Story Skeleton: The Secret Garden
Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.
Secrets in the Garden
By Tara Gilboy
The Secret Garden is arguably Frances Hodgson Burnett’s most famous work. Long considered a classic, it’s still sometimes dismissed by scholars as “just a children’s book.” But children’s books can provide a master class in how to tell a complex story effectively in a short space. Classic children’s novels are my favorite books to study and pick apart when I’m looking at structure, as they are concise enough to read in a single afternoon, and yet as complex as any adult novel.
The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary Lennox, a spoiled young English girl being raised in India. After the death of her parents, she is sent to live at her mysterious uncle’s Yorkshire estate, Misselthwaite Manor. Mary is disagreeable, used to being waited on, and initially does not even know how to dress herself. At Misselthwaite, she is mostly ignored and left to wander outside in the gardens. The manor is full of secrets, though, and Mary often hears the screams of a child echoing its halls at night, despite the servants’ insistence that it is only the wind. She also hears rumors of a mysterious garden, locked up for over a decade after the death of her uncle’s wife. Mary sets out to discover the secrets of Misselthwaite and bring the garden back to life.
Despite the complexities of any novel, I think it’s useful when studying structure to see if a novel’s plot can be distilled into one line. (Screenwriters might call this a logline.) For an example, we can use Hannah Sheppard’s pitch test:
"When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe)."
In The Secret Garden, this might be:
When Mary’s parents die and she is sent to live with her uncle, she must discover the secrets of his estate and bring a garden back to life in order to gain her own happiness and save the life of her cousin.
Probably the most important (and difficult) part of writing any novel is figuring out what the protagonist’s main goal will be. This can be difficult to put our finger on, as characters often have many goals along the way, as well as deeper psychological and emotional needs, which we will get to in a bit. But in this case, the goal is pretty clear: when Mary first arrives at her mysterious new home, she learns about a secret garden, one that has been locked up and the key hidden ever since its owner’s death over a decade earlier. Mary’s main goal then becomes “find this secret garden.” She does end up finding the garden about halfway through the novel, at which point, the goal shifts slightly to become “bring the garden back to life.”
Another tricky aspect of finding our novel’s main goal is ensuring that this goal is not arbitrary or random. It has to matter to the protagonist and be part of how they are changed as a result of the events of the novel. In this case, finding and restoring the garden gives lonely Mary something to care about, and as she works toward this goal, she becomes less spoiled, more independent, and much kinder. Near the middle of the book, the garden takes on even more emotional significance, as it is used to help restore the health of her cousin Colin, the mysterious child she heard crying in the night.
Let’s break down the novel further and delve into its plot points. You probably are somewhat familiar with the common plot points found in most novels. These are:
(a) Stasis or status quo—what’s normal life like for the protagonist?
(b) Inciting incident—what sets the story in motion?
(c) Point of no return—the event that ensures the protagonist can never go back to the way their life was before the novel opened.
(d) Rising action—what stands in the protagonist’s way?
(e) Climax—does the protagonist succeed, or do they fail while learning something important?
Let’s dive in and see how these function in The Secret Garden!
Plot Points in The Secret Garden
Mary, a rich British girl, lives in India with her young and selfish parents who often forget they have a child. Mary is mostly raised by servants, who fear her temper and give in to her every demand.
Mary’s parents die of cholera, and she is left all alone.
Point of No Return
Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle, a rich widower she has never met.
Just like her parents, Mary’s uncle seems to take little interest in her. He sees her once and then goes away, travelling. The servants also mostly ignore Mary, and she is left on her own quite a bit to play outside and wander the gardens.
One of the housemaids tells Mary about a secret garden that has been locked up for ten years. Mary decides to find it.
Mary hears someone crying in the middle of the night, but the servants try to convince her it is only the wind.
Mary finds the key to the garden, but she still can’t find the door.
Mary finds the door and goes inside the garden.
The garden is dying but not dead. Mary decides to bring the garden back to life, but she can’t let anyone know what she is up to. She must keep this a secret so that the garden is not locked up again.
Mary hears crying again in the middle of the night, and this time she goes in search of its source. She finds her cousin, Colin, a sickly boy her age who believes he is dying. He has also been mostly forgotten by his father and is even more spoiled and disagreeable than Mary is.
Mary eventually trusts Colin with her secret about the garden. He thinks being in the garden would help him get better, but since he is bedridden and requires a wheelchair to go outside, they don’t know how to get him out there without giving away the secret of the garden.
Colin is able to throw enough temper tantrums so that the adults allow Mary to take him outside in his chair alone.
Colin begins to get better through working to restore the garden with Mary.
Colin’s father (Mary’s uncle) returns home and discovers them in the garden.
Colin shows his father how much his health is restored. His father is finally able to love him the way he should have once he realizes Colin will live.
In many ways, Colin’s journey parallels Mary’s own. He is changed by the end of the novel as much as she is, and his narrative arc creates a subplot that both works with the main plot (Mary’s view of Colin affects her own behavior) and sheds light on it (the reader is able to see some of the novel’s main themes reinforced not only through Mary’s story, but Colin’s as well.)
Mary is not the same at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning. Once she gets outside and begins working to restore the garden, her focus on a goal allows her to become much more pleasant and kind. She also sees in Colin someone who is even more spoiled than she is, which allows her to view her own behavior in a new way. By the end of the novel, not only does she get what she wants (she has found and restored the secret garden) but she also has what she needs: friends, family, and people who care about her. Likewise, she has learned to care about other people in turn.
A large part of the art of a novel is in its structure. I’ve come across some writers who worry that adhering to this kind of structure makes a novel feel formulaic, but hopefully as you can see from the many iterations of structure we explore in this blog series that it is nothing of the sort! The Secret Garden uses structure to ensure the story feels satisfying to the reader, slowly using the unique events of the novel to force its characters to grow and change.
Tara Gilboy is an award-winning short fiction writer and author of the middle-grade fantasy Unwritten and its sequel Rewritten. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and teaches for San Diego Community College District. She's also worked as a fiction editor at Straylight Literary Magazine, served on the editorial board of PRISM International, and mentored for the PEN Writers in Prisons Program. As an editor, she pays particular attention to plot, structure, and character arcs.
Thank you for this, Ms. Gilboy. It’s actually more than I was looking for. I wanted a summary of the plot, in hopes of maybe being able to adapt it for a gifted class I need to teach here in Portugal in a week or two, but you have given me more than that.