This beginning lesson introduces how tossups are structured and explains some basic quizbowl terminology used in the later lessons on question writing. It’s a great general introduction to the game of quizbowl, not just for beginning writers!


A tossup question is meant to determine which player knows the most about the subject at hand. The main difference between a quizbowl tossup and other forms of trivia questions is the ability to buzz in and interrupt the moderator with an answer before the question has been fully read. As a result, tossups must be crafted in what is called pyramidal order, with clues getting progressively easier as the tossup goes on. In theory, this allows a player who knows a lot about the subject to buzz in before a player who knows less. We discuss pyramidality more in a later essay.

Every tossup has three types of clues: the lead-in, middle clues, and the giveaway. Many question writers prefer to write their tossup “backwards,” starting with the giveaway and ending with a lead-in, and that’s how this lesson will proceed as well.


The very last sentence of the tossup is the giveaway, and it needs to do exactly that — give the answer away. The giveaway tells the players not just the easiest possible clue, but the *defining characteristic* of the answer.

Example of a sub-par giveaway: For 10 points, name this World War II battle where the USS Arizona was sunk.

The sinking of the USS Arizona is definitely a good clue to use to hint at Pearl Harbor, but isn’t the *defining characteristic* of Pearl Harbor and therefore shouldn’t be the giveaway.

Better giveaway: For 10 points, name this 1941 battle, a Japanese sneak attack on a Hawaiian naval base that brought the US into World War II.

Generally speaking, giveaways should be “definitional,” whereas the other clues are “descriptive.” Regular clues talk about the subject, while the giveaway tells you what the subject is.  The sub-par giveaway uses a good descriptive clue; that clue should go earlier in the question. The better giveaway tells you not just the most famous fact about Pearl Harbor, but the description that people give when asked “What was the attack on Pearl Harbor?”


Prior to the giveaway, we have a number of middle clues in the body of the tossup. This is the meat of a question, as these clues can be descriptive and harder. Many of the lessons to be learned regarding question writing deal with choosing good body clues and implementing them well; we go into those in more detail in other essays.


The first clue in a tossup is called the lead-in. It’s a clue like the others, but it has added importance due to being the first clue. This clue can be descriptive, but it must be 100% specific to the answer; no vagueness can be tolerated, or else a player could successfully protest that their answer was also correct. Later clues should strive for uniqueness as well, but it’s not as strict of a requirement; we’ll come back to this point in a later essay.

Bad lead-in: “The Seneca Falls Convention featured this speaker.”
This fact describes something important about the answer, but there are three issues here. First, the Seneca Falls Convention is a very important topic, such that it’s far too easy of a clue to be the lead-in clue for any of the possible answers to this question.

Second, ignoring the “it’s too early” concern, it’s not phrased well for a lead-in. A tossup that instead begins “This speaker was featured at the Seneca Falls Convention” lets the players know what the question is looking for immediately. Tossups don’t always have to start with “This [whatever]”, but it should be very close to the start.

The most crucial issue, though, is the fact that it’s non-specific. The phrase “featuring a speaker” is subject to debate. You could argue that Lucretia Mott or Elizabeth Cady Stanton (or someone else!) was “featured” to speak there. This is the biggest problem for this clue; it’s downright fatal to a lead-in, and seriously problematic for a middle clue. Middle clues should make every effort to be specific as well; if I wanted to tell the player “this person spoke at Seneca Falls,” I should do so in a helpfully specific way. Probably the best way is describing what that person talked about; that is, after all, what they were there to do! We discuss how to make good clues in a later essay.


To recap this lesson: tossups present a series of clues in pyramidal order, from hardest to easiest. When writing, the lead-in clue must be unique and you should write an easy, definitional giveaway.