Sunday, September 21, 2008


One of the basic laws of physical behavior, at least on this particular planet, avers that for every action, there is a reaction of equal force and opposite direction. This law, which I was enjoined to memorize back in tenth grade physics, was introduced by Sir Isaac Newton and is recognized accordingly as Newton's Third Law of motion. Moving into the spheres of Hinduism and its adjunct, Buddhism, the same principals may be expressed as karma or, if you will, karmic law.

From the former, we get an introduction to other Newtonian laws governing the behavior of motion as well as a chance to meet up close the concept of inertia, a tricky governing property that effects the velocity and direction of a particular body of matter. From the latter we get an introduction to payback or merit badges. From the two combined, we get a glimpse into the part of story DNA called consequence.

Even though some modern short stories are little more than what was once called vignette, having less visible connective tissue than a more substantial and nuanced narrative, the most gossamer of them is nevertheless more consequential than what we call everyday life. For those who have played and played with dominoes, the concept of domino theory comes to bear. Dominoes, when arranged on their vertical and arranged in close order, produce the effective spectacle whereby the first domino to fall topples or triggers the next. A fun thing to watch because the pattern of deployment can be so varied. When story comes to a seeming stop, we may look to the arrangement of dominoes or events, adjusting their closeness, perhaps rearranging the pattern. This is better than one size fits all, this is the domino theory: the first domino to fall triggers the rest.

In drama, we have an apt analogy for the domino; the beat becomes an activity that triggers something, a response, an emotion, a suspicion. Drama is measured in beats. Of course time comes into play. Hold that for a beat longer, the director will say, probably because the director wants to sustain the effect the beat produces.

The complex relationship between beats and falling dominoes can be used to keep the reader's inertia intact, reading along, looking for something, something special, something intimate, a whisper, a hint, a bar or two of a song, a scent of something long forgotten but cherished nonetheless. These things call forth evocations of past times with persons seemingly forgotten until they appear now, shimmering in the intensity of remembrance.

In story, it is not one thing and then another, which is episodic. Nor is it one thing after another, which is formulaic and, after a while, predictable. It is one thing because of another. One thing as a consequence of something else.


Marta said...

Okay, so a movie director may want the camera to pull in tight (or whatever the lingo is in filmland) and the viewer will then see only that this thing on this side of the screen caused this things on the other to fall over--two dominoes.

Or the director can pull back and the viewer can see four dominoes fall. Or a hundred. How many dominoes do we need to see to get a sense that there really is a story here? And if it depends, on what does it depend?

Anonymous said...

Ack. I did it again. That isn't Lin up there. It's me. Marta. Just so you know.

Kate Lord Brown said...

This is such an interesting topic - sometimes it feels like writing is like composing (perhaps more so with poetry?) Rhythm, beats, melodies - answering riffs, the fall of a domino/beat seen from different perspectives. Maybe I'm mixing my references but it's why jazz has always appealed to me because it's like a conversation.

Wild Iris said...

And yet another because of the first two. I always love stories that when you get to the end, you feel as if you've journeyed from one story quite into another by the end, and you're left wondering what the next story is. I always have to go back and inspect that fist domino, because it is many times surprising how it relates to the last domino to fall, and all the dominos in between. But then, I have a fascination with catylizing events when it comes to story structure.

Rowena said...

I love this metaphor. I think that's the way I write, like dominoes falling, this action (description, dialog, sentence, word) leads to that one and on to the next. Sometime I wonder what would happen to the story if I changed the one small action. Sometimes I do. Sometimes it takes, sometimes I have to go back some 60 actions to start over.

And as for rules on other planets, since I am writing a Science Fiction novel, I would argue that the rule you bring up is a top notch one to carry into an alien world, to help us believe that it is a real world, just like this one, and maybe just not visible yet.