Trivia is an integral part of many forms of puzzling. Crosswords involve a fair amount of trivia, as do many clued puzzles. Themed puzzles — particularly those that don’t give you a word list — also require some solid trivia knowledge. Brain teasers, riddles, escape rooms… all can involve trivia on some level.
But what do we mean when we say trivia? As it turns out, not everyone agrees.
Merriam-Webster defines trivia as “unimportant matters, trivial facts or details,” then acknowledges the secondary meaning “a quizzing game involving obscure facts,” a definition which didn’t come around until the 1960s.
That first definition certainly fits the bill in many trivia books and games. They’ll claim any random fact as trivia, obscure or otherwise.
But I don’t think obscurity defines trivia. After all, plenty of great evenings of bar trivia don’t require obscure topics or the minutiae of various subjects; they simply require a wide swathe of general knowledge and a decent grasp of recent news and pop culture.
[Image courtesy of The New 60 comic.]
The first time I gave serious thought to the question “what is trivia?” occurred years ago when I started working on a movies and television-themed subscription crossword book for the folks at Penny Press. In addition to creating puzzles centered around a central theme for the issue — soap operas, Star Wars, animal movies, etc. — I also created lists of trivia questions to be included in the book.
I would compile a list of 25 or 30 trivia questions — brief enough to read along the bottom of the page, but hopefully interesting enough to be worth the solver’s attention — and sent them off for consideration.
That’s when Editorial Manager Warren Rivers introduced me to his definition of trivia:
What a lot of people call “trivia” strike me as things one should or could have learned in school. Those are things I don’t consider trivia. Trivia to me are the things that I wouldn’t expect a person to know, or better yet includes a “twist” or an element of surprise.
And I think that’s a key element in good trivia: that interesting twist or surprise. It’s not just informational recall. There’s something more there, whether it’s in the answer or the clever construction of the question.
But there are plenty of knowledgeable trivia enthusiasts out there, and I wanted their input as well.
One of the first people I asked was Stella Zawistowski, a crossword constructor, powerlifter, and trivia supplier for Geeks Who Drink, who clearly has one of the coolest resumes in the world.
I think what you are asking me is, “what is GOOD trivia”?
Good trivia accomplishes one of two things: teaches people something they don’t know and will find interesting, or nudges them to realize they know more than they think. This means that what constitutes good trivia is highly audience dependent. The astronomy question that is too easy to be interesting to a group of JPL employees could be fascinating to a general audience. Conversely, a general-audience question about Handel’s “Messiah” could be very boring to a group of classical music experts.
IMO one of the best trivia questions I’ve ever written is “The hand-cut and -sewn lace of this instantly famous wedding gown includes four types of plants: roses, shamrocks, daffodils, and what?”
The reason I think it’s good is that it fits into the “nudge people to realize they know more than they think” category. On its surface, this is a fashion question. How on earth is one supposed to know a detail as tiny as what flowers were embroidered on the lace of somebody’s wedding gown?
But if you think a little more carefully, you’ll see that the bride is marrying a British royal, and if you know that the three plants mentioned in the question — rose, shamrock, and daffodil — represent England, (Northern) Ireland, and Wales, respectively, you then realize: Oh, she’s representing the four UK countries, and the one that’s missing is Scotland. So the answer is the thistle, the national flower of Scotland.
I very carefully chose which one of those I left out, too! If you give shamrock, daffodil, and thistle, rose is incredibly easy, easier than I wanted the question to be. Take out shamrock, and I think it’s a bit harder to realize that the three remaining flowers are national symbols. Take out daffodil, and the solver unfairly has to choose between daffodil and leek, the latter of which is also a botanical national symbol of Wales. I don’t know that anybody ever wanted leeks on her wedding gown, but I didn’t want anyone to get the question wrong simply because they went with the wrong national symbol.
[Image courtesy of AmazingSuperPowers.]
Stella gets into a very important aspect of quality trivia that you don’t immediately consider: the phrasing and construction of the question.
Sure, the answer is the payoff, but the question is how you get there. The question is often the source of the a-ha! moment we so desire.
According to the crew at Geeks Who Drink, “the usual job of the conscientious quiz-writer is to start with a kernel of something you don’t know, and stir in just the right mix of hints and parallels to lead you to the correct answer (yes, no matter what it feels like, we DO want you to get most of them right).”
And that can take time. Thorsten A. Integrity, commissioner of the invite-only Learned League trivia website, can spend up to 30 minutes on each of the six trivia questions featured in a given day of trivia during one of the four seasonal competitions.
He usually starts with an interesting tidbit from a reference book and builds the question out from there. He fact-checks everything and has his questions professionally copyedited.
That effort creates a conversation in the brain. You ask yourself about different aspects. You rule things out, as Stella shows in her example. A good trivia question gives you enough to get you started and JUST enough to eliminate some false paths. (Although there’s nothing wrong with a tricky trivia question that leads you down the incorrect path a little bit.)
On trivia nights, or in trivia games, that conversation can quickly become fun and engrossing. As Ken Jennings once said of trivia, “It can lubricate social interaction. I like to see it as a way to build bridges.”
Are you a trivia fan, fellow puzzlers? Let us know your favorite trivia questions and bits of trivia below. We’d love to hear from you! (We could even compile them into a future blog post!)
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