A (Literature) Question Writing Guideline

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A (Literature) Question Writing Guideline

Post by icarium »

So, in the process of moving stuff onto a new external hard drive I came across a document I'd written shortly after the ACF Fall I edited with Matt Cjivanovich. In the vein of Eliot's Casaubon I think I'd intended to compose a Key to All Quizbowl. However, real life got in the way, and at present I have no real desire to go back and finish what was becoming too lengthy a project. I post this here in the hopes that it is useful to someone in some way. A quick perusal of the ACF website shows that Jerry has written a question writing guideline, which is probably more comprehensive, succinct, and less dated than this. But, I figured this was already done, so I might as well post it. If anyone wants to run with it and finish the other categories, clean up grammar, update it to fit the conventions of the present game, or print it out and roll a prodigious number of joints (you might be innovating the latest QB studying craze), well then be my guest. Oh yeah, just to clarify - I realize that some (much?) of this might be out of date and that it is insanely long. Also, I'm not even sure this is the right forum for this, as it's intended for players new to the writing requirements of good collegiate quizbowl, but I'll let the mods figure that one out. I yearn for the days where i had the free time to do shit like this. Anyway the document follows.


Hey All,

For the past couple of years I’ve been thinking about trying to remedy the fact that there is no comprehensive guide detailing how to properly construct tossups and bonuses. There are a couple of well-written guidelines for good question writing, but neither of them offers a comprehensive model for writing tossups and bonuses. So I set about trying to offer something for players new to this game. My goal with this document is to offer inexperienced teams a step-by-step approach to writing tossups and bonuses appropriate to the level of the packet submission tournament they are attending.

I’ll start with picking an answer of the right difficulty and work backwards from the giveaway, as I think that’s the most effective way to do this for those new to the question writing process. Also, I’m going to break this down by category, because though some general principles apply to all questions, writing an interesting pyramidal tossup on say Julius Caesar requires a somewhat different approach than writing an interesting pyramidal tossup on the pancreas. I’m going to primarily focus on writing questions at the ACF Fall level, because questions at this level should be usable in almost all circuit submission tournaments and even ACF Regionals (with some tweaks). Now what I’m going to spell out is certainly not the best or only way to write good tossups and bonuses, but I do think it will give you a template that, if followed, will result in eminently playable questions. Equally important, I think this method leads to better retention of newly learned clues, which can only improve your individual play and contribution to your team.

So, without further ado, I’m going to begin with literature as I think that it (along with history) is the easiest area in which inexperienced teams can pick up good question writing principles and apply them with ease and consistency. Also, with each category, we’ll write an actual tossup, building from each portion of the guide.

Literature Tossups (Literary works)

Picking the Answer: The most important step in writing a good tossup is always picking an answer of appropriate difficulty. One can write a great tossup on John Keats’ “Ode to Indolence” but this tossup would be entirely inappropriate for all levels of packet submission, with the doubtful possible exception of national and masters tournaments. Let’s stick with our targeted difficulty level of ACF Fall or a novice packet submission tournament. I think many teams, having no baseline or experience with which to work from, struggle with this first and basic step of question writing. This often leads to questions on pet topics that are usually way too difficult. Sadly I saw many experienced teams commit this blunder for Fall. In picking an answer, I think there are a series of steps one can follow. (Where applicable, I’ll elaborate and give examples on each of these steps).

1. Don’t pick an answer which you or any of teammates have never heard of. Checking with your teammates should help alleviate the problems of those of us who tilt toward our favorite topics. For example, Player W might be a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, but if Player W checked with Players X, Y, and Z, chances are that he/she would realize that this particular Vonnegut novel would not be a good tossup answer.

2. Don’t pick an answer which has not shown up as a tossup or bonus answer in previous incarnations of your intended tournament at least once (twice or even more would be preferable). I realize that previous sets might not be available to you and that this can occasionally be an artificial obstruction. There are remedies. If you are an experienced player in charge of a new team or editing a new team’s packet, you should make every attempt to either direct your inexperienced teams to online sources of tournaments from prior years or obtain those tournaments and pass those on to your teams directly. This might then allow teams to see why a tossup on King Lear would be preferable to a tossup on Cymbeline. If you are an experienced question writer, you might be able to work around this rule, but if not, I strongly encourage you to follow it.

3. A minor work by a major author is not an acceptable tossup answer. Now, “minor” or “major” are terms that are not easy for new and inexperienced teams to define. But, this is something with which you can use common sense. Basically try to think of a “major” author as someone who you could name at least two and hopefully three things by. Thus, if you wanted to write a tossup on a work of Russian literature, you would be able to easily pick a work by Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Anton Chekhov over something by Mikhail Bulgakov. So, you’ve now narrowed it down to Dostoyevsky or Chekhov. Let’s go with the former. Your thought process might go something like this, “hmm, I know Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. I think he also wrote something like Notes from the Underground and maybe a novel called The Idiot.” For our purposes a “minor” work would be the latter two, or basically anything that is not the most famous one or two creations of an author. There are exceptions. Shakespeare’s works are the most obvious (as there are more than two or three to work with) and other authors like Poe have many works which might be easily known to a median team of 1st and 2nd year players. This should eliminate another common problem as many teams submit questions on something like Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and then respond, “Arthur Miller wrote it,” when questioned about the difficulty.

4. After having gone through the first three rules, if you’re still unsure, consult an experienced member of your team. If they have not heard of the answer, don’t write a tossup on it. If they couldn’t guess it after being told the author, don’t write the tossup. If you can’t ask a team member because of blind packets or because you don’t have any experienced team members, ask the tournament editor. After all, that’s part of the editor’s job.

5. It’s ok to stretch rules 2 and 3, but only in one of your tossups. Thus, you might be able to get away with writing a tossup on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row if the rest of your tossups are more accessible. Note that this doesn’t mean you can write a tossup on something very few teams will have heard of. It just means that you might write a tossup on something that has only shown up as the hard part of a bonus in previous years or is the third, fourth, or fifth work in an imaginary quizbowl hierarchy of accessibility for an author’s oeuvre. Remember, this should be an exception in your list of tossup answers, NOT the norm.

6. I realize that the aforementioned rules constrain you quite a bit. It’s ok to be creative in your answer selection, but there are ways to be creative without sacrificing accessibility. You can always write tossups on literary characters, or characters with a similar name that appear in different works, or even works with similar names (this last one is usually not recommended for a novice tournament as it will be hard to write a tossup on this that doesn’t degenerate into a buzzer race). Examples would be writing tossups on Sir John Falstaff, Jay Gatsby, characters named Antonio from Shakespeare, and so on. When writing tossups on individual characters, you must be certain that the character appears in a literary work with which a clear majority of players will have a working familiarity. In that case, you might very well want to restrict yourself to characters from the most famous work of an author (Shakespeare would again be a clear exception). For that reason you would write a tossup on Rodion Raskolnikov over one on Ivan Karamazov. Also, you should stick with the one or two most famous characters from a work, usually the hero/heroine or villain. For that reason you would write a tossup on Cassius over one on Casca.

So, we have the basic fundamentals of picking a tossup answer. Let’s go with one we’ve already mentioned – The Brothers Karamazov. I know that this seems really complicated, but after writing your first few questions, if you’ve developed the right habits, then all these things will become second nature and you can do them in a matter of seconds.

The Giveaway: I’m defining the giveaway as the last sentence of the tossup, which will almost always be after the FTP (or for 10 points) phrase. Your sole purpose with the giveaway should be what the word indicates, basically giving away the answer. You want to make it obvious as possible without being insulting. In writing a giveaway for this particular category, literary works, there are certain things that should always be included. The author of course is the most important, but you might also have not mentioned the main character yet. Remember, even in the giveaway you want to maintain pyramidality. What I mean is that you want to put the best known clues last. In most cases that would mean putting central characters before the author, but there would exceptions. For example, let’s take a tossup on The Merchant of Venice. If you haven’t already mentioned Portia or Shylock, you would probably want to keep their names till the end. Mentioning that this is a Shakespeare play, will certainly narrow it down for those who haven’t already determined as much, but mentioning the name of the two best-known characters narrows it down even more, so you should keep those names till the end. Thus, the giveaway of “FTP, name this Shakespeare play that features Portia and Shylock” (or variants thereof) would in most cases (depending on what came before) be preferable to “FTP, name this work that includes Portia and Shylock, a play by Shakespeare.”

Let’s get back to our tossup. The Brothers Karamazov would fall in the category of keeping the author till the very end. This isn’t an objective conclusion, but in this particular case I feel that more people would be able to guess the tossup answer after hearing the author than the individual characters of the novel, particularly because the novel doesn’t have one central character. Though, you could give Dostoyevsky’s name first if you phrase the giveaway properly. So here are some possible giveaways:

“Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha are, FTP, the title characters of what Dostoyevsky novel?”

“The lives of the titular siblings are the focus of, FTP, what Dostoyevsky novel?

“FTP, name this novel in which Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha are the title siblings, a work by Fyodor Dostoyevsky”

“FTP, name this novel about the title siblings, a work by Dostoyevsky?”

These are all acceptable giveaways and there are probably several more, but all of them should have one thing in common – they contain the two most obvious pieces of information about the work in question. In every case we disclose the names of the novel’s title characters (or that title siblings exist) and the novel’s author. The best giveaways are the ones that disclose the most information, therefore, the ones that also tell us that the novel has “title siblings” are even better at fulfilling the function of the giveaway. There is nothing wrong with cluing in to words in the novel’s title by using phrases like “title character” and “title location.” Remember that we play this game to answer questions, and the more questions that we can answer, the more fun the game becomes. Consequently, you should extend this courtesy to teams that will play on your questions. Make sure that the questions are answerable by the end, and don’t refrain from giving as much information as you can in the giveaway.

The Middle: This is the meat of the tossup. It should contain the most clues and offer a smooth transition from a hard leadin to an easy giveway. This is also the toughest portion of the tossup to master and the portion with the greatest variance. What I mean by variance is that the middle is really the part of the tossup that usually determines the difficulty (other than the answer of course). It’s actually easy to write three different tossups on The Brothers Karamazov for a novice, sectionals level, and nationals level tournament. The portion of the tossup in which each of those three should probably differ most is the transition part of the tossup. I would surmise that in matches between skilled and median teams (particularly at the novice level) most questions will be answered in this part of the tossup.

Now that we have our giveaway (let’s work with the third one from the list), we need to decide what pieces of information to put in our middle. I should say that when I write tossups, I pick an answer and then usually work from the leadin down, and I suspect that many experienced question writers do something similar. However, I think this method of working backwards will give you a nice insight into the dynamics of a tossup, how it should flow, what pyramidality means, and how you can determine these things even for topics with which you are not completely familiar.

Ok, moving back to our tossup. You have a lot of freedom at this point. There’s so much in the novel that we couldn’t possibly include it all, but we do want to stick with one fundamental principle. Our tossup should tell a story, maybe the story of the novel, but not always so. Each sentence of our tossup should logically follow from the preceding sentence. We don’t want to have 6-7 discrete clues that are just listed in order. They need to be related to each other and flow in an understandable manner. In many ways this middle part of your tossup should be able to stand alone as its own mini-tossup

This is also the point in the tossup that you should have a reference source handy. For literary works, having read the work and having it at hand are always the best options. However, this won’t be the case for many of you, so you should look into the next best things. If you are not familiar with the characters and plot of the work, you should familiarize yourself with them. You can do this in a couple of ways ways: read it (this is the most rewarding way and also the most impractical for quizbowl purposes) or consult a plot summary. You can find plot summaries in numerous reference books, which you should have no problem finding in your university library, and you can find them through several online sources. I would recommend simply typing the name of the work into Google with “and plot summary.” Sort through the results and you should have no problem finding what you need. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the work in question, you’ll have a much better idea of how to construct your tossup and what pieces of information should go where.

Let’s look at The Brothers Karamazov. We know certain basic pieces of information, which we’ve included in our giveaway. Now we want to get more in depth. One way is to look at the other characters in the novel. After doing some of the basic research mentioned above, we would learn about Fyodor, the selfish patriarch of the Karamazov family; Zosima, a monk admired by Alyosha; Smerdyakov, the shady “fourth brother;” Grushenka, who is the object of both Fyodor and Dmitri’s affections; and so on. We would also learn of the age and standing of the three brothers and of the basic plot elements – Dmitri’s anger at his father, the issue of the 3000 rubles, Ivan’s philosophical views, Dmitri’s trial, Smerdyakov as the true criminal, and so on.

Now as I’ve said before, the middle should be able to stand-alone as its own mini tossup and it should tell some sort of story. In the case of this category, literary works, telling a story is easy as we can just tell the story of the novel. I want to reiterate that I recommend trying to write this transitional part of the tossup as a mini-tossup, particularly with the category of literary works. So, we want to take the lesser known characters, or lesser known plot elements, and put them first. Then we can work from there. We might have a general idea that we want to end this portion of the tossup with a mention of Smerdyakov or Zosima (depending on whom you determine would be better known, as you’d put that person last) and how they fit in with the story we’re telling.

Let’s look at a few of the stories we could tell. We could focus on Smerdyakov’s involvement in the plot, or the women of the novel, or even the philosophical undercurrent. We can offer up a middle portion for all of these choices. First we’ll attempt Smerdyakov –

“One of this novel’s characters was raised by Marfa and her poor servant husband. That character’s epilepsy, an illness also suffered by the author, is possibly inherited from the character’s father, who is said to have raped his mother, the slow-witted Stinking Lizaveta. He hangs himself after murdering his father partly motivated by the philosophical discussions he has with Ivan. That character, Smerdyakov, is ostensibly the fourth title character along with Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha in, FTP, what Dostoyevsky work?”

So I’ve changed our giveaway, but that’s ok. This is a work-in-progress and we’ll have to make these kinds of changes along the way. Do you see what we’ve done though. In the first two clues we’ve established several things. We’ve reinforced that we’re looking for the work not the character (which the leadin should have already done), we’ve given several distinct pieces of information, and we’ve told a story. In addition, we haven’t sacrificed a pyramidal flow in doing these things. Some might question the mention of epilepsy early on, which circuit veterans might associate with Dostoyevsky, but remember that we are writing for easier-level tournaments, and the leap in knowledge that this requires while listening in a game situation is more difficult than simply reading the tossup as written in this guide. Another potential objection is that the pronouns that refer to the answer after the initial mention of “this novel” might lead to some confusion and lead a few players to think that the tossup is asking for Smerdyakov rather than the name of the novel. However, this can be worked around with very simple edits.

If you’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, you would be able to understand why these clues flow from obscure to well-known, but let’s say you haven’t and many people haven’t. After having consulted a reference source about the novel, you should be able to determine that Marfa and Lizaveta are more minor characters and, therefore, they should come earlier in the tossup. You should be able to determine that you can write about Smerdaykov’s involvement in the novel, without using his name, which you should only do at the end. More importantly, you should realize that Smerdayokov is a major character, so his name should be kept till the latter part of the tossup. Also, you can make more subtle determinations. Lizaveta’s name is more Russian sounding, so we can include the clue about her after the one about Marfa. Ivan is one of the three title characters, so we can include him after mentioning the murder of Fyodor. Most importantly, we’ve maintained a logical transition in each of the sentences and continued to narrow the focus of the tossup until it’s apparent that we want a novel by Dostoyevsky with some title characters. I can’t stress how important it is to write your tossups this way. They become so much more interesting and are much easier to follow when listening to them and playing on them. Also, when you make an effort to construct your tossup in such a manner, I find that any new pieces of information you’ve learned from the tossup will stay with you much longer.

I mentioned above that there are many ways to write the middle portion of the tossup as long as we keep certain rules in mind. Let’s now try the second way, focusing on the women of the novel. Now if I chose this way, I might very well mention Marfa and Lizaveta again, but I won’t do so in this particular example just to illustrate that you have more freedom than you think:

“This novel includes one character who crushes her fingernail in a doorway in an attempt at self-imposed punishment. That character, Lise, in one way mirrors Katerina, who provides an incriminating letter at the end in attempt to clear her love. Their innocence contrasts with the sensuous Grushenka, who is offered 3000 rubles by Fyodor, but eventually settles for Dmitri. FTP, name this novel that also features Ivan and Alyosha, the other two title characters, a work by Dostoyevsky.”

Now I’ll write a middle that just focuses on the philosophical and religious themes of the novel:

“Book Six of this novel includes an anecdote about a philanthropist who finally confesses to a murder he had committed but for which he had escaped imprisonment. That tale is related by a man who is hated by one of his colleagues, Ferapont. More importantly, that tale contrasts with a long poem from the previous chapter, a didactic one about the “Grand Inquisitor.” The stories illustrate the difference between the faith of Father Zosima and the skepticism of Ivan, both of whom influence young Alyosha. FTP, name this work that also includes Dmitri, the eldest of the title characters, a work by Dostoyevsky.”

So there we have three distinct ways to write the middle and main portions of tossup on The Brothers Karamazov and we’ve barely scratched the surface, as we could continue this process for at least five or six more tossups. This is the main reason why I’m skeptical when people complain that “such and such topic is so overasked” or “all we hear at novice tournaments are the same old things.” These arguments often precede the explanation of “that’s why I wrote on this topic. It might be too hard but at least it’s not repetitive.” I want people to understand that you can ask about accessible things without being repetitive. Sure giveaways will be repetitive, but they are at almost all levels of the game. If you’re willing to do a little work, you can always find new and exciting ways to ask about simple answers.

Just to summarize. The middle is the most important part of the tossup. It’s where you have the most freedom to relate the clues you want to, but it’s also the part of the tossup in which you must give teams a chance to buzz on a series of narrower clues. If the leadin and giveaways consist of one or two clues, your middle should consist of at least five or six. Remember, this is where a large number of tossups are answered, and you want to offer team with more knowledge the chance to buzz in first. At the same time, you want to piece this larger set of clues into some sort of coherent story. Not only does this make the tossup more interesting and memorable, but it makes it easier to read and follow. Do the necessary research and you’ll have an understanding of how to organize your (possibly) new found knowledge into such a story. The more you do all of this, the quicker and easier it becomes.

The Leadin: Ok, this is perhaps the least important part of the tossup, but it also gives you the most unique opportunity. The leadin is the most subjective part of the tossup, specifically with regards to the second of the two things you want to accomplish. First you want to clearly identify what type of answer you’re looking for – is it a work, a place, a person, and so on. Second, you want to give a clue or clues that allow the expert to answer the tossup first, and if possible, use a clue or anecdote that catches the interest of the players. Now when writing for a tournament, you would probably guess that there are more “experts” on The Brothers Karamazov than Dostoyevsky’s The Double. Consequently, you might want to start off with a slightly more obscure clue for the former. Of course, if this is for a novice tournament, you would not write a tossup on the latter.

So, all this being said, for literary works, I find two effective paths to take for leadins. The first is the simple one that just highlights minor characters or plot elements in the novel. Examples would include the following:

Among the divisions of this novels’ twelve books are “The Sensualists,” which precedes a section in which all of the central characters’ flaws are exposed, “Strains.” (I think some translations call this part “Lacerations”)

This novel ends with the cheers of the village boys for one of the title characters.

This novel’s author chose to satirize the decadence of his contemporaries with the hypocritical character of Rakitin.

All of these are acceptable leadins, though perhaps with varying degrees of difficulty. The second choice would be to use some form of anecdotal leadin. For example:

“In this novel’s preface, the author indicates that it was a precursor to another novel, The Life of a Great Sinner, which he never lived to write”

For a higher level tournament you might mention Maugham’s commentary on the novel from his Ten Great Novels, or Joyce Carol Oates’ essay about “Tragic and Comic Visions in” this novel. Note that these lit crit leadins should be used sparingly, as they often won’t be helpful to the majority of your audience.

You can tailor the beginning of your middle portion to fit into your leadin without too much work. Ideally, the leadin begins the story that you are telling with your tossup, but I don’t think it’s a necessity. All you have to do is identify what type of answer you are looking for and use a clue that allows experts the best chance to answer the tossup. If you are unsure about what kind of clue to use, use a clue that you think is harder than any of the ones you’ve introduced in your middle section. If you’ve done the basic research this should not be too difficult, and you’ll get a much better sense of it after having done it several times. Also, the more reading and research you do, the more interesting leadins you’ll come across.

So let’s look at the tossup we’ve constructed. We can actually piece together several tossups from what we’ve done so far, but we’ll just choose one.

Among the divisions of this novels’ twelve books are “The Sensualists,” which precedes a section in which all of the central characters’ flaws are exposed, “Strains.” Both precede Book Six, which includes an anecdote about a philanthropist who finally confesses to a murder he had committed. That tale is related by a man who is hated by one of his colleagues, Ferapont. More importantly, that tale contrasts with a long poem from the previous chapter, a didactic one about the “Grand Inquisitor.” The stories illustrate the difference between the faith of Father Zosima and the skepticism of Ivan, both of whom influence young Alyosha. FTP, name this work that also includes Dmitri, the eldest of the title characters, a work by Dostoyevsky.
Answer: The Brothers Karamazov

I’m not entirely pleased with this tossup, I think it’s a little too vague for the early part of its transition and it could probably use one or two more clues before mention of the “Grand Inquisitor,” but we can tweak it till we’re satisfied. However, I do think it satisfies the basic principles of a good tossup. For those who’ve read the novel, they very well might be familiar with its individual sections and be able to buzz relatively early. If not, they might at least be familiar with them and start narrowing down until another clue triggers their memory. For those with more superficial knowledge, they might be able to buzz at “Grand Inquisitor” or if not then, at Zosima. The tossup quickly moves onto even more well known clues from there, and by the end, even the most inexperienced team should have an excellent expectation of being able to get the tossup or at least guess the correct answer. We’ve done this by relating one of the central themes of the novel, thereby teaching something with our tossup, and by telling a story that communicates that theme in a simple but effective manner. There’s no reason that a player who knows nothing about The Brothers Karamazov, other than it was written by Dostoyevsky, could not do this. I’d estimate that this would take a player starting from that level about 30 minutes of work, and after doing this for one or two packets, that time could be cut in half or even better. I understand that 30 minutes sounds like a long time for one tossup, but time spent formulating good question writing habits early on will help you produce better questions more efficiently as your playing and practice time progress.

These rules and suggestions apply in the same way for plays, short stories, and essays. Poems are slightly different, but if you try to think of lines from a poem as characters from a novel, you shouldn’t have any problems. Just put the best-known lines of a poem at the end of a tossup, as you would the best-known characters of a novel. You want to do your research with poems as well. Try to find a source that explains the basic themes of the poem, any literary or mythological allusions, and personal events in the poet’s life that are being referenced. You can often do this by reading the poem’s footnotes should you find it in an anthology, but there are numerous online sources as well.

I’ll deconstruct a tossup on Shelley’s “Adonais” in explaining these concepts”

It is prefaced with a quote placing Venus as both Hesperus, the evening star, and the morning star – a quote by Plato. The thirty-sixth stanza makes an allusion to Leigh Hunt’s mentoring, and the forty-sixth stanza makes reference to Chatterton, Sidney, and Lucan in echoing the poem’s intent. Its fifty-fifth and final stanza ends with the claim that the soul of the title character, “like a star, / Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.” Written in 1821, the year of its subject’s death, FTP, name this poem by Percy Shelley, an elegy on the death of John Keats.
Answer: “Adonais”

Now the leadin is probably too obscure, as even those with a strong working knowledge of the elegy might not remember the preface quote. It’s not awful, but the tossup might have been better served by a more obscure discussion of one of the poem’s stanzas, as the successive clues go on to do. The next clues are solid ones, with the Leigh Hunt clue narrowing it down to Romantic poetry (for those with good knowledge of the subject matter and even something about Keats if they know a bit more), and the next clue references other figures who were poets and who died young. This last fact is not made overt, but the theme of the poem comes through a bit more (Upon reflection the Leigh Hunt and Chatterton et al clues should probably be reversed). The next clue indicates that this is a 55-stanza poem, which should help a lot of people, and then goes on to mention a title character and quote possibly the most famous line from the poem. At this point, we might be guessing that this is some form of elegy, just from the tone of the clues, even if we’ve never heard of any of these names. The next clue almost definitively makes this a Romantic poem (by giving us the date) and for those who know nothing of the poem, but know something of Keats, it might clearly identify him as the subject. Finally we end with the giveaway, which gives all the remaining pieces of relevant information. At each point, this tossup is moving toward something more concrete and again, each clue in the middle is linked to the one that precedes it.

Literature Tossups (Authors)

Picking the Answer: I should note that tossups in this category will fall under the category of “Biography,” on which many tournaments will place some sort of restriction, including in the Literature category. Many of the rules I outlined above would hold here as well, however you have slightly (and I want to emphasize that the difference is small) more freedom in writing a tossup to which the answer is a literary figure. The reason being that tossups on individuals can be gotten without necessarily knowing anything about what they wrote. A good example would be the Marquis de Sade. Let’s look at two possible giveaways for a tossup on Sade:

FTP, name this author of such ribald works as Justine

FTP, identify this 18th-century French writer, whose tales of criminal behavior and sexual deviance are associated with his name.

You can see why more people would be able to get this tossup from the second giveaway, rather than the first, which mentions the author’s most famous work. Having said this, you still want to keep the majority of tossups you write on authors on people who players can answer when presented with the title(s) of their most famous work(s). At the same time, if a person has one really well-known work but nothing else, I would recommend that you not write a tossup on that person. This is the reason, why writing a tossup on Dracula would be preferable to writing a tossup on Bram Stoker (for a novice tournament), leaving discussions about the relative importance of Lair of the White Worm aside.

So, now that we’ve established a couple of basic rules, how do we go about determining what writers would be acceptable for our targeted level of difficulty. I think the simplest answer would be can I name more than one thing written by this person without consulting a reference source. If the answer is yes, then it’s probably a safe bet. However, to further protect from our individual preferences creeping in, check to see if one or more of your teammates could also name more than one thing written by your choice. This easy test would prevent me from writing a tossup on say Jorge Amado for a tournament on the lower bounds of difficulty.

So, let’s move on to constructing a tossup on an author. I’ll pick Henry James, cause he’s also one of my favorites and more importantly, he should pass the test I’ve listed above for almost all teams.

The Giveaway: Now this should be relatively straightforward. Remember, we want to give as much information as possible here to make the tossup gettable as possible without being condescending. So, we should try and think of what works of James we could name without looking him up somewhere. Let’s see, Portrait of a Lady pops to mind as do Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw. Sure there are plenty of others, but these ones seem likely to be familiar to more than just us James fans. Thus, our giveaway should probably include some or all of these works, and there are many ways to do this. Here are some examples:

FTP, name this expatriate American author of Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady.

FTP, name this man who wrote of the title coquette in Daisy Miller and of Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady.

FTP, name this man whose novellas include The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller and whose novels include Portrait of a Lady.

So, we have three and there are many more we could construct, though we might have to branch out a little in terms of what works we mention.

The Middle: I think the most important part of this category, Authors, is choosing what kind of tossup we want to write, and this is will help us formulate the middle. Now when I say what kind of tossup, I should probably establish a few failsafe templates that will always work and allow you some creativity.

The most basic, and also most boring, tossup would be an author-works one, which boils down to listing a catalog of the author’s works from least to most well-known. I find these tossups uninspired and just plain dull, but in a time crunch they’ll probably pass the bare minimum standard for an acceptable tossup. Also, there’s nothing inherently wrong with writing this type of tossup, as it can often be done by adhering to the strictest guidelines of pyramidality. However, if not written carefully they will often solely reward list knowledge, which is a bad thing, and in a quizbowl aesthetic sense (whatever that is) they’re not very pleasing to look at or listen to. I’ll write a very rudimentary type of this tossup and then show you how we can flesh it out to provide some interest.

The first step would be getting a list of James’s works, which can easily be done by consulting one of many book or online sources. Once we have a list, then we might want to just read a couple of capsule biographies of James to get a sense of what works seem more important than others. This will help us establish the order that we choose to mention the works. After doing some reading, we would probably learn that his late novels - The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl – are considered some of his best. So we definitely want to put those closer to the end. We might also come across some other titles that trigger our recognition or seem distinctive for James. Examples of this might be novels with geographic names like The American and The Bostonians. So we might not want to put those early on either, but perhaps before the late novels. Now at this point, if you don’t know much about Henry James, the rest of the tossup becomes a bit of a crapshoot, you should be able to write a solid second half, but might guess wrong about what’s better known in your first half. That’s ok, as mistakes of this kind can and should be remedied by the tournament editor. If you’ve put in the effort, he or she can with some simple tightening rearrange your clues to make them pyramidal.

Among his shorter novels are The Sacred Fount and The Spoils of Poynton. This followed a period that included such works as The Tragic Muse and The Princess Casamassima. By then, he had already achieved fame for The American and The Bostonians, which never reached the critical acclaim of his late trio The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove, and The Ambassadors. FTP, name this expatriate American author of Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady.

So we have a barely, and I want to emphasize barely, passable tossup. You can also see why this is kind of dull. It reads like a boring blog – “On Monday I did this, on Tuesday this, on Wednesday . . .” In addition, this rewards straight up list memorization and as a result is far from an ideal tossup and may very well be buzzed on too early by too many people.

The trick then is to figure out what we can do with this title information that we’ve gleaned from some cursory research. There’s usually a simple answer to this in the case of most authors. Many players may be familiar with the lesser output of James, i.e. The Sacred Fount and The Spoils of Poynton, or more specifically they can make the basic connection that a novel such as the The Sacred Fount exists and that it was written by Henry James. However, those very same players, with the exception of James experts, are much less likely to have any working knowledge of the The Sacred Fount other than the name of its author. So, knowing this fact we can modify our tossups by removing most of the early titles and replacing them with plot information from the corresponding novels. Note that in this case we wouldn’t have to spend large chunks of time reading up on the minor characters and plot points of minor Henry James novels, as the basics would suffice for the purposes of our tossup. Doing this work would allow us to rework the above tossup as follows:

One minor novel by this author features his only first-person narration and is bookended by the narrator’s impression of and discussion with Mrs. Briss. Another minor novel by him has a title that refers to the inheritance of Mrs. Gereth. Yet another focuses on the artistic aspirations of Nick Dormer and Miriam Rooth, while a fourth features Christina Light as the titular Princess Casamassima. In addition to writing, The Sacred Fount, The Spoils of Poynton, and The Tragic Muse, this man also wrote of Chrisotpher Newman in his novel The American. FTP, name this expatriate American author whose other novels include The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors, Daisy Miller, and Portrait of a Lady.
Answer: Henry James

So, we can see that the latter half of this tossup still rewards list knowledge to a fair extent, but at least it does so in a pyramidal fashion. The earlier clues, however, have been fattened up. All we’ve done is to mention the most famous characters or plot details of the minor novels without mentioning the novels themselves. This tossup is an improvement, but still not ideal for a couple of reasons. First, The first three-four sentences are of somewhat similar difficulty level as they don’t move from easy to hard and just stay at somewhat hard until there is mention of Christina Light and the first actual title. The first problem leads to the second, mainly that since there is not a smooth transition from obscure to well-known, this tossup could lead to a buzzer race after the mention of some titles because of the sudden change in difficulty. I’m not convinced that this is the case but it has the potential to be, so we probably need to work on the tossup a little more. A simple solution would be to keep the format of our newly modified tossup but amend the choices we made about which novels to include. What I mean is that our plot and character descriptions that begin the tossup could be about middle of the road James novels (such as Roderick Hudson, Washington Square, The Bostonians), move on to the titles of some minor novels, and then finish off with the best-known works. For example:

The title character of one of this man’s novels is attracted to both Miss Blanchard and Miss Garland but dies alone and poor in Switzerland. In another of this author’s novels the main character also ends up alone despite the scheming of her Aunt Penniman. A third novel of his ends with an unhappily accepted marriage proposal, between Verena Tarrant and Basil Ransom, The latter two novels were not revised for the New York Editions of this his works unlike The Spoils of Poynton or The Tragic Muse or the first of the novels mentioned previously, Roderick Hudson. FTP, name this American author whose other novels include the aforementioned Washington Square and The Bostonians as well as The Ambassadors and Portrait of a Lady.
Answer: Henry James

So, I think we’ve made a couple of changes to improve the tossup. First, we’ve made this more gettable to experts by using novels in the lead-in that are more likely to have been read rather than minor works like The Spoils of Poynton and The Tragic Muse. In the third sentence we’ve mentioned main characters (Verena Tarrant and Basil Ransom) as opposed to second tier characters from Roderick Hudson and Washington Square (though Miss Penniman might be well known to circuit veterans by now) who came earlier. The fact that James revised his novels for New York Editions is probably more well known to his fans and less to someone who is simply memorizing titles, even minor ones, hence the mention of those editions before dropping minor titles. The final clues might read a bit choppily because of the desire to mention the titles of the three novels we’ve described in the tossup’s opening, but it’s probably fine as is and could be tweaked a little if needed. In the end, I think we have created a Henry James tossup that does a solid job of testing Henry James knowledge and moves in a pyramidal manner.

To review, when writing middle sections about authors, it might be permissible to write a middle solely using works moving from most to least obscure but that is unnecessary, unlikely to teach you anything (other than the names of some boring titles), and will often do a piss-poor job of differentiating between knowledge levels of many good players. So, if you want to write a tossup to which an author is the answer, try and flesh out some of those works. A good way is to start with plot descriptions from minor works, but probably the best way is to start out with minor stuff from major works which are more likely to have been encountered and read by your audience. This last method will ensure that the first three to four lines of your tossup can actually be buzzed on and are actually progressing down the pyramid as opposed to staying at the same level before a difficulty cliff appears.

The Leadin: What I said earlier about the leadin for tossups on works is equally applicable for leadins to author tossups. You can stick with an even more obscure plot detail than what goes on in the middle, or you can mention an interesting anecdote about the author or about the novel, which begins the middle.

For example:

Lyndall Gordon wrote about the “Private Life” of this author and Van Wyck Brooks wrote of his “Pilgrimmage.”

His young cousin Minny Temple was the basis for many of his female characters.

He was befriended by Rupert Brooke for whose posthumous Letters from America he wrote the preface.

Anyway, here’s a look at a possible tossup based on what we’ve built so far:

His young cousin Minny Temple was the basis for many of his female characters but not any in one of his novels in which the title character is attracted to both Miss Blanchard and Miss Garland but dies alone and poor in Switzerland. In another of this author’s novels the main character also ends up alone despite the scheming of her Aunt Penniman. A third novel of his ends with an unhappily accepted marriage proposal, between Verena Tarrant and Basil Ransom, The latter two novels were not revised for the New York Editions of this his works unlike The Spoils of Poynton or The Tragic Muse or the first of the novels mentioned previously, Roderick Hudson. FTP, name this American author whose other novels include the aforementioned Washington Square and The Bostonians as well as The Ambassadors and Portrait of a Lady.
Answer: Henry James

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Re: A (Literature) Question Writing Guideline

Post by theMoMA »

Wow, comprehensive indeed. I haven't been through it all yet, but it looks massively helpful for anyone who takes the time to read it. I hope just you didn't have to coopt a poor young woman into learning Latin and Greek to write it.
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Re: A (Literature) Question Writing Guideline

Post by stevebahnaman »

Great thoughts here.

I will take my standard and rather old-fashioned issue that if everyone abides by rules 2 and 3 for the entirety of the life of a tournament, certain subjects will randomly never come up (especially in lower-numbered categories like RMP and art) and this is not necessarily a good thing.

That said, these are probably good guidelines for inexperienced writers.
Steve Bahnaman, Campbell University
NC Wesleyan College, Librarian and Quiz Bowl Advisor/Coach 2009-2011
Emory Academic Team, 1999-2004
Pretty trashy