Using the Domino Effect to Create a Story That Keeps Readers on the Edge of Their Seats

You’ve likely heard of the Domino Effect—a principle that states that what one person does can have a ripple effect that eventually impacts everyone. The principle can be used to explain many of life’s occurrences, from the way your boss treats other employees to the success or failure of a business. It can also be applied to your writing process. Whether you use an outline or compose your manuscript off the cuff, composing your story comes down to this question: What happens next? Using the domino concept can help you create a story that keeps readers on the edge of their seats.

A domino is a flat, thumbsized rectangular block with the face either blank or marked by dots resembling those on dice. A set of 28 such blocks forms a domino. In games played with these tiles, players place them edge to edge against each other to form a line or an angular pattern. Alternatively, the term domino can refer to a game played with a layout that includes doubles on which additional tiles can be placed, typically straddling the ends of the original tile and connecting them in two directions.

Dominoes can be used to build walls, curved lines, grids that form pictures when they fall, 3D structures like towers and pyramids, and more. Creating such designs can take hours or days. It can be a fun hobby or a great way to relieve stress, as the sound of a chain of dominoes falling is satisfying and therapeutic.

Some of the most mind-boggling domino projects involve hundreds or thousands of individual pieces. Lily Hevesh, who has set Guinness records for the most dominoes toppled in a circular arrangement and for the longest continuous chain of dominoes, says she uses a version of an engineering-design process when she creates her amazing setups. Hevesh considers the theme or purpose of an installation as well as brainstorms images and words that might represent it.

She then draws a blueprint for the domino structure on paper, and then calculates how many dominoes it will take to make the desired design. She marks out the locations where each domino will be placed, and then draws arrows to show how it will fall.

As a writer, you can think of each scene as a domino and the plot as the cascade of scenes that will lead to your character’s triumph or defeat. Each scene must be carefully spaced to advance your protagonist’s goal or to raise tension and conflict. In addition, each scene must be long enough to be exciting but not so long that it feels padded with unneeded detail.

For instance, if your protagonist uncovers clues in a mystery, you want to build momentum to reveal the solution, but you also want to leave the reader wanting to know what will happen next. Similarly, in nonfiction, you want to have scenes that illustrate your topic but don’t get so detailed or lengthy that they slow down your narrative.