It’s never too late to come of age

Senior citizen who has graduated from school

As human beings, we’re naturally drawn to coming-of-age stories. It doesn’t matter what age we are. We all yearn to understand more about what it means to come into yourself and find your place in the world.

Oliver Twist goes from a workhouse, to an apprenticeship with an undertaker, to life as a would-be pick-pocket in the rough streets of London. In the process, his morals are put to the test. His unwillingness to help the other boys steal from an elderly man eventually leads to his redemption and the restoration of Oliver’s true place in the world. Dickens uses the personal story of one boy’s journey into adulthood to expose the horrors of child labour and the desperate plight of street children.

In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt survives hunger, a damp home, shoes with holes in them, an alcoholic father and typhoid fever. He scavenges coal, steals bread and falls in love with Shakespeare. At the tender age of fourteen, he’s glad to finally be able to “work like a man”. Over time, he manages to save enough money that he can leave for a better life in New York. On his journey into adulthood, he questions Catholicism, his father’s love and the ethics of his own sexuality.

The coming-of-age plot works equally well whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. If you’ve decided to use this structure, here are a few tips to help make your story stronger:

  • Concentrate on clashes between your protagonist and society. The bigger the struggle, the better the story. Oliver Twist didn’t have enough food nor a safe place to live. Everywhere he turned, people tried to exploit him.
  • Put your protagonist through a character defining experience such as war, a serious illness or extreme injustice. Frank McCourt’s family was trapped into poverty. His father deserted them and there weren’t any jobs in those days for women in Ireland. The family had no choice but to take charity and suffer the judgement attached to that.
  • Give your protagonist a clear goal and formidable obstacles. With each obstacle, let your protagonist gain a clearer sense of self and a stronger place in the world. Frank knew that he wanted to move to New York, but it was difficult for him to achieve his goal. His family needed most of the money he was able to earn. His job delivering coal was bad for his health and he hated writing collection letters for money. But in the end, he was able to restore justice in his own vigilante way and he earned his ticket to freedom.

A coming-of-age story doesn’t have to focus on the transition into adulthood. This structure can be used in fresh and surprising ways. Wisdom can be attained at any age. In the film, Midnight Cowboy, a small town hustler moves to New York seeking the big time, only to end up penniless and living with a crippled crook named Ratso in a condemned apartment. Joe Buck survives poverty, bitter winter in an unheated apartment and personal humiliation. In the process, he makes the only real friend he has ever had and his priorities do a complete about-face. Years after he became an adult, Joe Buck finally comes of age.

The triumphant power of love

Portrait of a beautiful man and woman. Beauty, fashion. Love concept.

Everyone has fallen in love at least once. It’s one of the most universal human experiences. Yet, in many ways, love remains a mystery. We know it when we have it, but we struggle to find it. Worse, it can slip away without us even realizing that it could be lost. While some couples remain contentedly married their whole lives, others only last a few years.

There are lots of things to enjoy in a love story. We delight in the come-hither now back-away dance of courtship. And we take pleasure in laughing at the foolishness that happens in the name of love. But a good love story does more than entertain and amuse. A good love story hits us in the guts. Whether it ultimately brings us to joy or to tears, a good love story strikes a powerful emotional chord that resounds long after we’ve put the book down.

Some might think love stories are easy to write. After all, the plot is often pretty basic: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. If only it were that simple. In love stories as in life, it’s the complications that matter. Romeo and Juliette are from feuding families. Catherine loves Heathcliff, yet she marries Edgar. Rose and Charlie face bloodthirsty parasites, mosquitos and rapids as they flee German invasion in a small steam boat called the African Queen.

Here are few ideas for creating a strong love story:

  • Put love to the full test. Give your characters formidable obstacles and don’t allow them to obtain love until they have overcome those problems. The more difficult it is for the lovers to unite, the more compelling your story will be. It’s okay if your characters fail, either along the way or at the journey’s end. Many love stories end happily, but they don’t have to. Think of “Anna Karenina”.
  • Define both characters equally well. Give them positive and negative traits. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries and feature strong personalities. We all like to believe there is somebody for everyone. While a love story about beautiful people might look pretty, it’s the love stories involving hunchbacks and large noses that really move us.
  • Add a touch of realism. The interviews with actual couples in “When Harry Met Sally” greatly enrich the love story and they make it more credible. Think about the people in your life, gather anecdotes and insights, then look for creative ways of weaving this information into your story. I’m not suggesting that you pilfer the personal stories of family and friends, and pretend that’s fiction. I’m suggesting that you use those stories to explore for yourself the meaning of love and then share that with your readers.
  • Evoke a full range of emotions. Vivid feelings are the driving force behind love stories. Don’t rely completely on sorrow and joy. Let your characters also experience fear, loathing, disappointment, frustration and anger. Love stories are about being human and all the mess that entails.
  • Add internal obstacles. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Many of the most fascinating stories focus not on obstacles that come from outside, but on obstacles within the characters themselves. The obsessive compulsive in “As Good as It Gets” yearns for love, but messes up at every opportunity because he’s insensitive and narcissistic. Until he faces his flaws and works to change them, he cannot have love.

We all enjoy watching characters face challenges and undergo authentic change because it gives us reasons to hope. This is particularly true when the potential reward is something we all yearn for—lasting love.