The Domino Effect in Writing

Domino is a set of small rectangular blocks, each either blank or bearing from one to six pips or dots, which are used for playing games in which players place them on end to form lines and angular patterns. The game is often used to illustrate the domino effect, which describes a sequence of events that begins with a single action and leads to much larger, and sometimes catastrophic, consequences.

If you’ve ever watched a domino show, where competitors set up hundreds or thousands of dominoes in a careful sequence and then topple them all with the simple nudge of one, you’ve probably marveled at how each domino is able to trigger such an impressive chain reaction. Physicist Stephen Morris explains that when you set a domino upright, it has potential energy based on its position. But as soon as you tip it over, that potential energy is converted to kinetic energy. The next domino in line then has the kinetic energy to knock over the first one, and so on. The sequence continues until all the dominoes have been tipped over.

The same principles can be applied to writing a story. Whether you write your manuscript off the cuff or use a tool like Scrivener to help you plot out the structure of your story, you must consider how each scene will affect the scene ahead of it. If your heroine uncovers a key clue in one scene, for example, and then the next scene has little impact on her progress toward her goal, something’s wrong with the pace of your narrative.

Just like the dominoes, your stories need to have the right balance of action and reaction. If the scenes in your story are too long (overly detailed or boring), they’ll lose reader interest. But if your scenes are too short, they won’t have enough logical impact on the plot point they mark.

Domino also has a lot to teach us about momentum. In the same way that a nerve impulse requires energy to redistribute ions and reset its resting state, a domino chain requires energy to continue to propagate along its axons. If any of the dominoes are removed, the pulse is halted until that domino is reset.

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