How to Write a Coming-of-Age Story

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Coming-of-age stories are one of the most popular genres in literary fiction. Such stories can be directed to teenage or to adult readers. Either way, they offer familiar themes of growing up. But writing a good coming-of-age story, especially one that doesn’t fall into the usual clichés, can be just as challenging as writing any story. Here are some key steps to help you write an effective coming-of-age story for either teen or adult readers.

  • All coming-of-age stories are about characters who move from innocence to experience. As your teen characters move through the plot of your tale, they gain insight and wisdom about themselves and the world they live in. Consider how you want to tell this narrative arc for your coming-of-age tale. What are the circumstances in which your character finds herself? Does your character come from a poor environment? Is she rich, self-absorbed, confused or angry?

  • Where do you want to take your character at the end of her narrative arc? If she is a spoiled, self-absorbed rich girl, for instance, then you want to put her in circumstances that force her to gain insight about her world and herself. Perhaps your character, because of her self-absorption, ends up getting into trouble with the law and is forced to do community service at a nursing home. Her experiences, for instance, working with the elderly forces her to gain greater insight about herself and her attitudes toward life.

  • Create strong and interesting characters. This is true for all fiction. Make your teen characters believable. They should think and act like real teens. They shouldn’t think and act like middle-aged characters with half their lives behind them. But don’t use clichés or stereotypes, either. Your teen character can be thoughtful, intelligent and witty. But create a character that is still believable to his or her circumstances. Avoid writing squeaky-clean characters as well. Give them equal amounts of strengths and flaws.

  • Avoid using slang or any of the current hip jargon. While slang and jargon might make your characters sound contemporary, it can also date your story rather quickly. Words such as “cool” or “hip” are exceptions because they have become more mainstream in colloquial language.

  • If you’re writing about controversial issues---drug use, teen sex, incest, rape, gang violence, etc.---approach the subject in new and inventive ways. There are plenty of young adult fiction which probe the uglier side of teen life. A story about teen pregnancy, for instance, can end up being clichéd if you don’t approach it in a different way. Find out what has already been written about the subject and see if there are different ways you can approach it. For instance, a story about a Christian girl who gets pregnant after pledging to be “abstinent only” might be a different way to approach the subject. Perhaps that girl grows up in a war-torn area like Iraq. Her attitudes toward life and death will greatly affect the way you can approach her pregnancy.

  • But don’t be gratuitous either. Don’t throw in drug use, teen sex, rape, violence, incest, etc. if you think it will make your story hipper or grab a publisher’s attention. Again, these issues have already been mined and most publishers might want to move in another direction. Rather use them because they are inherent to your story. For instance, if you’re writing about teens living in a war-torn area, then drug use, rape and death will be things they might have to navigate on their way to adulthood.

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