The Domino Effect in Fiction

Domino is a game in which players place small rectangular blocks called dominoes (also known as bones, pieces, men, or cards) so that they line up with each other, like tiles on a tile board. Each domino has a unique design, with one side bearing a pattern of dots or spots called pips. The other side of the domino is blank or identically patterned. Dominoes are commonly used to play games of chance, strategy, and luck, but they can also be used for educational purposes to teach basic arithmetic skills.

The game of domino first arrived in Britain in the 18th Century from France, where it had become a fad. Originally, it was played with one hand but as the set became larger and more complex, the rules of play evolved into a variety of formats. Today, there are more than a dozen different types of dominoes that can be played with either one hand or two. Many of these games focus on emptying one’s own hand while blocking opponents, while others use a number system based on the pips to score points. Others are purely entertaining and don’t require any scorekeeping at all.

A key factor in domino is that each domino has a high center of gravity, meaning that the little block only needs to be slightly tipped forward to trigger its effect. Once that happens, gravity takes over and pulls the domino to the ground. This is why it only takes one tiny push to knock over an entire row of dominoes, which can then trigger the next domino and so on and so forth. In a 1983 study, University of British Columbia physicist Lorne Whitehead demonstrated this physics principle using a 13-domino chain. The first domino was only 5 millimeters tall and a single-millimeter thick, so it needed to be placed with tweezers; however, the 13th domino was more than three feet tall and weighed over 100 pounds.

This same principle can be applied to the way in which we think about plot in fiction. Whether you write off the cuff or compose your manuscript with a detailed outline, plotting a novel comes down to one simple question: What happens next? Considering the Domino Effect in your plotting can help you answer that question in a more compelling manner.

As you read through these tips, think about the ways in which a Domino Effect can be applied to each scene in your story. You can also apply this concept to nonfiction writing, in which a scene domino might be each point that illustrates a theme or statement. Consider how putting these scene dominoes in order helps move the story forward and gives it structure.