Simple Tricks to Unstick Your Story: The Domino Effect

I tend to have a lot of false starts or write-my-characters-into-inescapable-corners when I’m drafting. It doesn’t matter how meticulously I outline or how freely I try to fly by the seat of my pants, I always get stuck at some point. Maybe what I’d thought should come next (and what I had written on my pretty Scrivener corkboard) no longer feels right, or maybe I’ve just completely stalled out on new ideas.

No matter the reason for getting stuck, I always manage to get the story moving once again. Sometimes it only takes a few hours, and other times it takes a few days…Then there are times where it might take months for my subconscious to slowly unknot the characters and the plot and the world.

Of course, I don’t always have months in which my subconscious can work its magic. If I’m under deadline, I need this story to be unstuck now. And there are a few go-to methods that I rely on.

Today, I’m going to talk about the first trick I use:

Figuring out where the dominoes will fall.

You know how people line up dominoes in elaborate patterns and then knock them over to watch them successively tip? I once heard someone compare the scenes in a book to dominoes—our inciting incident sets off the domino chain, and each scene is a direct result of the scene before.

But it’s not necessarily the plot that follows a domino effect. Sometimes we don’t want our chain of events to be linked. Sometimes, we want things to occur that are out of our protagonist’s control.

For example, if the character has to take a chemistry test the night after she joined a witch coven…well, there’s no clear connection between those two story events.

But how our character does on that chemistry test will be a direct result of the night before. If she’s on an emotional high from summoning magic powers she didn’t even know she had, she might traipse into that test and cavalierly fail. Which in turn might lead her down a new path (toward studying with her cute lab partner, perhaps?).

So the dominoes don’t represent specific events so much as our protagonist’s emotional journey through the events, and the dominoes also represent how events shape/affect the primary goal.

Each new scene will show our character reacting in some way to what happened before.

Example: In Something Strange and Deadly, the book opens with Eleanor going to meet her brother at the train station. But instead of Elijah showing up with a smile, a zombie with a hostage note arrives instead. When Eleanor gets that note, she’s FREAKED OUT (as she darn well should be), and so in the next few scenes, she is dealing with her FREAKOUT. Plus, her original goal of simply catching up with her brother is now out of the question, and she needs to adjust her goal accordingly. Yet event-wise, she goes from hiding in the train station to chatting with her mother to suffering through a fancy dinner. None of those events are connected, but how Eleanor behaves through them is.

Remember this: Every emotional beat in your story must be a direct result of what happened before, and it must lead to a shift in either what the character wants or how the character plans to get it.

To go back to Something Strange and Deadly, Eleanor knows she needs to find her brother and she doesn’t think she can possibly do it all by her lonesome. So she plans to foist the responsibility on this ghost-fighting team that’s visiting town. But when her plan falls through (the Spirit-Hunters don’t want to help her), her emotions shift from “I’m scared out of my mind” to “I’ll just do it myself, then.”

But keep in mind that it takes many scenes for Eleanor’s emotional dominoes to fall and eventually lead her in a new direction.

So, what does all this explanation of dominoes and goals have to do with unsticking your plot? It’s quite simple, really.

When you get stuck, look at your most recent emotional dominoes.

Do your last few scenes (or maybe even your last 20 scenes—sometimes I have to go pretty far back to see where things begin unraveling) logically connect? Do the emotional beats progress and shift as the events and previous scenes indicate they should? Does the character’s goal shift according to his/her emotional shift?

Check all of your dominoes. Make sure that when each one falls, it will actually hit the scene that’s after it. It’s very possible you missed something.

Honestly, there are many times where I didn’t properly deal with the emotional consequences of a scene (usually because it’s so hard to write the dark stuff) and as such, my story will have derailed because no one is behaving as they really should. They’re all happy and bantering and not at each other’s throats like they would naturally be given the previous scenes. So if I go back to where the emotional beats went wonky and try again, I can usually smooth out the issues and get my story moving again.

Sometimes, though, the dominoes are correctly lined up. And when that happens, I simply need to think really hard about what domino would logically come next. What emotions would evolve from the ones in my most recent scene? What goals shifts should my characters organically be making?

Of course, this method doesn’t always work. Sadly. And next Friday, I’ll offer a different method I take when my dominoes trick doesn’t pan out (that will be on my personal blog, though).

You tell me: what’s your go to method if you’re ever stuck while drafting?


16 Responses to Simple Tricks to Unstick Your Story: The Domino Effect

  1. Sue Needham Nov 8 2013 at 9:39 am #

    Oh, what great advice! I’m writing the very first draft of my very first novel and have only painted myself into a corner once so far. Fortunately, I was able to write myself out by creating another scene so no big drama …..yet. I can see how your method is a perfect way of examining whether scenes are working correclty and will be using it from now on to track what is happening emotionally. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Susan Dennard Nov 8 2013 at 4:22 pm #

      You’re so welcome!! I definitely use this trick when I’m revising too–just to make sure my emotional arcs are appropriate. 🙂

  2. stephanie garber Nov 8 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Great post! I think this is such good advice. I usually don’t have a problem figuring out what happens next, but I sometimes really struggle with trying to figure out how the character is feeling during what happens next. I focus a little too much on what’s currently going on rather than looking at how they should be feeling based on what went on before. Great advice! Thanks so much.

    • Susan Dennard Nov 8 2013 at 4:23 pm #

      I also struggle with what characters are feeling–I tend to make them WAY TOO DRAMATIC to the point of melo or else I just don’t make them emotional enough. Thank goodness for revisions!! 😉

  3. Lauren Nov 8 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    This is such a great method! Thanks for sharing. I’ve discovered reading this that I don’t at all focus enough on the emotional consequence events have on my character so that was a real eye opener! When I get stuck drafting I tend to do a big mindmap of possible scenes to follow up my last one until eventually an idea hits me.

    • Susan Dennard Nov 8 2013 at 4:24 pm #

      Oh, mindmaps are my LIFE LINE. I definitely do that too–did it today, in fact, as I reevaluated how my ending would play out. 🙂 Glad this helped you! 😀

  4. jeffo Nov 8 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    Nice advice–I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms before, but I like it!

    • Susan Nov 11 2013 at 7:50 pm #

      Thanks! I’m so glad you found it useful. 🙂

  5. Alexa Y. Nov 8 2013 at 8:07 pm #

    I really like this post Susan! It’s such a simple, effective way to fix your story when you’re stuck. I’d never thought of it this way, but now that you explain it, it really does make a lot of sense to me!

    • Susan Nov 11 2013 at 7:51 pm #

      Thanks, Alexa!! It really *is* simple (though I made it seem super complicated in my post, I fear :P), and it has saved my butt/story on many occasions…

  6. Julie Eshbaugh Nov 11 2013 at 1:53 pm #

    Hey Sooz! I’ve been trying out this technique since you posted this and I am having so much success with it! Seriously, so many of the methods I use that work for me came from you and one of your posts. You ROCK, girl. 😉

    • Susan Nov 11 2013 at 7:52 pm #

      YAY! This makes me inordinately happy, Julie. Like, super super SUPER satisfied to know it was helpful to you!! 😀 😀

  7. Sam Nov 20 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Great advice! I’ll definitely have to keep this in mind when going over my MS (and while finishing this draft).

  8. Felisha Jun 1 2016 at 8:27 pm #

    Hi Susan,
    I just started to read your blogs as it was advice from a friend how found it and has been using some advice from it. I started out writing last Nov for Nanowrimo. But i got stuck almost right way. I just started back to writing and have been planning the “headlights” method for now as it seems to be working. I also found your fears/ writers block interesting. I really found out a lot about my self and the way I need to “air bag and seat belt” my fears to not have the blocks i had at the start.

    I have found that writing journals help as well. but my most helpful thing of all is to use sticky notes and write down anything that pops into my head as I’m working at work or during dinner. even reading your blog posts. I put on music to block out the rest of the house and i read or do art or whatever. luck I get to listen to music at work to. I load up my fantasy/celtic music and random thoughts for my story pop up i quickly write it on a sticky. before writing i line up the sticky notes to the way I want my dominoes to fall. and as I think of more I change the order or exchange notes to build my story.

    I found this really helped as i was stuck babysitting for so many days that I couldnt get to writing and i felt over whelmed by all the thoughts i had about my book so this way i can reorder the notes as i see fit with out ripping pages out of a journal or flipping through pages like a mad lady.

    OK now that I babbled on. I want to thank you for inspiring me and other to write and helping us through all the crazy blocks, fear, stall outs and filling us with ideas, tips and tricks!!!

    Thank YOU!!!

  9. Liz Feb 8 2018 at 3:51 am #

    Thank you, this is very helpful. I’m made a list of 7-8 emotional states that my protagonist should go thru in the book, but then I got stuck. Your advise really makes me think visually about how one would trigger the other.

  10. Ally Oct 5 2019 at 3:53 am #

    I recently read Uprooted by Naomi Novik and the whole time I was analysing and thinking about the emotional cookies. I think Novik does a great job expressing and really describing Agnieszka’s thoughts and feelings and I was wondering what would Sooz – with her own focus on emotions and cookies and using them to move the story forward – think of this book? Have you read it? 🙂

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