The Domino Effect


A domino, also called a bone, card, men, piece, or tile, is a small rectangular block of wood, ivory, or plastic that has one or more sides marked with dots or spots. The ends of a domino are sometimes curved to facilitate stacking. A set of 28 such pieces forms a full domino deck. When the end of a domino is pushed, it causes the adjacent dominoes to tip over in a chain reaction. Dominoes are used to play a variety of games, including scoring games such as bergen and muggins; blocking games, such as matador and chicken foot; and duplicate card games. Dominoes also teach children number recognition and counting skills.

A physicist at the University of Toronto, Stephen Morris, agrees that gravity is crucial to a domino setup: When standing upright, a domino has potential energy, or stored energy based on its position. As a domino falls, however, much of that potential energy is converted to kinetic energy—the energy of motion—causing the next domino in line to tip over. This is the basis of the Domino Effect, a term that describes the way in which a change in behavior can cause a shift in related behaviors.

Dominoes can be stacked side by side in long lines, creating designs such as straight or curved lines, a grid that makes a picture when it falls, or even 3D structures such as towers and pyramids. Some people even build incredibly large and intricate domino sets for artistic purposes, which can take days to complete.

Nick Hevesh, a domino artist who has created intricate displays using up to 300,000 dominoes, says that the key to a good domino setup is understanding the laws of physics. Hevesh is a master of precision. Her creations require nail-biting minutes of patience as she waits for each domino to fall. When it does, the result is a cascade that is breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerizing to behold.

Similarly, when it comes to writing fiction, every scene in the story must be carefully positioned to have a strong impact on the scenes that follow it. If a scene is too long or has no logical connection to the scenes before it, the story can feel sloppy and disjointed. If the first scene of a novel uncovers an important clue, for example, but the hero’s discovery is not followed by any action that raises the stakes, the reader will lose interest pretty quickly.

I use the domino image to help my clients, who are pantsers (that is, they don’t create outlines of their books before writing), understand how important it is to place each scene in the right spot to make it effective. The scenes should advance the story’s plot and raise the stakes for the hero, but they must also not be too long or tedious. Too much detail can slow the pace, and too little detail can make a scene feel shallow at a key moment of revelation or tension.