The Domino Effect


Dominoes are a fun way to pass the time, and there’s something fascinating about a line of hundreds or even thousands of dominoes that are carefully arranged and then tipped over with a single finger. It’s like watching a car crash or a rocket launch or a trip to the zoo unfold, but it’s even more impressive because you didn’t have to do any of the work—the whole thing happened all on its own, without you.

Dominoes, whose cousins are playing cards, date back to the 1300s and have been used in everything from professional domino games to creating elaborate and beautiful displays in restaurants and homes. The basic western set consists of 28 tiles, each bearing a number of dots (or pips) on one side and blank or identically patterned on the other. The pips originally represented the results of throwing two six-sided dice.

A player, in turn, places a domino on the table positioning it so that one of its ends matches one of the open ends of the layout; this is called “setting,” leading, or posing the first bone. The other player, in turn, extends the chain by playing a tile with a matching end to the existing layout. The chain grows in length until either one player can no longer play or the layout is blocked.

The most famous example of this phenomenon occurred in 1983 when University of British Columbia physicist Lorne Whitehead successfully knocked over a row of 13 dominos that were one-and-a-half times the size of the original dominos, setting off a chain reaction of dominoes about a quarter of their height. The entire display is captured on this YouTube video.

In the same way, a novel, no matter its genre or style, can be viewed as a series of scenes, or “dominoes,” that build on each other until the plot comes to a conclusion. Whether you’re a pantser who writes by the seat of your pants or use an outline or Scrivener to help you plan out your book, it’s important to consider the effect each scene has on the next scene.

If a scene doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, the subsequent scene may not be as effective or exciting. In writing, we call this a domino effect and it’s what makes good fiction great.

Using this concept as a tool for writing can be very helpful. I often encourage my clients to think of each scene in their book as a single domino—it can be a car crash or a rocket launch, but it’s all about the effect that it has on the others around it. This approach can help writers get to the heart of what really matters in their novels, which is a story that’s as compelling and interesting as a colorful domino layout.