Whether you compose your manuscript off the cuff or take your time with a careful outline, the process of plotting a novel ultimately comes down to one simple question, repeated again and again: What happens next? Considering how to use the domino effect in fiction will help you answer that question in a compelling way.
But what specifically is it that makes the next plot beat work? How do a series of moments combine to create effective action in a story? As a professional book editor, it’s my role to analyze the stories with which I work and determine exactly why this plot beat or that action sequence is unconvincing. In this first installment of a four-part blog series on cause and effect, we’ll explore how many of our struggles with plot come down to one basic misunderstanding:
Plot isn’t about action. It’s about reaction.
1. Plot is Like a Good Domino Rally
Have you ever seen a domino rally?
I’m talking a lineup of hundreds or thousands of dominos—or hundreds of thousands, even—set up in careful sequence, all eventually toppling with the nudge of only one. In domino shows, builders compete for the most complex and imaginative domino effect or reaction before a live audience of fans.
It’s remarkable to see. [Click here to watch a short video clip!] And it’s exactly how narrative works.
Narrative is a sequence of cause and effect. The first domino is the inciting incident, and once tipped, it launches a succession of plot beats we call rising action. Over the course of a story, that rising action builds toward a peak we define as climax, and what follows—the remaining dominos—comprise falling action and dénouement, or resolution.
This is one of the most crucial lessons I try to impart when providing book editing services to clients. Think of every plot beat in a novel as a single domino. You can put a single domino anywhere you want. It can be a car crash or a rocket launch or a trip to the zoo, and you can tip it over yourself at any time just by nudging it with your finger. But imagine that in the context of the domino effect. Tipping over fifty thousand individual dominos one by one isn’t exciting. It’s tedious. The excitement is in how each domino is knocked down on its own, as a result of the chain reaction that started with the first domino.
That’s the power of the domino effect in fiction.
2. Causation Drives the Domino Effect in Fiction
That aspect—the illusion of autonomy—is what makes a narrative driven by cause and effect so compelling. Yes, the author tipped the first domino. Yes, the author arranged subsequent dominos such that they would be tipped by the one before. But you don’t think of that when observing the domino effect—that remarkable chain of cause and effect created by a sequence of fifty thousand dominos. You just watch with awe as the dominos fall.
In other words, the power in any plot beat is not the beat itself. It’s how we get there. It’s how every previous plot beat has led us inevitably to this moment.
Narrative driven by causation doesn’t stop and start as you place and push domino after domino. It just keeps going. It has an unstoppable momentum that keeps readers engaged. That’s why what we’re really looking for in each new plot beat is not what happens next, but rather what follows logically.
3. Inevitability Isn’t Necessarily Predictable
But if each plot beat is the inevitable result of what precedes it, doesn’t that make narrative predictable? Don’t we want surprises in our stories rather than the logical next step?
Sure we do. If you show readers something they’ve seen a million times before, naturally they’ll tune out or find something more interesting to read. But it’s important to understand that just because something is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s predictable. If it did, every domino rally would be exactly the same: a single straight line with a first domino, a last domino, and 49,998 steps in-between.
But that’s not how it works. Domino rallies loop around curves and climb up hills and spell out words. They crash into musical instruments and activate machines like a Rube Goldberg device. They explode into different shapes and colors. There are infinite variations of domino rallies, just as there are infinite stories to be told. Each action can have a thousand different reactions. It’s all about where you place the dominos.
So causation doesn’t stifle your creativity. It focuses it. It ensures that the twists and turns of your narrative are true to the story you’re telling, and no less unpredictable for that.
Crafting a Story Using the Domino Effect
But of course, there’s a lot more to crafting a story than that. Often there’s a particular story we’re trying to tell, so we’re not just playing around with chain reactions. We’re working our way to a particular destination. And that leaves a lot more questions to answer, such as:
- How do we reach our destination without stepping outside the process and practice of cause and effect?
- How do we identify causation problems in our stories?
- How do we revise without losing sight of structure?
- How do cause and effect relate to conflict and tension?
We’ll address all these questions and more as we continue our series on cause and effect. For now, let’s just remember that all the disparate plot beats in the world can’t on their own make up a compelling story, in much the same way that a pile of dominos on the floor is not a rally. It’s the order and structure—keeping how the domino effection in fiction works in mind—we bring to these plot beats through cause and effect that make our narratives compelling and exciting.
In short: not action, but reaction.
What strategies do you use to determine the next plot beat in your narrative? Share your best tips or worst challenges around plotting in the Comments below.
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.