Story structures require control of perception and the element of surprise. Plotting is all about retaining and releasing information to create dramatic and purposeful connections between the elements of the story. Plot twists (here simply defined as revelatory moments that drastically change the scope of the story) and their huge power to reshape a reader’s expectations, require calculated risk. “Playing it safe” can mean a flat scene and a completely outlandish shift could lose readers’ willingness to go along. A feel for the purpose of these twists, and for the ratios governing aesthetic appeal, can make these shifts stronger from the very first stages.
We’re continuing with our discussion of the Golden Ratio in writing applications. In our previous posts (Writing with the Golden Ratio, Writing Wide Description, and Direct Readers’ Focus: The Golden Ratio), it seems to be more a thought for editing stages – checking your work to see where the ratio can appear, and tweaking the story a little to improve readers’ experience. In terms of plotting, however, the ratio seems to be more useful when planning, or roughing out, a story concept.
Many stories, especially novels, create their own world. This is a bit obvious for fantasy or science fiction, but even mainstream fiction requires a special twist or lens for elements of the real world. That twist/lens doesn’t have to mean outlandish rules, but the unique elements should be unfolded along with the events of the story.
Consider The Great Gatsby as an example. This was mainstream fiction, but over the course of the story, the world expanded from Gatsby’s estate out to include East and West Egg, then more extending to the mainland, eventually including elements that included crime on a national scale (dishonest gambling and bootlegging). This expansion of the world occurred right along with the exposure of Gatsby’s character.
Dishing out what makes your story’s world different right at the start, whether by mindset or by physical laws, often results in an info dump. It’s a tragic waste of the story’s potential interest and wonder when the tale isn’t revealed in surprising (but digestible) increments.
Enter the golden ratio. Seeing as you, the author, are the only one with a full view of the world to be explored, the rectangles of the ratio are really to put some boundaries on your readers’ and characters’ area of concern at different points in the story. Growing stories start small; in Hobbit holes, a single apartment block, small towns, and always in a character whose perspective is bound by expectations that will soon be shattered.
Whatever your next step is, it blooms outward to something that seems huge by comparison, but not unknowable. That’s taking a small frame of reference – small golden rectangle – and blooming it outward. This is like crossing platform 9 ¾ (Harry Potter), meeting an intriguing and aloof tennis star with friends in very exclusive East Egg (The Great Gatsby), or suffering a death in the family that alters the character’s future (Fried Green Tomatoes). Suddenly, the frame of concern is far larger and open to exploration.
While some story structure guides will focus on the events that cause this expansion, you (as the master of the reference frames) should be concerned not only with what opens this new field, but with how much potential range appears because of each successive shift. If you don’t want them to know there’s a larger-than-life decision coming up, don’t put it in the frame of reference. If you want the fact that your romantic pair both have sordid past love stories to come into the picture yet, don’t put them in! Make each new chunk of information inform the content of the newly widened frame. Often it will certainly mean huge changes to the characters’ thought processes and behavior.
The point here isn’t to say you don’t know how to keep secrets for later. The goal of referencing the ratio is developing a sense of how much is too much? and how big should it go? Have a look at books you enjoy and see where these moments occur. How much of the world shows up at a time? When does this open up? What do you learn about the world as it expands?