Storytelling and Dominos

You have probably seen videos of people setting up huge chains of dominoes, flicking the first one ever so slightly, and then watching as the rest fall in a beautiful cascade of rhythmic motion. This effect, which happens because of physics (the force of gravity amplifies the weight of each domino by its center of mass), is called the domino effect. It is what makes dominoes so enthralling to watch, and it is the same kind of effect that stories must have in order to be successful.

Dominos are a type of tile with a line in the middle to divide it visually into two square ends, each bearing from one to six dots or pips. They are normally twice as long as they are wide, so that they can be stacked horizontally to form long rows. The most common variant, the double-six, has a total of 28 such tiles in a complete set. Dominos may be used for any number of games, where the players play their pieces by matching the ends and laying them down in lines and angular patterns.

A game of domino typically involves placing a tile on the table so that its matching end is adjacent to another tile, forming a “chain.” The chain then develops a snake-like shape according to the whims of the players and the limitations of the playing surface. A tile played to a double must be placed squarely, as the two matching sides must touch each other in order for the chain to be successful.

The key to a good story is the same as the key to a successful domino construction: timing is everything. The scenes of the story must be spaced correctly if they are to move the hero forward toward or farther from the goal, and they must be timed in such a way that the reader wants to see the next scene pretty quickly once the hero reaches the goal of the current scene.

In the same way, the scenes of a story must not be overly long (heavy on details and minutiae) or too short (which can make the hero seem shallow at moments of great discovery or at plot points). If a domino chain is sluggish, it will never reach its climax, and the reader will quickly lose interest. The same is true of a story that has hiccups in its logic. If a character is acting in a manner that doesn’t fit the motivations and goals of other characters, readers will soon lose interest. That’s why it is important for writers to use outlines or other plotting tools like Scrivener to ensure that the scenes in their stories are spaced and timed well, so that the whole story flows smoothly to its final climax. Good writing is much like a well-constructed domino sequence.