Subscribe to The Horn Book

>"Little did he know"

>That line is the tipoff, in Stranger than Fiction, to English professor Dustin Hoffman that Will Ferrell might be telling the truth when he says that he can hear someone (Emma Thompson, we know) narrating his life. Hoffman says that he teaches a whole seminar on “little did he know,” and while this seems meant to be a joke about the excesses of literary theory, you really could teach a whole lot about “little did he know” and similar reveals of an author’s hand. The line also made me remember my days as Zena Sutherland’s assistant–Zena hated “little did he know,” and the presence of it or its variations (“had she but known,” etc.) in a novel meant a mandatory point deduction in a BCCB review.

We missed this movie in the theater, where it must have come and gone in a minute. When we watched it last night, I kept thinking how much I wanted a Queen Latifah in my life–she plays an “author’s assistant,” hired by Emma Thompson’s publisher to do whatever it takes to get Emma to finish her book. Which Emma does, like, three times, while the movie tries to figure out where and how it wants to end. I was happiest with ending number two. But see it if you can; this movie is one of the more satisfying examples of the fourth-wall cracking we’ve been seeing so much of lately.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >A writing coach, Roger. Someone who will force you to go for the burn. And make you stretch afterwards.

    Someone who will scare you.

  2. >We just watched this film the other night; I found it charming, if a little too “Happily ever after” – but that may be my issue, heh. I did love Hoffman’s character’s dedication to art though: “I’m sorry but you have to die.”

  3. >I suspect the short shelf-life of “Stranger Than Fiction” can be blamed on Will Farrell for remaining dressed and never praying to Baby Jesus. And on the subject of annoying phrases, “Don’t get me wrong,” peeves me. It gets filed under, Having It Both Ways. –m

  4. Anonymous says:

    >I counted two endings… what did I miss, Roger?

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >Emma’s original ending, then her explanation to Dustin as to why she changed it, then the hymn to the serendipity found in the mundane, which as hg notes, made the movie more sentimental than it needed to be.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >I thought I was the only one who hated, “little did he know,” and its variants. Thank you Roger. I’d never thought of it as a fourth wall violation, just heavy handed foreshadowing. From now on, instead of just saying “Arrgh” I will say, “Fourth Wall!” as I throw the book across the room.


  7. Anonymous says:

    >Yes, the “hymn” part was just over the line.
    I thought the whole “his heart saved his life” thing was quite sentimental enough!

  8. >Although I’ve seen this movie several times, just recently has “little did he know” reached out to me. It’s not just a line in a movie it’s a line in life. What do any of us really know? You have to live your life saying “this he did know” and forget about “little did he know”….. Thank you for presenting this forum and opening up this topic for discussion.

  9. >I’ll add my thanks for airing this. When I heard that line in the movie last week I informed my kids it’s a load of crap. I hate movies that portray writers in some absurd imagined way. Like that piece of trash, “The Devil Wears Prada.” There’s the line where the freelancer says, “I’m a freelance writer. That means I have a lot of free time on my hands.” In the theater my wife and I looked at each other and laughed. Yah, right. What a crock. The only freelance writer with time on his hands is a freelance writer who can’t find any work, and has no drive and won’t succeed as a freelance writer.
    Or one who resorts to the hackneyed hook, “Little did he know …”

  10. >Saw it last night and have come across your blog now while searching on “little did he know”, I guess this is one of those phrases you can squeeze a hell of philosophical approaches about life in…And I guess Zach Helm is a promising young writer…

    I enjoyed the movie…

    Thank you for sharing with us

  11. >I watched this movie only about 10 minutes ago! I personally do not understand the concept of ‘little did he know’- i get what it means but I don’t understand why everyone is so fascinated with it. I guess i will have to use this frase in one of my next stories or essays! Good discussion topic though-!

  12. Cassandra Krivy Hirsch says:

    >Hi. I just found your blog because I Googled "little did he know." I watched "Stranger than Fiction" last night with my 8th grade daughter who loves reading and writing. It'll take another viewing and maybe a few more years for her to catch on to some of the nuanced ideas in the film, but we both loved it. The thing I found interesting was that Hoffman's character didn't correct Ferrell's who identified "little did he know" as 3rd person omniscient; in fact, he agreed with this. So, I was wondering if you heard in the narration, as I did, that the writer was very occasionally including the watch's point of view – and perhaps also Anna's. Mostly, however, it was predominantly Harold Crick's p.o.v. narrated in that tricky close 3rd person.

    What are your thoughts?

  13. Sebastian Sulinski says:

    >I've just watched this movie last night and really enjoyed it. The part, which I think was pretty interesting was the first meeting in the bakery – this obviously has nothing to do with 'little did he know', phrase, which I really like the sound of, but the answer to the question why someone might have not paid their taxes in full – 'I'm a bit supporter of fixing pot holes, building shelters – I am more than happy to pay these taxes. I'm just not such a big fan of the percentage that government uses for national defense, corporate bailouts… therefore I didn't pay those taxes' – really good line.

  14. Pablo Herrera says:

    >About "little did he know."
    Imagine you are a writer and you know your character is going to die. But you decide that you are not the only person who deserves knowing this information, so you create a narrator who knows the same things about the story. The narrator is telling you the story as he "witnesses" it, and he mocks about the character: "Little did he know how he was going to die." The narrator laughs because he knows it, the author knows it, and now the reader knows it. The only person not knowing the character is going to die, is the character himself! It is a tragedy, because destiny will led him to his death; but, wouldn't you laugh at that?

  15. Michael D Evans says:

    >But the thing is Harold DID know he was going to die as soon as the author wrote it. And suddenly thereafter she was writing it that he knew he was going to die, but as if he still didn't know. Plus she knowingly writes him calling her but is suddenly surprised that he is.
    It's a great and humorous film: one of my favourites, but the literary part; the actual book featured in it makes no sense. Could you imagine what that book would be like if it was actually written? Just think about it: "little did he know…"; yet he does know – Actually, that sounds even more funny: An author oblivious as to what their character is fully aware of what the author is writing them into? Haha!

  16. Anonymous says:

    >on the real, this movie is about a man trying to change his fate in light of the fact that he knows. The characters in these films have a sense of enlightenment even with "little did he know", because its the easiest way to describe the premise, it said another way it would conflict with what the basis if the film is about. foreshadowing is a tool that can be deceptive, the writer obiously meant it as a joke to tell a funny story.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind