Why Do Dominoes Work?

Domino (also known as dominoes) is a game played with gaming pieces, called tiles. Each tile has a square end marked with a number of spots or is blank. Some sets also have a common design on the back of each piece. Players take turns placing their tiles edge to edge, either on top of each other or at an angle, until all their tiles are in play. Games typically involve scoring, where winning players earn points based on the sum of the pips (marks) on the opponent’s tiles.

Lily Hevesh, a 20-year-old from Toronto, started playing with dominoes as a child. Her grandparents had a classic 28-piece set, and she loved lining up the tiles in straight or curved lines and flicking them to cause them all to fall at once.

By the time she was 10, Hevesh was already creating domino art, and her YouTube channel has more than 2 million subscribers. She now creates spectacular domino setups for movies, TV shows, and even album launches.

Hevesh isn’t the only artist to have stumbled upon this concept. Many other people have taken it to new levels, making amazingly intricate and complex creations out of flat and 3-D arrangements of tiles. But why is it that these massive arrangements work so well? What makes a single domino fall when we flip it, or when we set up a whole series of them to tip over?

According to Stephen Morris, a physicist at the University of Toronto, it’s all about gravity. Each tile has a center of gravity, and when it’s standing upright, each domino has potential energy, which is its stored energy based on where it’s resting. But once the first domino falls, much of that potential energy gets converted into kinetic energy, which causes the next domino to fall. And then the next, and the next.

The same principle applies to story writing, whether you’re a pantser who writes off the cuff or a plotter who uses Scrivener to help you plan ahead of time. When a scene doesn’t fit in with the ones that come before it or after it, the story can feel uncoordinated and disjointed.

To keep your story moving in the right direction, it’s important to have scenes that advance your hero’s progress toward her goal. But they can’t be too long (heavy on details and minutiae) or too short (so that the cascade doesn’t seem to have any momentum). The right amount of pace makes for a captivating domino effect.