How to Write a Coming-of-Age Story: Definition, Tips, and How to Publish

Coming-of-age stories are among some of the most beloved and far-reaching tales ever. They transcend genres, allow for a tried-and-true storytelling framework, and provide a great way to explore the intricacies of life in almost any way you want. 

So whether you want to write a coming-of-age movie, novel, or short story, there's plenty of opportunity to make it your own. And that's just what I'll cover in this article on how to write a coming-of-age story. 

In this article, you will learn:
  1. The different types of coming-of-age stories.
  2. What to do before you start writing. 
  3. Tips to help you write a crowd-pleasing coming-of-age story.

What is a Coming of Age Story?

One nice thing about coming-of-age stories is their versatility. You can have a coming-of-age plot in pretty much any genre. But there is also a coming-of-age genre in which the main storyline revolves around one or more characters' transition from childhood to adulthood. This is as good a definition as any, but it still leaves something to be desired.

That said, if you want to write a coming-of-age story that will fit snugly in that genre, you'll want to keep a few other factors in mind. Coming of age stories:

  • Are often set in the past. 
  • Are often written in the first person
  • May prioritize internal struggle and growth over external events. (Character development over plot.)
  • Often have teenagers as their protagonists. 

But what if you want to write a coming-of-age thriller? Or maybe a horror story with a coming-of-age plot line? This is where this tried-and-true story type comes in handy. So let's take a look at how coming-of-age stories can work in any genre.

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How to Use a Coming-of-Age Plotline in Your Story

When you get down to it, every satisfying story is about some sort of growth or change (for better or worse). Not every story focuses solely on personal growth. Many genre stories, like thrillers and mysteries, are more plot-focused. 

But even these stories feature a series of challenges the protagonist must overcome—through growth. Of course, some stories feature characters who try and fail to overcome the challenges placed before them.

In this broad sense, every story could be considered a coming-of-age story. Even if the protagonist is in her seventies, she could still be struggling to let go of childish things—or things that have been holding her back since middle age. 

That's not to say that you would want to market your novel about an octogenarian detective as a coming-of-age story. Probably not. But the same things that make coming-of-age stories so timeless are the same things that help make good stories what they are—they all have the same basic ingredients. 

Keep this in mind as you read this article. Because when we get to the coming-of-age writing tips below, you'll see that crafting a coming-of-age story isn't just useful for that specific genre. It can be useful for storytelling in general. 

Coming of Age: Bildungsroman

Before we move on, I would be remiss not to talk about a specific subgenre of coming-of-age tales. The literary term bildungsroman (of German origin) describes a subgenre of coming-of-age stories in which the focus is on the moral and intellectual changes that happen when transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

The plot of a bildungsroman usually centers around an immature youth venturing out into the world. Often, the catalyst for this adventure is some kind of emotional turmoil or upset at home (the inciting incident). 

As the story progresses, the character faces challenges—often brought about by the rashness of youth or their lack of maturity. The primary conflict is usually between the protagonist and society at large. With every challenge, the protagonist comes closer to adulthood by learning to set aside childish things, thereby conforming to society's standards. Eventually, the tale ends as the protagonist is accepted into society

While most bildungsroman stories end with the character accepted into society, this doesn't mean your story has to follow this character arc. Some of the most impactful stories are those that subvert our expectations. Your character could reject society altogether, although this would be considered a kind of tragedy in the coming-of-age genre.  

Coming-of-Age Books to Read

As with every other genre, reading coming-of-age novels is an excellent way to understand how to write one. Luckily, some of the most lasting and impactful books ever written are coming-of-age novels, so you’ve likely already read several.

First, we'll look at the obvious examples. Then I'll present you with some not-so-obvious coming-of-age stories you’re probably familiar with. 

“Classic” Coming of Age Novels

These novels are probably the ones that come to mind when you think of coming-of-age stories. They include both modern young adult novels and classics that are required reading at many high schools. 

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
  • Great Expectations and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Outsiders by SE Hinton
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling

Other Coming-of-Age Stories (Maybe a Little Less Obvious)

The following examples may not fall directly into the coming-of-age genre, but they all have easily identifiable aspects that make them great stories to study if you're looking to write one of these narratives. 

  • The Godfather – A coming-of-age story about Michael Corleone as he first rejects his family's business, then grows to accept it after shedding his “childish” notions. 
  • The Matrix – This could also be considered a coming-of-age story as Neo learns the truth about the world. But instead of being accepted into “society”, he fights against its injustice. 
  • Fight Club (Movie) – The Narrator's journey is one very much at odds with society—so much so that his alter ego builds a small guerilla army to destroy it. But in the end, the Narrator learns to compromise as he reaches out for human connection. Director David Fincher even described the movie as “a seminal coming of age for people who are coming of age in their thirties instead of in their late teens or early twenties.”
  • Batman Begins – Bruce Wayne's journey in this first Christopher Nolan Batman movie is one through childish notions of petty revenge as he searches for meaning in a cruel world. Instead of accepting the way Gotham is, he resolves to change it by becoming Batman. 

As you can see, coming-of-age stories come in all shapes and sizes. With that in mind, let's get to the tips for writing one of these tales. 

Tips for Writing a Great Coming-of-Age Story

There's no right way to write a story. You may like to plot yours out to the very last detail. Or you may like to hop around as you write, deciding on a whim what will happen. As such, I've tried not to structure these tips to cater to one kind of writing. Take them and incorporate them into your writing style for best results!

Determine Your Genre/Subgenre

If you don't already have an idea of what genre your book will fit into, it's best to decide this before writing. Of course, your genre will also be influenced by your goals in writing the book. 

If you simply want to write a coming-of-age novel and you're not concerned about making it commercially viable, then this isn't such a big deal. But if you would like to make some money (even just a few extra dollars every month for your coffee fund), then you'll want to choose a genre.

As I said earlier, you can have a coming-of-age novel that's also a thriller, a mystery, a romance, or pretty much any other genre. Even if you want to fit your novel into the overarching coming-of-age genre (for which Amazon does have a category), you'll still want to decide which other two categories your book will go into. 

The trick is to pick a genre or subgenre that isn't too competitive but that still has a hungry readership. To learn how to do this, check out my article here. In it, I show you two ways to research your genres and determine which ones are right for you at any stage in your author career. 

By far, the easiest way to do this is by using the Publisher Rocket tool, which my team and I designed just for this purpose. It gathers important data on categories, keywords, and competition from Amazon. It not only can save you time, but it can give you a leg up by ensuring you choose the right categories for ultimate visibility. Check out Publisher Rocket here.

Once you know your genre and/or subgenre, you can then let it inform your writing, making sure you include the tropes that readers of that genre are looking for. 

Decide on Your Coming-of-Age Theme

While I've described the overarching themes of most coming-of-age stories, you'll want to get a little more specific when it comes time to write. There are many common themes you can choose from, all of which work well for these types of stories. 

Loss of Childhood Innocence – There comes a time in most people's lives when they have to square what they see in the real world with the idealized picture they've built for themselves. This can be very difficult and often comes after gaining some life experience and trauma. 

Search for Identity – Developing into the people we want (or hope) to be is another difficult part of growing up. Often, this growth (or lack thereof) is punctuated by a few difficult choices. The right path is not always clear, and doing the right thing sometimes has unforeseen consequences.  

Learning to Compromise – It's easy to be idealistic as a young person. When we’re young, we look at the world and know just how to fix it. But as we gradually learn more about the adult world, we often find that things aren't so simple. We must learn to compromise or be rejected by society. 

Relating to Others – Relationships are key in any coming-of-age story, but they're not always what the central conflict revolves around. However, if you choose this theme, your story will be about relationships and how they evolve as your character moves from childhood to adulthood. These could be relationships with parents, friends, or siblings. It could also be about romantic relationships. 

Sexuality – Part of growing up is coming to terms with one's sexuality. This can be especially difficult for those with nontraditional sexual preferences or anyone growing up in a society where talking about sex is frowned upon. As such, this theme is often explored in coming-of-age stories.  

Choose a Plot Structure

Even if you're a discovery writer, this tip can help you! 

There are many valid plot structures out there. And the nice thing about a coming-of-age story is that almost all of them will work with a little tweaking. 

Even if you don't plan on writing an outline for your story, it's still a good idea to have a broad outline in mind. This can help guide you as you write, but it won't be so rigid that you can't deviate from the structure a bit when it suits your story. 

Although there are a bunch of different plot structures, I highly recommend one in particular for anyone writing a coming-of-age novel: The Hero's Journey.

Joseph Campbell's famed narrative structure is essentially a blueprint that fits perfectly with most coming-of-age tales. But again, you don't have to stick to it exactly. Use it to guide you and don't be afraid to make little changes as you go. 

As a refresher, here's a quick breakdown of the Hero's Journey. If you're not familiar with this plot structure, you can also visit the Hero's Journey article for a more in-depth look. 

  • The Ordinary World
  • The Call to Adventure
  • Refusing the Call to Adventure
  • Meeting the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Test, Allies, and Enemies
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave
  • The Ordeal
  • The Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection
  • Return With the Elixir

Craft Your Characters and POV

Some writers start with characters, while others start with plot. You may even think of your coming-of-age story in terms of both plot and character. 

No matter what kind of writer you are, you'll have to think about your characters before you start writing. And in doing so, you'll also need to think about what POV you'll use. Most coming-of-age stories are told in the first person, but that doesn't mean you have to write yours that way. Third person is also a viable option. 

POV and character go hand-in-hand with choosing how many points of view you'll have. Since these stories usually focus more on the character's internal growth, you'll also have to decide how much internal monologue you'll have. In other words, how much of the main character's thoughts will appear on the page? 

Of course, you'll also want to decide on things like age, personality, proclivities, habits, and idiosyncrasies. Will your character be in high school? Or will they be older? Remember, coming-of-age stories can pertain to all age groups. 

In crafting your main character, you'll also need to think about their character arc. In other words, how will they change throughout the story? What kind of character growth will they experience? A character who doesn't change at all (or doesn't affect change in their world) is not a character most readers will want to follow. 

Formatting and Publishing the Easy Way

After you’ve written your coming-of-age story, you’ll still need to format the edited manuscript before publishing. You can certainly try to do this yourself in Microsoft Word, which takes several hours at least. Or you can hire a formatter (often for a minimum of $200). Neither of these options is great, especially if you’re on a budget or don’t have a lot of spare time. 

This is why my team and I made Atticus, an all-in-one writing and formatting tool. With a couple of clicks, you can format your manuscript so it’s ready to publish. You can choose from over a dozen pre-made formatting options, or you can customize and create your own with ease.

Atticus is also a word processor, featuring editing capabilities (like Find and Replace), automatic Table of Contents generation, and pre-made section templates. 

Check out Atticus here to learn more about this tool—which is available for a one-time price for lifetime access (no monthly subscription).  

How to Write a Coming of Age Story: Wrapping Up

The coming-of-age tale is so versatile it is both a genre of its own and a framework for stories in all different genres. So whether you're writing a YA novel, a science fiction adventure (yes, the original Star Wars trilogy has a coming-of-age story arc), or a historical fiction epic, you really can't go wrong with this type of story. 

And your character doesn't have to be a young boy or girl in order for the story to work. It can be applied to characters of any age. 

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Before you write, study your favorite coming-of-age film or book. Think about how the character changes and matures throughout. How are they different at the end than they were at the beginning?

Using a plot structure like The Hero's Journey, think about your story in broad strokes. Craft your characters and their arcs. And when you're ready, get to writing!

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