Satisfying Structure

There’s probably no more beguiling and bedeviling dimension to a work of fiction than structure. It’s the framework that a story hangs upon and the scaffolding upon which characters spring into life. A strong structure gives a story backbone and resilience; it also provides a springboard for action.

During my YA revision stage, I decided to revisit one of the classics of children’s literature, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. First published in 1911, in the past 100 years, it has never been out of print. Scan any list of the best 100 books for children, and you’ll always find The Secret Garden.

Why has this book endured and entranced generations of readers? Is it the vivid and original characters? Yes. Its appealing and magical setting on the moors? Yes. Its strong, propulsive plot? Yes. Its universal themes of love, loss, and redemption? Yes. All these strengths contribute to its success. But another invaluable asset is its supremely satisfying structure. A master storyteller at the top of her game when she wrote The Secret Garden, Frances employed a classic three-act format to tell her tale. In a nutshell, here’s how it unfolded over the course of 300+ pages:

Act 1 (the first 100 pages): We meet Mary, the spoiled and unlikeable main character who encounters a series of mysteries: What has turned her guardian into a recluse? Where is the secret garden? Exactly who is the “animal tamer” boy named Dickon? Who is it she hears crying in a distant corridor of the vast mansion in which she is marooned?

Act 2 (the second 100 pages): In an artfully succession of reveals, we discover, along with Mary, the answers to each of these overlapping mysteries. We learn of her guardian’s tragic loss, we find and enter the secret garden, we meet the charming and gifted Dickon, and we learn that Mary’s guardian has an abandoned son. Not only are all these mysteries resolved, we are also invited to witness the awakening of the lovely secret garden at the hands of three very different children: Mary, Dickon, and Colin.

Act 3 (the final 300+ pages): Here, all the strands of the story are woven together. The secret garden and the world outside spill over into each other and each is transformed by the other. The garden exerts a healing power, but it can do so only because of the ministering hands of those who have revived it and suffered beyond its walls. All the characters share a unity of purpose as the story concludes.

From a reader’s point of view, this three-act story is soul-nourishingly satisfying. It progresses from suffering and intrigue to revelation and growth to healing and redemption. Analyzing this movement is proving very helpful in my revision. How about you? Is there a story you love that you might benefit from decoding? Write on!

About karinwritesdangerously

I am a writer and this is a motivational blog designed to help both writers and aspiring writers to push to the next level. Key themes are peak performance, passion, overcoming writing roadblocks, juicing up your creativity, and the joys of writing.
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4 Responses to Satisfying Structure

  1. calmgrove says:

    There’s a children’s story I’ve always admired, Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, first published as a book in 1863 (exactly a century and a half ago). Its contemporary references and obsessions are rather confusing without a knowledge of the period and the author, but as its subtitle (‘A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby’) suggests, the framework is a very classic.

    1. A young climbing boy trained to sweep chimneys in Victorian England becomes self-aware, and runs away, ostensibly drowning. Instead, in a kind of literal baptism, he transforms into or is reborn as a water-baby.

    2. He grows up in and learns about his new watery world and its natural history as well as meeting others of his kind. However, like many a naughty boy he plays tricks on his fellows and has to learn the admonition that is contained in the Gospel of, I think, Matthew: Do as you would be done by.

    3. He then embarks on a mammoth quest to the Other End of Nowhere to find out what life is about, and by the end of his extraordinary adventures has matured into an idealised Victorian young man.

    The book was extraordinarily successful at the time but is out of favour nowadays, unlike its almost exact contemporary, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Structurally it follows Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory as well as matching your model of progress “from suffering and intrigue to revelation and growth to healing and redemption”. Nothing new under the sun but the way of presenting it in endless fascinating permutations.

    • Hello,

      Thank you so much for your fascinating note on The Water Babies — what a wonderful and inventive story idea! I see what you mean about the classic structure. And you’re right, it is so amazing to see the infinite ways in which this same framework can be applied.

      I so enjoy your comments and really look forward to them! We are surely kindred spirits flitting in the authorial ether.

      Have a lovely weekend, Karin

      > Date: Thu, 2 May 2013 19:47:17 +0000 > To: >

  2. terrific piece, karin. just tweeted it. see you wednesday

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