Minute details are a double-edged sword to the flow of a story. Outright descriptors – adjectives and adverbs, even forceful verbs – have the power to choke out ideas and action. Artful concepts, however, can accomplish incredible feats of sensory detail without heavy-handed descriptors.
Smallness, minute detail in either perfection or chaos, holds worlds of fascination. The same way humans have built towers, telescopes, satellites and space stations, we’ve invested that time looking the other direction too. Magnifying glasses, magnifiers, microscopes and electron microscopes. Minute vistas full of activity and patterns appear and seem to mimic the larger world. It’s these parallels that draw the most attention.
Micro detail in visual art, especially in classical or traditional work, relies on the Golden Ratio. This being a part of our series on the subject, here are a few demonstrations of its use in focusing a viewer’s attention. (See our other posts on the subject: Writing with the Golden Ratio and Writing Wide Description: The Art of Zooming In)
As a written demonstration, consider Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, The Artist of the Beautiful. In this story, a watch maker’s apprentice channels an incredible appreciation for the beauty in delicate things into the creation of a masterwork; a perfect clockwork butterfly. While Hawthorne’s descriptions are a product of his era and maybe a little wordy for modern readers, his work on this story is impressive because he limits his use of “small” and all its synonyms to describing aspects of the characters in the story, not the miraculous invention.
Rather than directly describing the butterfly, he paints the picture with details chosen for the way they resonate with readers. The story is structured with characters who evoke already existing, very human impressions: the young woman the watchmaker admires from a distance (evoking an emotion familiar to anyone who has experienced early attraction), the blacksmith suitor (a man in a profession full of destruction, force, and raw creative energy), and the young woman’s father (a familial image of judgement and elusive approval). These forces motivate the masterpiece’s creation, and represent the wide frame – the largest rectangle – in the ratio.
This is the obvious appearance, the main players in the story. As the frame narrows to the second rectangle – the final scene of the short story, in this case – one more element is added to draw a parallel to the larger world. The young woman has married the blacksmith and had a child while the masterwork has been in progress. This child completes the company there for the big reveal, there to react with innocence rather than previous experience. This frame (of this story at least) is filled with meaningful interactions between the butterfly and each person watching.
You can go crazy with lit analysis on this story (and may high school students have), but the point here is the story’s theme has narrowed and gained momentum. It’s gone from a frame of archetypal characters to an immediate scene making commentary with each action, like going from a research paper to an informative essay. The characters are saying more about the world than what they’re physically saying. This is the second frame. It’s easier to see in short works, but anyone who’s read a gripping novel knows there’s a point around the last third of the book where the whole action means more because it’s been layered and focused toward a final statement.
That final statement is the last rectangle. Spoiler alert. Now would be the time to go back and read the story if you don’t want it ruined.
The concept, the claim, the forceful “this is what I think” moment often takes place in a tiny percentage at the end of the story. In this case, that innocent child, the product of the blacksmith with all his force and the young woman with all her potential, reaches out and crushes the butterfly in his hand. This takes only a few lines of the whole story, but the focus peaks there. The concept, turned allegory, has now become a firm claim, made rich and full because of the context.
Few people write like Hawthorne now, and honestly they’d probably never make it with modern audiences. He’s a beast with symbolism and story-bound philosophy. However, this kind of conceptual focus demonstrates an impressive relationship with our aesthetic ratio. You don’t have to obsess about this early; it’s probably better to check your story’s concept frames after you’ve got a draft to mess with. Still, using the golden ratio with small description, context, and concept can be a bit like applying a level when hanging a picture on the wall. It can be a tiny adjustment, but the effect is quiet satisfaction in the viewer.
The Artist of the Beautiful (Full Text):