The golden ratio (see our introductory post: Writing with the Golden Ratio) is a geometric ratio that creates a positive reaction from people, especially in art and music. While this mathematic guide can be created artificially in a computer program, and occurs naturally in plants and animals, its application in storytelling operates with more subtlety. Numbers play less of a role as the impression of the ratio. This sounds awfully vague, so we’ll work on description to demonstrate.
You’ll notice we reference three very often. This isn’t because the golden ratio relies on three. A sequence of three is the smallest number of digits needed to describe a continuous ratio. Any of the principles used here can be extended to include more steps/details, but we use three.
Wide description, of the kind that creates the effect of “zooming in” from a panorama to an immediate scene, sometimes loses readers on the transition. Give careful consideration to the details used to make the leap from large scale to small scale. Leap too far and the transition disrupts the reader; baby stepping down can confuse the focus of the description. Envisioning the golden ratio can help guide which details to use on each shift in detail.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is the most common example of Gothic literature. This is a popular writing style of her era, not based on subject matter. One of the defining features of this story that make it such a well-used example are the descriptions of nature and its relation to civilization.
Shelley makes frequent use of wide description each time she introduces a new region of the country. She mainly does this with her characters in Switzerland and Germany, describing the mountains and countryside in flowing, rich, romantic prose. This panorama would be her beginning golden rectangle. An easy way to think of this visually is to think of it as her picture frame. It’s a region; wide and grand with comfortably distant boundaries. Swedish mountains, described with one or two deliberately named landmarks (either a mountain or a river), but powerful and general enough to specify this land is a part of a larger whole… but the reader need not concern themselves with the expanse outside it beyond knowing it’s there.
When she makes her next leap, it’s both within her large picture and distinctly apart. For the most part, Shelley’s use dictates this leap be to either a city or a town, possibly a single – but very large – property. Those who enjoy literary analysis can likely pounce on an obvious essay question here: “Consider in 3 paragraphs how Mary Shelley’s Gothic descriptions accord with the aesthetic principles of the Golden Ratio.” That’s not what this post is. There are half a dozen ways to associate the principle with her descriptive style. One could talk about boundaries and physical division from nature, the city being separate but without violating the natural perfection of the wider frame, or some even more literary option. Really, the only point to make here is that the leap is neither too large nor too small. Their relation is pleasing, natural, and smooth – and it fits the content perfectly.
The next leap, as with any third unit in a sequence, really highlights the relationship to be drawn between the parts. Usually, Shelley’s leap is from a city/property/town to a room. Not to a building (too short a leap), and not to a person (too long a leap). This creates a rhythm in her description and a firm descriptive ratio she uses even outside the normal parameters of Germany and Switzerland. She makes a similar turn for each new setting, including the iced-in expedition ship.
Of course, the use of this ratio is determined largely by the content being described. This “golden ratio” principle as we’re applying it here is meant to guide the selection of detail, not govern the pace or length of description (though you’re free to experiment and share what works for you!). Consider the visual shot you’re getting, find the next detail that will fill the new frame within your big one, fill the new frame, and look for the next detail. Just know what you’re zooming into from the time you first open your wide frame.