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!