them, but if they want to be more aware of Hitchcock, then that revelation is inevitable. So the point is that you can't really (and this may be a strawman here, so feel free to disagree if you don't believe this is what you were asserting) say that The Name of the Rose is little famous enough that you can find other clues to replace it--for many people, it's a clue that is singular in its appropriateness. And on that note, it's also a bit absurd to request people spend the time to find replacement clues when 1) as just mentioned, QB is ultimately a competition as well as a learning exercise and that clue fulfills the competition need very well, and 2) the energy spent to find those replacement clues to placate a few people is not at all cost-efficient.

Additionally, on the subject of "what works' endings are little known enough that we can admit to them not gaining any particularly beneficial 'clue-iness'" (okay, that's an awful way to phrase that, but I think I got the question across), I think that ultimately becomes an unfair question as well. If the point of QB is to test for knowledge of literature, then isn't every work in the end (no pun intended) notable enough for someone that "famous" and "not famous" are moot questions? Sure, some obscure Ugandan book might have an ending almost no one will know, but if the question writer is doing their job and choosing clues that have strong merit as clues that can be contested between players (re: the paradigm thread), then that's at least a certain group of players to whom the ending is more valuable as differentiating clue than it is to people who don't want the ending spoiled. That's an abstraction and a generalization, but I hope the main point isn't getting missed: an ending should be treated as a clue, at any level of knowledge.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by grapesmoker » Mon Apr 21, 2014 11:04 pm

i seriously cannot believe this thread is still going and being seriously discussed
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Auks Ran Ova » Mon Apr 21, 2014 11:16 pm

Yeah, I'm pretty sure the only necessary conclusion to come to is the one that was reached in the old thread (linked earlier)--your number one priority is to write good quizbowl questions with useful clues, and any other motives come second (or not at all). Feel free to avoid spoilers where you can in your own writing (especially in bonus parts, which are substantially more succinct), but other questions are under no obligation whatsoever to do the same.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Nabonidus » Mon Apr 21, 2014 11:42 pm

Raynor:

I don't think it's possible to claim that any given line "is more valuable as differentiating clue than it is to people who don't want the ending spoiled". Those aren't the same types of value, and those aren't the same groups of people anyways. Teams do packets from many different difficulty levels and the original target players are probably a minority compared to everyone who will proceed to use those packets for practice. Just because the cat is out of the bag in certain circles doesn't mean that it might as well be perpetuated in general.

Furthermore, I don't think any lit clue is ever singular or irreplaceable for a given context and audience - that would imply that every line of every question had a set difficulty and that questions on the same book at the same difficulty level would have to contain some identical clues. We don't have an objective way of writing or gauging questions, and there's almost certainly more difference between eight lit players' perception of the same question than there is between the same player's perception of two slightly different questions. I'm pretty sure we can maintain a standard of difficulty without micromanaging our questions down to the level of sentence fragments.

So I'm certainly not suggesting that editors go through previously-written questions, research them, and rewrite the clues in question. Even if somebody were to do so the difference probably wouldn't be noticeable or affect the outcome of any games. But I do think that my POV is worth keeping in mind before the writing process begins. If you've actually read the mystery novel in question you should already be aware of all the clues that would be equally relevant in practice.

Rob:

Nobody is claiming anybody else has an obligation to do anything. I still think that "good quizbowl question" includes "not potentially ruining the novel for 1% of the audience", but I'm not under any impression that others have (or should be required to have) the same opinion about the goals of quiz bowl outside of the ones in the rulebook.

That said, I would be happy if my venting allowed somebody somewhere to make a decision that allowed somebody somewhere else to enjoy the hell out of an Agatha Christie book in the distant future.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by The Ununtiable Twine » Tue Apr 22, 2014 12:21 am

grapesmoker wrote:i seriously cannot believe this thread is still going and being seriously discussed
I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU GUYS HAD THE AUDACITY TO RUIN HAMLET FOR ME
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Nabonidus » Tue Apr 22, 2014 12:39 am

Fida wrote:
canonomics wrote:
That's a broken link for me.
This is what he meant to link.
Good story. I've just realized where I saw a tenous Hamlet - detective connection before, though, and it's this:



The sketch isn't actually that good, though. Pity about Season 4.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) » Tue Apr 22, 2014 1:06 am

Fida wrote:
canonomics wrote:
That's a broken link for me.
This is what he meant to link.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huma
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by theMoMA » Tue Apr 22, 2014 1:06 am

I'm locking this thread; it seems like we're not getting much accomplished other than posting Monty Python skits at this point. In case any of you were looking for a correct answer to the question raised here, Rob has helpfully provided it:
Ukonvasara wrote:Yeah, I'm pretty sure the only necessary conclusion to come to is the one that was reached in the old thread (linked earlier)--your number one priority is to write good quizbowl questions with useful clues, and any other motives come second (or not at all). Feel free to avoid spoilers where you can in your own writing (especially in bonus parts, which are substantially more succinct), but other questions are under no obligation whatsoever to do the same.
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by theMoMA » Tue Apr 22, 2014 1:17 am

As per request, I will open this thread back up sometime tomorrow, after a brief cooling-down period, so anyone who wishes to respond to the actual discussion can carry on the conversation. (To be clear, I closed it down because lots of people were posting not-very-relevant-to-quizbowl things, not just the final Monty Python video.)
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Re: How not to write questions on mystery novels

Post by theMoMA » Wed Apr 23, 2014 5:44 pm

This topic is now unlocked. Any further off-topic posts will be moved to the forbidden zone immediately, and those who make them will be warned and possibly tempbanned. Discuss away.
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