The Domino Effect in Writing


Domino is a term used to describe a sequence of events that begins with a simple action and results in larger-than-expected consequences. It’s also the name of a game in which players try to empty their hand by blocking opponents’ play or scoring points by matching tiles with identical values (a double-six, for example). Stacking dominoes on end and connecting them at a right angle creates long, elaborate lines of asymmetrical shapes that can be used to make designs such as walls and towers.

While most of us probably have some experience playing the game, the domino effect has been demonstrated in physics experiments and is often associated with chaos theory. A domino is a flat, rectangular piece of wood or ivory that features a series of numbers and symbols on one side. When the first domino is tipped over, it triggers the rest to fall in a chain reaction that eventually leads to the destruction of the entire structure.

Physicist Loren Whitehead has shown that the power of a domino can be used to knock down items about a quarter of their size. In a video, he sets up 13 dominoes of different sizes and demonstrates their ability to destroy other objects that are about the same size or larger.

For writers, the idea of a domino effect has been used to describe the way an event that starts in one part of a story can ripple outward and influence scenes in other parts of the book. Whether it’s a character’s discovery of a clue to a murder case or a doctor’s inattention leading to a patient’s hospitalization, the impact can be dramatic.

In terms of writing, the domino effect can be useful for weeding out scenes that don’t advance the plot. This can be particularly helpful if you’re a “pantser,” someone who writes by the seat of her pants without making detailed outlines. It can be easy to lose sight of the overall arc of your novel.

Lily Hevesh, a domino artist whose YouTube channel has more than 2 million subscribers, uses a version of the engineering-design process when creating her mind-blowing domino setups. She considers the theme or purpose of an installation, brainstorms images or words, and then calculates how many dominoes she needs to complete the design. Hevesh then draws a diagram of the layout, marking out arrows to show the way the dominoes are supposed to fall.