Pyramidal Questions

Unique about modern quizbowl is the use of pyramidal tossups. Pyramidal tossups are paragraph-length questions filled with about a dozen uniquely-identifyingacademic clues about the answer. Clues are arranged in order, with harder clues being placed before easier clues. This way, players who are more knowledgeable about the answer are given the opportunity to have uncontested buzzes very early in a question. Pyramidal questions are a critical factor in reducing the impact of buzzer speed and buzzer races in quizbowl.

In a standard set of quizbowl questions, questions are dispersed amongst individual packets with regular frequency in unequal distributions. In other words, some subjects appears more frequently than other subjects, but the amount of any given subject is the same in each packet. A standard question distribution looks something like the list below. In this notation, x/y of a subject means there are x tossups on that subject in each packet, and y bonuses. Subjects with fractional numbers are still full questions – they just appear once every couple of rounds.

4/4 Literature (1.5/1.5 American, 1/1 British, 1/1 European, 0.5/0.5 World)
4/4 History (2/2 American, 1/1 European, 1/1 World)
4/4 Science (1/1 Biology, 1/1 Chemistry, 1/1 Physics, 0.5/0.5 Maths, 0.5/0.5 Other Science)
3/3 Fine Arts (1/1 Painting, 1/1 Classical Music, 1/1 Other Arts)
1/1 Religion (0.5/0.5 Judeo-Christian, 0.5/0.5 Other Religion)
1/1 Mythology (0.5/0.5 Greco-Roman, 0.5/0.5 Other Mythology)
1/1 Thought (philosophy and social science)
1/1 Geography (American, European, and world)
1/1 Civics and Current Events

Not every set has the same distribution – in particular, NAQT has a very specific and detailed distribution for each of their sets. Some common distribution changes include:

  • a pop culture (commonly called “trash”) category for music, movies, video games, etc.
  • tweaking the numbers around: very few sets have true 2/2 American history, and most sets reduce fine arts to 2.5/2.5, with other arts getting the boot
  • combining religion and mythology into an overlapping “belief” category
  • grouping geography with current events
  • having questions on religious or mythological literature (e.g. the Iliad or the Mahabharata) show up as either literature, religion, or mythology

Below, we have gathered a small number of pyramidal tossups of each subject in varying levels of difficulty. For more questions to practice and study on, check out the literally tens of thousands of questions available for free at

Literature | History | Science | Mathematics
Fine Arts | Religion | Mythology | Philosophy | Geography


EASY: SCOP Novice 2013 – Round 2

This author wrote about the smuggler Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not. “The American” pressures Jig into getting an abortion in this man’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” His collection In Our Time includes many short stories about Nick Adams, and a novella by this man sees Santiago struggle with a giant marlin. For 10 points, identify this American author of A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea.
ANSWER: Ernest Hemingway

MEDIUM: BELLOCO 2014 – Round 1

One character in this novel is renamed Isaac after converting to Christianity and is sent to a teachers’ college in Umuru. In this novel, Ekwefi follows Chielo after Chielo tells her that Agbala wants to see her daughter, Ezinma. The protagonist’s gun explodes during Ezeuda’s funeral, and he is exiled to Mbanta. After a feast of the locust swarm, the protagonist kills his adopted son, Ikemefuna. This novel ends with Obierika asking the District Commissioner to cut down the protagonist’s body after he had hanged himself after killing a messenger sent to break up a town meeting. For 10 points, name this novel by Chinua Achebe following Okonkwo and his village during British colonization.
ANSWER: Things Fall Apart

HARD: Harvard Fall 2015 – Round 6

In one play by this author, a murderer lures killers to a pool in the radiant city with obscene pictures, then drowns them. In another, a pupil is asked to repeat “the roses of my grandmother are as yellow as my grandfather, who is Asiatic” in many languages, before her teacher kills her. Another work by this author of The Killer and The Lesson sees a couple set up the titular objects for invisible guests who listen to a mute speaker. In one of this author’s most famous plays, Daisy is on the verge of loving Berenger when she transforms into the title creature. For 10 points, name this Romanian-born absurdist French author who wrote The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros.
ANSWER: Eugène Ionesco

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