Houghton Mifflin HarcourtHistory Channel

This lesson discusses what it means for a tossup to be pyramidal and dissects an example tossup.


The word pyramidal is used to invoke the mental image of a pyramid to represent the number of people who can buzz in during the tossup. The lead-in is compared to the capstone, and the giveaway is compared to the base. “More bricks at a lower level of the pyramid” serves as a metaphor for “more people knowing the clue.” You can imagine a player studying; by learning more about a subject, they “climb” the pyramid for that subject. The more you know, the earlier you’ll buzz, so you reside at a higher level on the pyramid. Each step down from the top has incrementally more bricks, as incrementally more people at that level know that much about the subject. At the bottom, the pyramid is supported by the base, and the tossup is supported by the giveaway.

I view reading a tossup out loud as similar to running down the side of the pyramid from the top to the bottom. Early on, I want to give clues that will help the people at the very top; I want those who have studied intensely to buzz in on the first clue. At the next level down, the players here have studied a little less, so I provide a clue that’s a little easier. This continues until I reach the bottom of the pyramid, where I reach people who have only heard of the answer before; I give it away by providing the definitional clue, as described in an earlier essay.

Writing a good tossup is about understanding three things about how that run progresses.

  1. Never run uphill. The pyramid slopes down, picking up more players who should know those clues as it goes, so the clues should be put in order from hardest to easiest.
  2. Keep running; do not pause at a level. If you stand at the top and give three clues that only that the very best players are likely to know, you waste the time of everyone below you. Give one clue, then move on to an easier clue.
  3. Most importantly, pace yourself; do not sprint past a level. If you jump past a level without giving a clue there, the next clue may not allow for enough differentiation. This is, as a general rule, sub-optimal; it’s usually called a “buzzer cliff,” as the running slope of the pyramid is replaced with a cliff-style fall.

Each tossup is its own pyramid, and a series of 6 to 10 clues can’t differentiate individually between all of the thousands of players nationwide at once. Instead, for every tossup, you should be able to tell what kind of player will be able to buzz at each clue. Here’s an example tossup that I wrote for SCOP Novice 5, an entry-level high school tournament from two years ago. I’ve labeled what I feel are the 10 clues in this tossup; it’s surely not the only way to label them, but it’s what we’re doing here.

This man stabbed Henry Rathbone to begin his escape. (I) Boarding house owner Mary Surratt (II) was one of four people hanged for conspiring with this man (III), who was shot and killed in a burning barn (IV). Samuel Mudd was arrested for treating this man’s leg (V), which was broken after he fell to the stage of Ford’s Theater (VI), shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” (VII) For 10 points, name this actor and Confederate (VIII) supporter who, on April 14th, 1865, (IX) shot and killed Abraham Lincoln. (X)
Answer: John Wilkes Booth

If you buzz at clue I, you remember one of the names of the witnesses of the assassination, a very minor detail.

At clue II, you remember the name of one of the conspirators; her role was more significant than Rathbone’s, so she’s an easier clue.

Clue III tells you that four people were hanged for conspiring with Booth, which provides helpful context for the name “Mary Surratt” if you thought it sounded familiar. A lot of the time, we want to give context, then the name, so this is somewhat unusual. It does happen occasionally, often with deep clues on very famous answer lines.

Clue IV tells you how Booth died, which is more famous than his conspirators.

Clues V and VI are interesting. The name “Samuel Mudd” is, in my mind, a little bit harder than “shot and killed in a burning barn.” When I wrote this, though, I didn’t think about “Samuel Mudd” as the clue. I also didn’t think about “Samuel Mudd was arrested for helping this man’s injury,” which is about equal in difficulty to “shot and killed in a burning barn.” (After all, they’re part of the same story; he was hiding in the barn tending to his leg.) I picked “Samuel Mudd was arrested for treating this man’s leg, which was broken after he fell to the stage of Ford’s Theater.” I decided that an extra clue at the same level as how Booth died was worth it, given that it let me transition cleanly into the next clue about how the leg was broken, which is a good next step down in difficulty. I remember struggling with this question for a while trying to get a wording I liked there; this was a compromise that allowed me room for contextual things like “Boarding house owner” early on. Long story short, Clue V is not the perfect way to do this tossup, but it’s certainly a good way.

Clue VII is a great example of a good clue badly placed. Nobody who knows the phrase that Booth yelled can buzz in there, because they all buzzed at Ford’s Theater (an easier clue) or earlier. This four-word phrase is tacked on in a way to get an extra clue there, but the clue isn’t helpful where it is. A better, though grammatically taxing, way would have been “after he fell, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!”, to the stage of Ford’s Theater.” I think I wanted to avoid that weird sentence; it would have had four commas in it. You should strive to avoid situations like Clue VII. Either put those four words in their correct slot or, if you can’t fit them in for English’s sake, cut them and pick a different clue.

Moving on to the giveaway. If you were unable to buzz through Clue VII, but you were listening, you only know that we’re looking for some sort of villain in an English speaking country in a timeframe that includes guns and execution by hanging. Clue VIII tells you “OK, this is circa the American Civil War;” if you were thinking Booth but were holding off because you didn’t know the setting, you can buzz now. Clue IX gives you the date as another last gasp at figuring this out before we say “killed Lincoln.” In a regular difficulty high school set, you do not always need both clues VIII and IX; you might want to use that space on a harder lead-in instead. Clue X is the definitional giveaway, and we’re done.


In my estimation, clues I, II, and III are accessible only to Lincoln buffs and people who have studied Booth for quizbowl. I can’t expect a history class to lecture about those facts. Clues IV and V are accessible to all of the above and those who have heard Booth’s story in detail, more probably in class than the earlier clues. Clues VI and VII are accessible to all of the above and those who have heard Lincoln’s assassination story, which is even more likely to come up in class or outside of class. Clues VIII, IX, and X add context and give it away; by the end, if you know who Booth is, you can buzz.

This tossup provides opportunities for all levels in its audience; a tossup written for a harder tournament should include harder clues, preferably by expanding the length of the question rather than by removing middle or later clues. Pyramidality allows the same tossup to be enjoyed by players at all levels, and the feeling of “I buzzed at the giveaway this time, and I can learn from the clues here to buzz before the giveaway next time!” is what often hooks new players on the game.