Writing Story Dominoes

We’ve all seen those domino constructions where, after tipping the first piece ever-so-slightly, all the rest fall in a beautiful cascade of rhythmic motion. The “domino effect” means any actions that cascade in that same way. Have you ever thought of your novel (or any writing for that matter) in terms of dominoes?

Writing Tip for Today: How does the story “domino effect” play into writing?

Cause and Effect

The first thing to notice about this idea of domino effect in novel writing is that each domino represents a scene. In nonfiction, the domino might be each point to illustrate a theme or statement. We’ll talk mainly about fiction, but it’s easy to imagine those scene dominoes as whatever you need to advance information or an argument. In a story, each scene domino is ineffective by itself, but put them all together and they naturally influence the next scene. But if you are a pantster, that is you don’t make detailed outlines of plot ahead of time, you’ll likely end up with scenes which—again using the domino image—are at the wrong angle or don’t have enough logical impact on the scene ahead of it. Let’s say you’re writing a mystery. If you write a scene where your heroine uncovers an important clue to the case, but in the next scene the opposition does nothing to raise the tension, something’s wrong. If you don’t use outlines or Scrivener to help you plot but prefer to see where it takes you, you can weed out unnecessary or repetitive scenes with simple scene cards. Write one sentence describing the main action for each scene. Lay them all out in order and step back. You’ll begin to see the pace and rhythm of how scenes work together like dominoes.

Timing is Everything

You may also have figured out that in domino constructions and in stories, timing is everything. Again, we’re back to pace. The dominoes must be spaced correctly if the cascade is going to work. Stories need scenes which advance the story (meaning the hero moves either farther from or closer to the goal) but they must not feel overly long (heavy on details or minutiae) or too short (not enough detail, making a scene seem shallow at moments of great discovery or at plot points). Once the goal of any scene has been won or lost, readers will want to see the next challenge or goal pretty quickly. In terms of dominoes, the high-action scenes will be followed by softer moments of reflection (also called sequel). The ratio of action to sequel should be controlled so the pace doesn’t drag (too much navel-gazing or inner processing) or move too quickly (not enough emotion and glimpses into character motivation).

Logic in One Smooth Motion

The domino effect also helps readers understand the logic of the story, that is, why the character does what she does and then does next and so on. If you write scenes that run opposite to what most readers think is logical, the domino cascade fails. For example, if you write a scene where your hero does something immoral (such as shooting a stranger or having an affair), you’ll have to provide the logic that gives readers permission to either give the immoral action a pass or at least keep liking him as a hero. In any scene, you’ll need to give the readers enough motivation and/or reason to explain why their protagonist is going outside societal norms. Otherwise, readers will quit reading. Older Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” films are a good example of a main character who isn’t a model citizen. We like him anyway because he has strict moral standards that he will not violate. In an effective story, the dominoes can fall one after another, in a smooth action that unites all the scenes into one story that flows seamlessly, with no hiccups in the logic. Get your story dominoes in a row and your readers will love the smooth way your story builds and builds until the big climax.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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