How to Write a Coming-of-Age Story: Your Step-by-Step Guide

Coming-of-age stories are compelling, and learning their pattern makes writing easier. Check out our step-by-step guide on how to write a coming-of-age story.

A coming-of-age story is a classic story in modern literature and screenwriting. It is compelling because it explores most people’s experiences while the writer takes the reader on a journey that embraces a loss of innocence and a move from youth to adulthood. The journey to leave behind childhood and discover one’s identity is personal and emotional, making it the excellent catalyst for a novel or short story. This story arc has a predictable pattern, and learning how to write starts with understanding that pattern and then putting personal elements in it.

Types of Coming-of-Age Stories

Before writing a coming-of-age story, you must understand the different types of stories that fit this genre. Specifically, coming-of-age stories can be one of the following:

  • Bildungsroman: A bildungsroman is a story where a person is followed through their formative years while they gain some philosophical or spiritual education before reaching a point of maturity.
  • Journey of self-discovery: Some coming-of-age stories take the main character on a journey of self-discovery. Through the course of the book or film, the main character discovers their identity as they go on a journey of personal growth.
  • Sexual coming-of-age story: Many books focus on a person’s discovery of sexuality or experiencing a first adult experience. This act becomes a turning point for many characters from childhood to adulthood.
  • Story of betrayal: Betrayal is one of the fastest ways to lose one’s innocence, and stories of betrayal can be a classic example of a coming-of-age trope.

Coming-of-Age Story Examples

How to write a coming-of-age story?
Harry Potter is one classic example of a coming-of-age story in modern literature

The best way to understand the coming-of-age story arc is to look at some classic examples of a coming-of-age story in modern literature. Some of the most famous include:

  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling: In Harry Potter, we meet the boy wizard when he is just 11, facing the realities of being an unloved, unwanted orphan with magical powers. Through the six novels, we watch as he grows in his abilities, knowledge, and understanding while becoming a powerful young adult who defeats a major foe.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: This book follows a 15-year-old through his first year of high school. Because of the loss of innocence and maturing in the main character’s life, it is a coming-of-age story. The character’s use of drugs, discussions of abuse, and the realities of trauma make this a compelling read.
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye tells about Holden Caulfield, who takes to the city in search of a connection while running from his unhappy home and childhood. After being expelled from prep school, Caulfield spends a few weeks exploring the seedy side of New York. His loss of innocence and eventual return home are classic examples of coming-of-age story elements, even though the book only covers a short period of time.
  • To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee: In To Kill a Mocking Bird, the main character and narrator must learn about the realities of prejudice and injustice that come from it. When the young narrator’s father chooses to represent a black man unfairly accused of rape, the realities of these deep themes come to light, even while being shown through the eyes of a child. This creates moral growth and development, placing the book in the coming-of-age genre.
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: In this classic book from 1849, Dickens follows a character that closely resembles himself as he moves from a challenging childhood to life as a young adult and then a mature adult working well within society. It is considered an excellent look at the perils of Victorian England, but it is also an excellent example of a coming-of-age book.

Step 1: Define Your Characters

A coming-of-age story is primarily about the character’s growth and maturity journey. While there can be many plot points along the way, you must have clearly defined characters, and the book must stay focused on their evolution. For many, the character will be in high school, but if the book has a historical setting rather than a modern one, the story will usually have a young adult or adolescent as the main character.

Make sure you know many details about your character. What is the character’s main area where they need to grow? What is their current worldview? How will that change through the course of the story? Once you answer these questions, you will be prepared to move the character on their path towards majority and self-discovery. Character development is essential to building this story effectively.

Step 2: Start in Childhood

Start in childhood
You should start the story with your main characters’ childhood years

Start your story with your main character in their youth. The actual age doesn’t matter, but the fact that they are clearly defined as a youth is essential. This means that they will be under some rules, like school or family rules, and have a fairly innocent worldview without much trauma.

Step 3: Add Some Conflict

Next, add some conflict. You usually need something in the character’s life that pushes them forward toward that loss of innocence or development toward maturity. There needs to be something in their youth that is not quite perfect. Your goal in this type of story is to reflect real life, and no one has a perfect life void of conflict. The conflict could be internal, like a struggle to define one’s worldview or values, or it could be external, such as the need to face some enemy or adversary. Sometimes in this type of story, the character will face both.

In the coming-of-age story, the conflict is usually the catalyst for change. It can come as a call to adventure, a key event, or an inciting event. It can be obvious, like in Harry Potter, where the wizarding world is fighting Voldemort, or it can be less so, as in the conflict between Caulfield and his teachers that sent him on his self-discovery journey. However you weave it into your tale, it will break the spell of childhood on your character, push the character to a decision, and launch them into the adult world in a new way.

Step 4: Draw from Personal Experiences

There’s a reason that David Copperfield is considered to be autobiographical by many literary critics. Every adult experiences the challenges of moving into adulthood, and this makes it easy to write based on your personal experiences. Since coming-of-age tales tend to follow real-world experiences, think about your life experiences when writing them. What made you lose your innocence as a child? What challenges did you face while growing up? Some of the most effective coming-of-age novels are deeply personal because the writer draws from their experiences and questions as a young person.

Step 5: Define Your Story Arc

Now that you have characters and a conflict determined, you are ready to outline your story arc. Where will your character begin, what actions will they face as they grow, what will the story’s climax be, and where will they end? Make a brief outline of these plot points, and you will be well on your way to having an effective coming-of-age story. Remember that this is not like a hero’s journey tale or fantasy novel where there needs to be some epic battle and climax point, but there should be a gradual rise from the beginning to a turning point, then a quick resolution of the story.

Step 6: Follow Your Character Through the Transition

A coming-of-age story continues after the main conflict and the movement into adulthood. The story follows the character as they begin to understand what it is like to be a mature adult. They will feel many emotions in this new mature phase, and they will also feel torn between being a youth and an adult. Their naivete will play a role in the development of the plot. They may face many mini-conflicts or tests that make them choose between childhood innocence and adult maturity. For a large portion of the story, your character will be teetering between childhood and adulthood and wrestling with the emotions that come from this unique stage of life.

Step 7: Push Toward a Turning Point

The internal conflict between wanting to remain in childhood and wanting to be an adult is the gist of the book or short story until the character reaches a turning point. The turning point is the literary climax, and it gives the character a chance to prove that they can live and operate as an adult, standing on their own feet in this new world. They can finally break free from most of the rules and regulations of childhood and embrace new-found independence.

Step 8: Look at Adult Independence

Now that your character has stepped away from childhood and into adult independence, give them time to embrace and enjoy that identity. This is an excellent point in the story to implement a defeat, which makes the character rethink their new adult identity. However, they must overcome the defeat with a new passion for embracing a new identity. At this point, they cannot regain their lost innocence and return to nieve childhood again but must move forward with new independence and maturity.

Step 9: Embrace Coming of Age

Embrace coming of age
This last section of your story is short but will wrap up your tale and give the character some closure as they move into adult life

Finally, you will need your character to embrace their coming-of-age fully. This may look like the character being respected as an equal among the adults in the story. It may look like acceptance of whatever trauma they experienced and moving forward from that point. It usually includes accepting the consequences of new adulthood, like leaving behind childhood friends. This last section of your story is short but will wrap up your tale and give the character some closure as they move into adult life. Looking for more? Check out our round-up of the biggest YouTubers!

  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.