Friday, May 1, 2009

Domino Theory

domino theory--a plot-driven concept in which story points (dramatic beats) are seen as dominoes, aligned so as to cause one falling to trigger another to fall; a dramatic demonstration of determinism, where the present event has been directly caused by past events; a practical demonstration of consequence in story.

A metaphoric description of a story: a row of dominoes stood on their vertical end, placed in close enough proximity that by tipping the first domino, it will strike and knock over its neighbor, which in turn topples its neighbor, ad inf, until the entire row has been toppled. 

Thus the entire row of dominoes stands in its at-rest inertia until a force (opening velocity) topples the first domino in the row. From that point until the last domino falls, the story is in effect "telling" itself. The literary equivalent of checking the air pressure in the tires of one's vehicle is checking to see if the dominoes (i.e. story or plot points) are spaced at the optimal distance. 

 Too wide a gap between events makes for a lurching ride. Too close an interval produces a frenetic, comedic effect which often undercuts any intended suspense or seriousness.

Recipe for success: During the revision process, select one incident or scene from anywhere in the text that provides unquestioned opening velocity. Move that scene or incident to the beginning of the story, making certain its narrative time frame makes the event appear to be taking place in the immediate present. Using this repositioning of events, adjust where necessary the time sequence (verb tenses) in recognition of the "new" beginning.

In this domino-theory regard, triggering devices play important roles; the topple of any domino in the row triggers the fell of the neighbor domino, thus an action has down-the-line consequences. In longer works, the triggering device may skip a few neighbors in delivering its consequential inertia, but it is nevertheless felt as a product of causality.

Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, each in his self-described thrillers or novels of suspense, are particularly worth study in this domino-theory regard. In Greene's Brighton Rock, for example, a major character visits a coin-operated booth at an amusement pier, where he records a phonograph record with what another character believes is a romantic message, which she plays at the very end of the narrative, to a heightened dramatic effect. 

 Ambler's still-radiant thriller, A Coffin for Dimitrios, begins early on with the protagonist being shown a corpse whose life he is invited to track. At one time in the corpse's life, the individual used coffins to transport heroin into France. The corpse and the trope of the coffin have downstream consequences every bit as surprising and ironic as the phonograph record in Brighton Rock.

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