How to Use the Domino Effect in Fiction


One of the best things about domino—a series of small wooden blocks stacked on end in long lines—is that when a single one is tipped over, it can cause the next domino in the line to tip over and so on, creating intricate patterns. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “domino effect.” It’s also a common phrase, and a good analogy for plotting a novel: Once you start one sequence of events, they can snowball into something much larger than you originally anticipated. This is what makes it so important to think about how you can use the domino effect in your fiction to make it compelling.

Lily Hevesh grew up playing with her grandparents’ classic 28-piece set of dominoes. She loved setting them up in straight or curved lines, flicking the first domino and watching the whole chain fall. Now Hevesh, 20, is a professional domino artist, and her YouTube videos of her mind-blowing creations have more than 2 million subscribers. She builds stunning domino setups for movies, TV shows, and events—including a recent album launch for Katy Perry.

She works closely with engineers and physics teachers to develop her designs, but she also relies on an intuitive version of engineering-design principles. She starts by considering the theme or purpose of the installation. Then she brainstorms images or words that could represent it. She does this for each piece she plans to build, testing them in a small scale before assembling the full design.

Then, like any engineer, she tests the pieces in a small scale to ensure they function as intended. She repeats this step until she is confident the entire installation will work as planned. Finally, Hevesh puts it all together—and sometimes this takes days or even weeks to finish.

In order to create her incredible setups, Hevesh must consider the laws of physics and how to manipulate them to achieve her goals. For example, a domino has inertia, meaning it resists movement unless there’s an outside force pushing or pulling on it. But Hevesh can use that inertia to her advantage.

Once she sets up a line of dominoes, all she has to do is barely touch the first domino with her finger and watch it fall. That’s because as a domino falls, its potential energy converts to kinetic energy, or the energy of motion. Some of that kinetic energy gets transmitted to the next domino, providing the push it needs to knock it over. Then the rest of that kinetic energy keeps transmitting from domino to domino until the last one topples over.

Hevesh’s goal is to create installations that are both beautiful and informative. Her installations aren’t just for fun—they can help explain complex concepts such as how neurons, or nerve cells, work. To demonstrate how, she sets up a domino model. The model includes a small group of dominoes, a battery, and an electronic switch. The dominoes are connected to the switch by wires that carry electrical signals. When the switch is activated, the electrical signals cause the dominoes to slide against each other and over themselves—a simple demonstration of how neurons communicate with each other.