What’s the Deal With Domino?

Domino is a rectangular piece of plastic, wood, or marble with a line down its center that separates the ends into two squares. Each end has a number of spots—called pips—which indicate its value. Traditional domino sets contain one unique piece for each possible combination of numbers from one to six. The highest-value pieces are called double-sixes.

When a domino is set up and positioned so that both of its matching ends are touching, the game starts. Each player, in turn, plays a domino onto the table. A chain of dominoes gradually grows in length as each successive tile is added to the arrangement. Play stops when a player cannot continue to play, or when a player can no longer place a domino because the adjacent sides of the domino chain show different numbers. A player may also choose to stop when they run out of dominoes—in this case, the other players are declared winners.

The idiom domino effect—first used in a 1945 political column by newspaper columnist Alsop to describe how the spread of Communism across Asia might lead to war and nuclear catastrophe—has become a widely-used metaphor for any situation in which one event triggers a series of related events. In the business world, it’s sometimes used to refer to the way that decisions made by a company’s leaders can have wide-ranging and unexpected consequences.

If you’ve ever watched a professional domino builder—often called a “domino artist”—sequence a long line of hundreds or even thousands of individual dominoes, each carefully positioned and poised to fall at the touch of only one, you’ll understand why people are fascinated by these spectacular setups. In a domino show, the builders compete to create the most elaborate and imaginative domino effect or reaction before an audience of fans.

There’s no mystery behind why a domino can cause so many other dominoes to topple: Like a falling brick or a fired neuron, each domino has potential energy (i.e., the energy it has stored in its upright position) that gets converted to kinetic energy as it falls over other dominoes. The faster the domino moves, the more energy it has.

Dominoes are often made of materials that are appealing to the eye, including bone, silver lip ocean pearl oyster shell (mother of pearl), ivory, and a dark hardwood such as ebony, with contrasting black or white pips inlaid or painted on the edges. They can also be made of metals such as brass or pewter, ceramic clay, and frosted glass or crystal.

Many of the same principles that govern how dominoes fall apply to how scenes work in a story. As a novelist, you can think of every scene as a domino—or a set of scenes—that leads to the dramatic climax and resolution of your story. The first domino might be something as small as a simple action or an emotional moment that triggers the sequence of events that culminate in your story’s climax.