Although largely non-fiction, the book has a loose plot structure that is developed in the classical manner. The prologue and early chapters are largely introductory, giving the setting of the black culture, developing the main characters, and introducing the themes. Most of the book is comprised of rising action, as Maya struggles towards self-understanding and independence. During these formative years, she is usually a victim. When Dolores stabs her with the scissors, she forces the climax of the book. The incident causes the horror and fear of her past to come back and haunt Maya. As a result, she makes the decision to run away. Living in a junkyard with a gang of runaways, Maya finds the independence and self-worth that has previously evaded her. She learns that she can take care of herself and is responsible for her destiny.
The falling action unfolds to show how Maya reacts to her new sense of independence. Her first significant decision is to leave the junkyard and return to live with Vivian. Back in San Francisco, she sees things in a new light. The city no longer has the same charm for her, and she also sees Bailey as less than perfect. She doggedly pursues a position as streetcar conductor and becomes the first black woman ever to be hired for the job. She also makes the decision to stay in school, even though she no longer has nothing in common with her peers.
Maya's only foolish decision in the falling action is her need to prove her own sexuality. Fearing that she might be a lesbian, she asks a neighborhood boy to have sex with her. After an unromantic one-time encounter, she finds that she is pregnant. She hides the pregnancy from everyone and stays in school through graduation. Her mistake, however, turns into her blessing. In the conclusion of the book, Maya gives birth to a healthy son, whom she adores. For the first time in her life she feels needed, loved, and connected. Her coming of age story is complete.
Since the book spans many years of Maya's life in several different locations, it is almost a picaresque tale that is not tightly unified by time or place. Instead, the book is held together by Maya's narration and constant point of view. As the central character and protagonist, Maya is the key unifying factor. The themes also help to meld the plot into a satisfying whole.