Nothing But Fluff…

If you’ve read enough fantasy, and enough insane fantasy at that, you’ll know that there is no such thing as fluff.  That stool is vitally important.  That squirrel in the corner is key.  See that drip of water from the ceiling?  Yeah, well, that’s the antagonists’s undoing.  You get what I’m saying.

But why am I saying it?

When a writer has a really good fantasy going, everything is necessary.  Every scene gives an important insight into an important character or situation.  If you gloss over something, it’s guaranteeing that it is vital to the story.  The point is this:  Good writers have mastered the elimination of unnecessary words.  You might think that it’s just the main character’s ADD personality kicking in when the author mentions a creaking floorboard, but that floorboard wouldn’t have been mentioned if it was superfluous.  That floorboard is going to be more important than the main character at one point.

But this is extremely hard to pull off.  You’ve got to be either brilliant or a lunatic to be able to insert creaky floorboards where they’ll do the most good, and eliminate the rest.  I prefer to think of writers like this as brilliant.  (I’d hate to call Dumas a lunatic– not that he uses floorboards all that much.)

You must have the mindset of everything being important to pull something like this off.  If a character is walking down the street, the one face he notices will have to be a supporting character that only enters the second half of the story.  If he’s admiring a strangely proportioned lizard, that lizard must fall off of something high onto the large red button that must not be pressed– ever (but it can’t happen before most of the story has passed).  That’s the way it works.  Character notices something in the beginning of the story that becomes necessary later, but he isn’t necessarily the one to implement it.  Understand what I’m saying?

The only way to write like this, inserting vital things in the beginning where they’ll be used later on, is to be writing entirely spontaneously.  You cannot plan these things and have them turn out as well as if you wrote them on the spur of the moment.  And you must avoid saying something like “I didn’t know it then, but this would be life-changing.”  You must avoid the “little did he know”.

“‘Little did he know.’ That means there’s something he doesn’t know, which means there’s something you don’t know.  Did you know that?”  –Professor Jules Hilbert, Stranger than Fiction

If that “little did he know” is in there, the reader now knows that it’s important and watches for it. Instead, you must give no hint of anything out of the ordinary. It’s like planning a surprise birthday party. If you let one word slip in the wrong person’s hearing, they’ll know immediately, and watch for it. There go your plans for dumping a bucket of slime over his head as he walks in the door.

The only way to keep a reader from guessing something is to not have more than a hint of an idea yourself.  This is the crux of the matter.  If you don’t know, there is no “little did he know”.  And if there’s no “little did he know”, you can stick as many references in there as you can manage.

But.  If you do go around saying “little did he know”, and if you have gotten to the point where there is no extraneous matter, then you’ve got a ton of “little did he know”s floating around.

Bob stepped over a puddle.  Little did he know that that puddle would eventually lead to his discovery of the most intact ancient text in the world, but that doesn’t come into the story until later.  He tripped over a dog.  Little did he know that this dog would cause his life to be saved.  He cursed at all the “little did he know”s the author was using.  Little did he know that by cursing, he taught a small child a new word that would eventually lead to his downfall.

You see the point.  Little do most authors know, as I have been stressing for many days of the past weeks now, that the “little did he know” is the key to their predictability and eventual downfall as well.  You may think you’re adding an element of foreboding, but you’re just giving the reader more power, aiding him in his quest to be two steps ahead of you.

Now look where I’ve gotten to.  I’ve gone from describing how you cannot have extraneous matter, but instead must tie it to a later point of the story; all the way to describing why you cannot have the “little did he know”.  Now I realize how easy it would actually be to teach an entire seminar on “little did he know”.

Leave a comment


  1. Hahaha!

    This is Harry Potter.


    But J.K. Rowling is a master at this. You think, “Oh, this HAS to mean something!” And it… doesn’t.

    • Oh, but that’s the opposite point! I meant to say that everything must mean something. So if it doesn’t, it’s contrary to the point of the post. Sorry.

      • Nonono… O_O I must not have typed all of my comment, there’s more.

        JKR is a master at confusing you about what little things are important. The things that MUST be important (in your mind) aren’t necessarily, and the things that CAN’T be usually are. And then you think, “Well, it CAN’T be- so that will be important, just because I think it is.” And then it isn’t. Does that make any sense? You get so turned around trying to figure everything out.

      • So she uses red herrings in order to diminish the reader’s self-confidence.

  2. Seana J. Vixen

     /  May 13, 2012

    Ah, the great “little did he know”‘s. One book that does a good job of adding random little tidbits that take you on false leads and then makes you want to slap yourself in the face for thinking this, that, or the other when in reality, it was the whatsoever. It’s quite a good book.
    Now, which book am I ranting on about? Why The Secret War of course! (Author: Matt Myklusch) Of course, this is the second book in a series called Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation (Also known by the title of The Accidental Hero) so I’d advise reading the first book, well, first. And of course, the first book in this series has a horrible beginning, but stick with it through the end and I think you’d enjoy this. NOTE: The second book is so much better than the first.

  3. YES. I must have been half asleep when I wrote that comment. I couldn’t think of the term. Red herrings. Duh. O_o

    • Yes, indeed. Red herrings are effective, but extremely talented writers can do without them quite well. I think I’ll settle with learning to use the red herring for now.

  4. Phrases like “little did he know,” or “he would later discover that” just make the narrative sound stilted and unnatural to me. Besides being rather obvious foreshadowing, they break up the flow of the story. The avoidance of superfluous words is indeed a good skill to have!

  5. I just finished a book that ended three(?) chapters in a row with variations on “little did he know”. It was kinda annoying.
    Red herrings and the sprinkling of breadcrumbs are two things I need to work on. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

  6. Miriam Joy

     /  May 19, 2012

    Stranger Than Fiction is one of my favourite films EVER. We watched it in an English class, actually, as we were doing this module on analysing and reviewing films, bgut that didn’t diminish how awesome it is. It’s just … the best thing.
    Sometimes, phrases similar to ‘little did he know’ can work. For example, Harper Lee used them in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. It’s written from Scout’s point of view and it’s clear that it’s being written when she’s grown up, looking back, from both the language and how she introduces the book in media situ. However, she writes the trial as she must have seen it at the time, through childish eyes. Only occasionally does the ‘older Scout’ step in to explain things, with phrases like, “Only later did I realise…” and stuff.


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