Pyramidality is the concept that tossups consist of multiple clues arranged in descending order of difficulty, that is, with the hardest information first and the easiest at the end.
The purpose of pyramidality is to reward deeper knowledge more: a player who knows harder clues about a topic will answer a pyramidal question before a player who knows only easier clues. By applying this idea to many clues (generally five or more, depending on question length), a single question can be effectively targeted at a wide variety of player ability levels, rewarding many levels of knowledge and minimizing buzzer races.
There is often guesswork involved in determining which clues are most and least likely to be known, and the "right clue order" may vary significantly for different people. Experienced writers and editors generally do the best they can, and the results may or may not be perfect.
Pyramidality is the defining characteristic of pyramidal quizbowl and is considered the most important determination of tossup quality. NAQT, PACE, ACF, NHBB, and tournaments considered part of the circuit use pyramidal tossups.
Tossups that have only a single clue, or multiple clues arranged without the goal of descending difficulty, are called "non-pyramidal".
Tossups that are supposed to be pyramidal but have one or more badly misplaced clues are called "anti-pyramidal". This term is usually used for mistakes; questions that were never supposed to be pyramidal in the first place are "non-pyramidal".
Transparency can contribute to anti-pyramidality by suggesting more about the answer than is explicitly stated in the question.
Internal pyramidality is the idea that within a clue, the sentence structure should be arranged pyramidally; that is, with the hardest information first and the easiest last. An internally pyramidal clue will generally state descriptions before titles and more obscure names before more famous names. For instance,
- Characters like Charles Bon and Thomas Sutpen appear in this author's novel Absalom! Absalom.
is an internally pyramidal clue. The same information could be rentered antipyramidally as
- Absalom! Absalom! by this author features characters like Thomas Sutpen and Charles Bon.
In the first example, less well-known obscure characters like Charles Bon are stated before better-known characters like Thomas Sutpen, and the title (which is better known than either character name) comes last. In the second example, the easiest information (the title) comes first and the character names come second and third (with the more obscure character's name being the latter).
Some critics complain that pyramidal questions are excessively long. While "excess" is subjective, pyramidal questions need not be particularly long.
Some inexperienced writers write as if long tossups are necessarily pyramidal. They are not.
Pyramidality as a component of high-quality quizbowl
Pyramidality is a critical component of quality quizbowl, but only one component. Good questions are not only pyramidal but also well-written in other ways (spelling and grammar, factual accuracy, the absence of quizbowlese, etc.), and quality quizbowl also entails high standards in bonus writing, difficulty control, tournament formats, and other areas.