Write Like Dominoes

A domino is a small, rectangular wood or plastic block with dots (or numbers) resembling those on dice. It is usually used with a set of game rules that determine how it should be played.

A single domino may be ineffective on its own, but when several are arranged in a row, their combined effect is powerful. Dominoes can be a visual representation of how a novel or short story works: each scene in a plot is like a domino that must be pushed by the ones before it to create a chain reaction. Whether you write your manuscript from an outline or off the cuff, a clear picture of how your scenes relate to one another can help you craft a stronger, more compelling narrative.

The word domino derives from the Latin for “heavy”. In early use, it was also applied to a long hooded cloak worn with a mask during carnival season or at a masquerade. A more modern sense of the word has referred to an infatuation with power or authority.

While there are many different rules and formats for playing domino, most involve emptying a player’s hand while blocking the opponent’s play. Then the players score points based on the number of exposed ends of the dominoes in their hands. Blocking games include muggins, bergen and matador, while scoring games such as chicken foot and Mexican train have various formats.

The most impressive domino effects are created at professional shows, where a builder sets up thousands of dominoes in an intricate pattern, then nudges them with just a small amount of energy. A physics expert describes the process as the dominoes’ inertia colliding with the surface beneath them, which causes friction and releases some of that energy. “A tiny nudge is all it takes to set off a chain reaction,” the expert says.

As Hevesh works on her largest creations, which can take several nail-biting minutes to fall, she says that the most important physical phenomenon is gravity. This force pulls each domino toward Earth, causing it to crash into the next domino and launching a cascade of dominoes.

In the same way, a writer’s story is influenced by all the factors that came before it. For example, a character’s motivation for acting in a particular scene will influence how she acts in the following scene. Similarly, an event in the story’s past can affect how its characters react in the present.

When it comes to writing, the domino effect is especially helpful for those who work with an outline. When a scene’s impact on the story has been underestimated, an outline can provide a clearer picture of how it will change as you write. For pantsers, who don’t make detailed outlines of their work, the Domino Effect can help them weed out scenes that aren’t at the right angle or don’t have enough logical impact on those that come before them. For example, if a scene in a mystery shows the heroine uncovering a clue, but in the next scene she’s ignoring it, something needs to be fixed.