I read a high-profile young adult novel this year. I won’t say who the author is or whether it came out this year.

I will say this: It entertained me. The world building was well thought out, the plot, which was a mystery, kept me turning the pages, and the characters were well drawn.

But guess what? I’m not going to remember it. Already, I can’t even tell you the name of the protagonist, and I only finished it a month ago. And even though it’s the first book in a trilogy, I won’t be buying the second or third book.

So, why is this competently executed novel so forgettable?

Because it’s not about anything.

It had plenty of plot but no story or theme.

And I see this issue time and time again with novels, particularly young adult novels.

Authors are more focused on clockwork plots with clever twists than actually building a story that supports a central dramatic argument that says something about life.

While building such a story is not easy, one doesn’t need to have something super original to say to create a great, unforgettable story.

Consider, for example, these rather trite themes:

Hope is a good thing.

Each man’s life touches so many other lives.

No man is a failure who has friends.

The first theme comes from The Shawshank Redemption, one of the most popular movies of all time. And the latter two, of course, are from It’s A Wonderful Life, a beloved classic.

Now, there are sometimes more original central dramatic arguments, such as the following:

Sadness plays an important role in our lives.

That one comes from Inside Out.

But, in general, your theme doesn’t have to be especially original.

I’m reading another book right now that I know I’m going to remember. I’m not sure just yet what its central theme is, but it already has a lot to say about life, including how the weight of time and the past can cause us pain. And how everything changes and yet nothing does—again, not an original insight, but it’s presented in a new way in this book.

The book is How To Stop Time by Matt Haig. It’s going to be made into a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch. And I can see why. The novel has a high-concept premise—the protagonist is a man who doesn’t age and has lived for decades looking about 40.

But the feelings and thoughts the story evokes are universal. Who among us hasn’t felt the weight of the past at some point? Or tried to figure out our purpose in life? This book heightens these feelings through a protagonist who lives 15 times longer than an average person, and who has to wrestle with these issues as he watches the world dramatically change over the centuries and yet stay essentially the same.

So, if you want to write a book or movie that is unforgettable, you greatly improve your chances with a central dramatic argument/theme.

Is that enough to make it unforgettable?

No.

But if you focus on a theme, building your story around it, you will have a significant advantage over the legion of writers out there who’ve never given it a passing thought . . . and whose novels quickly fade from our collective memories.

If you want to learn how to build a story based on a theme/central dramatic argument, sign up for the email opt-in below, which will send you what I consider the simplest approach to designing a story with a central dramatic argument. 

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