The word domino comes from Latin, meaning “lord” or “master.” As a result, this term has come to signify a masterful commander who understands the gravity of every action and thinks two steps ahead. Dominoes are an excellent metaphor for the way in which a single scene can set off a chain reaction that changes the course of a story. Whether you are a pantser who writes off the cuff or an outliner, thinking of each scene as a domino helps keep your plot on track.
Dominoes are rectangular pieces that have a number of spots or pips on each end (see the image below). Each one has an identifying mark on one side and is blank or identically patterned on the other. Each type of domino is typically twice as long as it is wide, which makes it easier to stack them.
Each piece has a value, normally indicated by the number of pips on either end, ranging from six to none or blank. The value of a domino determines the order in which it falls. In addition, the shape and weight of a particular domino determines how much force is needed to tip it over.
A domino’s potential energy, or the energy it has stored in its mass, is converted into kinetic energy by sliding against other dominoes or rubbing against the ground or table. This energy is transmitted to the next domino and provides a push for it to fall. This process continues until all the dominoes have fallen.
The same principle applies to the flow of your novel. Each scene needs to be timed correctly so that it has a natural impact on the one after it. If your hero discovers something important in one scene but the following scene has no logical connection to it, that’s a problem.
Another key factor is to ensure that the scene reflects a plausible sequence of events that would actually happen in your setting. For example, if your hero shoots a stranger or has an affair, you need to provide logic for why she would do so in order to keep your readers believing in your story.
In fiction, each scene should advance the story by bringing your hero closer to or farther from her goal. In addition, the scenes should feel just right in terms of length and detail—not too long or overly detailed, but also not so short that they seem shallow at crucial moments. Just as it takes a little nudge to make a domino fall, it takes a bit more work to create a novel that readers will find compelling and want to read to the end. That’s why understanding the Domino Effect is so critical to your success as a writer.