Why “Little Did He Know” Gives Away Too Much Too Soon

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Professor Jules Hilbert: Perhaps you should keep a journal. Write down what she said or something. That’s all I can suggest.
Harold Crick: I can barely remember it all. I just remember “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would lead to his imminent death”.
Professor Jules Hilbert: What?
Harold Crick: Little did he know…
Professor Jules Hilbert: Did you say, “Little did he know…”?
Harold Crick: Yes.
Professor Jules Hilbert: I’ve written papers on “Little did he know…”. I used to teach a class based on “Little did he know…”.’ I mean, I once gave an entire seminar on “Little did he know…”. Son of a bitch, Harold. “Little did he know…” means there’s something he doesn’t know. That means there’s something you don’t know. Did you know that?
Stranger Than Fiction

*****

I recently edited a book that consistently ended each chapter with a “Little did he know” giveaway.

“Little did he know that a cancer diagnosis would soon change everything.”
“Little did he know that the worst was still to come.”
“Little did he know that his sister was also his mother.”

Okay, those are fictional examples of what the writer was doing but you get the picture. He thought he was building up suspense. But instead what he was actually doing was giving away all the plot points before they happened. So by the time the reader got to the plot point as it occurred later in the narrative, the element of surprise and all the other associated emotions that should have been felt in that moment were dulled by the fact they already knew it was coming.

Of course, the problem is the same whether it’s “Little did he know”, “Little did she know”, “Little did we know”, “Little did they know” or “Little did I know” (although “Little did I know” comes with a whole other set of issues in that as a first person narrator, you can’t know more than you know unless you’re writing in the past tense in the sense of “I didn’t know it at the time but…”).

The example above from Stranger Than Fiction is used in and of itself as a plot point because Harold Crick begins hearing a voice narrating his life, which he finds annoying and unusual but hardly fatal, until he hears the voice say, “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would lead to his imminent death.” From then on, Harold desperately tries to find out why he’s hearing the voice and what he can do to prevent the imminent death his narrator has inadvertently warned him of. A psychiatrist tells him he has schizophrenia but the literature specialist, Professor Jules Hilbert, tells him he needs to figure out what kind of story he’s in to determine if he can stop his untimely demise.

Obviously it’s a high concept story playing off the fact that “Little did he know” gives away too much information. But when “Little did he know” is used without an irreverent nod to that fact, when it’s used in a no concept or low concept story, it usually just gives away too much too soon.

Sometimes it’s hard for us as writers to forget the fact that we know everything in the little universes we create and, for all intents and purposes, we are the gods of those worlds. But in order to create suspense in our writing, that’s exactly what we need to do. To try to combat this, in my debut novel Enemies Closer, I wrote each chapter from the perspective of different characters so that they couldn’t reveal things that only other characters knew. And when the characters who did know things got their chance to narrate a chapter, I didn’t automatically assume that they would be thinking about the things that the other characters didn’t know. I’d put them into some stressful situations so they were primarily thinking about how to get out of them. Eventually, things were revealed naturally as they tried to figure out the mystery I’d dropped them in the middle of. I like to think I did it successfully but that’s really up to others to decide.

The key is a drip-feed approach – to gradually reveal smaller components of larger facts that by themselves seem innocuous or irrelevant but when considered as a whole lead to jaw-dropping, oh-my-god moments that readers love. Throwing in a little bit of misdirection might not hurt either. But giving too much away too soon will definitely hurt. Because there are some readers who aren’t inclined to persist when they don’t enjoy what they’re reading and if they already know what’s going to happen, then they really don’t need to. But if they feel like they need to know and don’t yet, regardless of whether they’re enjoying it or not, then they will likely keep reading – all the way to the end if you’re lucky enough.

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