Pyramidality

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Pyramidality is a concept in tossup-writing that states that clues in toss-up questions should be arranged in descending order of difficulty, with the hardest information first and the easiest at the end, after the "For 10 points." The hardest clue at the beginning of a tossup is generally called the leadin, while the easiest clue at the end is called the giveaway. Clues or tossups that do not fit the pyramidal model are termed anti-pyramidal.

Pyramidality is fundamental to the writing of good tossups that determine fairly which team knows more in a given game of quizbowl. NAQT, HSAPQ, PACE, ACF, and the National History Bowl all use pyramidal tossups.

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Anti-pyramidality

Anti-pyramidality usually stems from misplaced clues. A misplaced clue results when the author or editor places more well-known clues before lesser-known clues in a tossup, making the tossup anti-pyramidal. This could be due to lazy question writing or just a misunderstanding on the part of the question writer as to what is generally known about the topic.

For instance, a toss-up question that begins with "This author of The Great Gatsby..." as the lead-in and then continues for several more lines talking about other works is anti-pyramidal by having the most well-known clue about F. Scott Fitzgerald first. As a result, players who know more about F. Scott Fitzgerald have no better chance of getting such a toss-up than those who memorize well-known author-work associations.

Transparency and Anti-pyramidality

See article on Transparency

A common form of anti-pyramidality is transparency, which is the significant narrowing-down of the list of possible answers to a tossup based on non-clues such as pronouns and unspecific information.

For instance, a lead-in such as "This Empress of Russia..." dramatically narrows down the scope (but does not uniquely specify in itself) of what could be asked about in the question. In many bad quizbowl formats, this baits players into trying to win a buzzer race on the first clue while (in this example) punishing players who might actually know more about the multiple empresses of Russia.

Internal pyramidality

Internal pyramidality is the idea that within a clue, the sentence structure should be rewarded 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.

Example of an internally pyramidal clue

  • "Characters like Charles Bon and Thomas Sutpen appear in this author's Absalom! Absalom"

The same clue, rendered anti-pyramidally

  • "Absalom! Absalom! by this author features characters like Thomas Sutpen and Charles Bon."

Notice that in the first example, more obscure characters like Charles Bon are stated before less obscure characters like Thomas Sutpen, while the title comes last. The second example is completely anti-pyramidal, in that the most well-known information, the title Absalom! Absalom comes before Bon or Sutpen, which are given in the wrong order of notoriety.

The pyramidal fallacy

One of the primary misunderstandings by writers and defenders of subpar tournaments is the idea that pyramidality is a sufficient, rather than necessary, condition for good quizbowl. The fact that tossups are pyramidal implies nothing about whether they are difficulty-appropriate, free of quizbowlese, or well-distributed, and also says nothing about elements such as bonus structure and difficulty or tournament format. It is also apparent that many users of the "pyramidal fallacy" don't understand that "long tossups" are not necessarily "pyramidal tossups" unless they are written properly.