The Domino Effect in Writing


Domino is a small rectangular wood or plastic block that is used to play games. It has a printed or painted surface bearing identifying markings, known as pips, which are an arrangement of dots similar to those on dice. The other face of the domino is blank or slightly patterned to allow for differentiation from the identity-bearing side. The most common domino game is a basic blocking and scoring game for two to four players. The pips on each domino are arranged in pairs; a pair of dominoes is said to match when the total of their pips is equal. A player may only play a domino when it is adjacent to the matching pair and it has not already been played.

The most interesting and impressive domino constructions are built in front of a live audience in domino shows. These performers build dazzling and complex structures that involve hundreds or even thousands of individual dominoes set up in carefully ordered sequence, all toppling at the slightest touch. The domino effect is a metaphor for any situation or event that cascades in a rhythmic, predictable way.

We can use the domino effect in our writing to structure scenes and create story momentum. It’s important to have scenes that advance the plot and move the hero farther from or closer to a goal, but they must also be spaced correctly if the domino effect is going to work. Too long a scene and readers will get bored; too short and the tension is lost.

Whether you’re a pantser who writes off the cuff or use a detailed outline to guide your manuscript, it’s helpful to think of each scene as a domino. A domino has the power to tip over many other dominoes, and it’s a powerful analogy for how your novel should develop.

In Domino, the first domino to fall is usually a simple event that sets up the story’s main conflict or problem. Then, as each scene unfolds, it builds on that conflict or problem to eventually create the climactic moment where that conflict is resolved or solved.

This is the key to creating a believable and satisfying story. You want your reader to be completely absorbed in the flow of events and feel like they are being led by a steady hand. If the dominoes are falling too fast or in the wrong order, it will feel chaotic and disjointed.

A good way to test the pace of your story is to try out the Domino Effect. Set up a line of dominoes and start with the first one. Gently, ever so gently, touch the first domino with your finger and observe its reaction. Repeat this process several times, increasing the amount of force with each trial until you get the dominoes to fall the way you want them to. This will give you a sense of the story’s pace and help you determine how to move the hero toward her ultimate goal.

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