by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Coming of age stories have long been a staple of storytelling. Since the early days of film and television, audiences have enjoyed watching characters that mature before our very eyes. These stories usually offer hard lessons that only experience and living life can teach us. They usually focus on the growth of a character from youth into adulthood, emphasizing the internal development of that character as she or he navigates external situations. While the ways these stories are executed can greatly differ depending on the characters, the circumstances, and even the specific genre, there are some similarities between the most common approaches.
Here are four possible ways you might consider crafting a coming of age story.
The Moment in Time Approach
The Moment in Time Approach explores the minutiae of characters’ daily lives as a metaphor for their larger and more profound journeys. These stories often take place over the course of a single day or short period of time in the character’s life.
In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, we meet a young woman whose daily struggle involves trying to fit in while also striving to leave her small-town life. In The Breakfast Club, we encounter a group of young characters that share a small, seemingly insignificant experience over a single day together but learn an insightful lesson as a result. A group of young boys leave their neighborhood to go see a dead body in Stand By Me. They return well on the road to manhood as a result of the experience.
The Long-Haul Approach
Much the opposite of the Moment in Time Approach, the Long-Haul Approach takes the prolonged view on the process of maturation. In these stories, we often encounter characters throughout various periods of their lives. We see them change as a result of the different seasons that they experience.
In Lion, for example, we focus on two significant seasons of the protagonist’s life – his early years of childhood and his mid 20s. Throughout the story, we are shown the connective narrative tissue between the two periods. The Royal Tenebaums walks the audience through the humorous early years of its central characters in an extended montage. We are then brought into their adult lives and made to see how little they have changed. The story picks up at a significant moment of transition for all the characters in the story. The ultimate Long-Haul coming of age story is Boyhood, which follows a character, portrayed by the same actor, from early childhood through adulthood.
The Big Event Approach
Another method of developing coming of age stories involves the concentration around a single life event that forces growth and development in the story’s characters. The key to successfully executing the Big Event Approach is to identify an event with enough gravitational force to affect every character in the story in some way. The event must also allow for an opportunity for growth and change.
American Pie revolves around a collection of characters all trying to lose their virginity. Some fail in the quest and others succeed. However, all are changed as a result of the event. Pretty in Pink circles around a school dance and the relationships that lead up to it. When the dance does occur in the third act, we see just how much the characters have changed in the period leading up to it. Juno orbits around a pregnancy that affects the life, not just of the protagonist, but also of everyone in her sphere of influence. The event serves as a catalyst for changes in the worldview of Juno and the characters she comes in contact with.
The Petri Dish Approach
The Petri Dish Approach is when a group of characters are put in close proximity, often a high school, and change as a result of their awkward fumbling when they “bump into each other.” This approach requires conflict that results from the forced closeness that the characters’ share. It has universal appeal as we have all been in situations where we had no choice but to deal with others in tight quarters, where escape was just not an option.
Clueless explores the love, the drama, and the humor that arises when characters of highly competitive social classes are confronted with the lowbrow realities of high school. Mean Girls covers similar territory, but combines a “fish out of water” element. Dope explores the same idea but within the African American cultural experience. The Petri Dish Approach allows audiences to closely observe how we, ourselves, might grow in intimate circumstances where that growth does not seem evident at the time it’s being experienced.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.