The Domino Effect

Moving forward without looking back is a pretty good life philosophy; future success may be hindered by a focus on past failures.  However, like all good advice, it should be taken with a pinch of salt.  An obsession with the past is obviously unhealthy, but correcting past mistakes is key in life.

People say that it took Thomas Edison more than a thousand tries to get the light bulb right, which is great evidence for the fruits of persistence, but let’s look closer.  Why was Thomas Edison successful in designing a working light bulb?  I might not know the full answer, but I do know that one part of it is this: Edison learned from what he did wrong in his previous light bulbs and modified his subsequent light bulbs accordingly.

Photo props to Vinovin on Flickr. Link to work below.

You might be wondering how this applies to writing.  Well, I recently got a narrative essay back, and I had mixed feelings about it.  I wasn’t thrilled about what I had gotten on my paper, but then again, I wasn’t thrilled with what I wrote either.  It’s like having a wonderful meal for dinner (like sushi, or something equally delicious), but having a churning stomach afterwards.  Was it the fish?  Or the rice?  There was just something about my essay that put me off, but I had turned it in anyway.

Then, based on the advice I got back, I noticed something common in popular book series like Harry Potter and the Hunger Games.  Besides having a lot of action, life lessons, and multi-demensional characters, I noticed that these books exhibited the Domino effect.  No, I’m not talking about the theory on the spread of Communism, but rather just regular old dominoes.  Usually, kids (or people of any age really) line them up and give the first domino a light tap so that the rest fall in succession.  Well that’s what a lot of good books do; little details are introduced and then set off chain reactions.  Except in the case of these amazing authors, they make more elaborate patterns.  Generally, I only put together one line of dominoes, but authors line up multiple lines at once, with a master plan in mind and make everything collide into one delicious plot.  

In the video: first part is people like JK Rowling or Suzanne Collins, and the second part is pretty much me in a nutshell.

  Take the Mockingjay pin for example: it was an innocent good-bye gift from a (sort-of) friend to another.  It later became the symbol of the rebellion; cool stuff right?  Mockingjays have special meaning for Katniss as well because they remind her of her father, whose voice she says was so captivating that even the mockingjays would stop and listen.  Not only did the mockingjay have personal meaning, but also it had great meaning in general: the mockingjay, a mutation developed in the Capitol as a means to stop rebel activity in the first rebellion for district independence, was eventually used against the Capitol by rebels, who passed on false information for the mockingjays to pick up.

Additionally, JK Rowling uses the Invisibility Cloak Harry owns in a similar manner.  In addition to being a super-cool gadget Harry could pull off all his crazy adventures without getting busted too often, the Invisibility Cloak is a part of the tale of the Three Brothers in the children’s book, the Tales of Beedle the Bard (which is an actual book as well).  Harry’s possession of the Invisibility Cloak and willingness to die for the safety of his friends parallels Ignotus Peverell’s decision to finally give up his cloak at the end of his life and welcome Death like an old friend.  Conversely, Voldemort’s obsession with obtaining the Deathly Hallows, particularly the Elder wand reveals his weakness; Death, in the tale of the Three Brothers, has no problem obtaining the lives of the other two brothers because they make such greedy demands and only found despair in their choices.

The genius of these authors lies in their effective use of description to develop these symbols without the audience being aware at all times of this development.  It’s kind of subtle and clicks slowly in our brains, but it all makes sense to us.  The challenge for us, as writers, is to create symbolism in a similar fashion.  However, like lining up dominoes, this is easier said than done.


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