The Domino Effect

Dominoes are small rectangular blocks of wood or plastic, each bearing an arrangement of spots resembling those on dice. They are usually marked with a number on one face and a blank or identically patterned face. The number on the face of a domino indicates its value in a game of domino, which may be won by a player who reaches a target score (100 points, 200 points, or whatever is agreed upon before the game begins) before all other players do. The game is normally played with a set of 28 dominoes, although specialized sets with more or less than that number have been made.

A domino is sometimes used figuratively to refer to an event or situation that affects a wide range of people or things in a dramatic way. A famous example is the “domino effect” of 9/11, which grew out of the terrorist attacks on New York City. This term has also been applied to other events, such as the collapse of a building or the financial turmoil in the aftermath of a corporate acquisition.

When a person sets up dominoes, she normally has to place each of them in exactly the right position before it will fall in the proper sequence. The reason is that each domino has inertia, a tendency to resist motion. A slight nudge can overcome that resistance, however, and cause the domino to fall. When a domino falls, it releases energy that can be put to work pushing other pieces of the chain into place.

In the same way, a novelist must carefully plan out how each scene will work before it can be written. The pacing and rhythm of scenes need to be carefully controlled in order for the story to flow properly. This task is easier if we think of each scene as a domino.

Dominoes are normally arranged on a table, with the first domino placed in the center of the pile. Each player, in turn, then plays a tile onto the table positioning it so that one end of the tile is touching part of a previous domino. If a domino has on it a number that is useful to the player or distasteful to opponents, that player may then “stitch up” the ends of the domino chain, which increases the length of the chain and decreases the odds that opposing players can stop the flow of the game.

In addition to the traditional European-style dominoes, which are normally made of bone, silver lip ocean pearl oyster shell (mother of pearl) or ivory and have black or white pips on them, specialized sets are also available in many different natural materials such as marble and granite; other types of wood, including ebony; metals; and ceramic clay. Some of these sets have a more artisanal appearance, and the use of such materials often makes them feel heavier and more substantial than their polymer counterparts. A domino set in such a material is generally more expensive than a comparable set made from polymer.