Deadly Ever After

The Worst 3 Little Words: I DON’T KNOW.

TODAY’S BREW: Life Is Good S’mores Flavor. Your jealousy tastes delicious.

By Julie


Reading makes you a better writer. Editing does even more so. I’m quiet about my Undeaditing services because they’ve been steady, and I want to be able to give attention completely to my work, both as an editor and an author.


This one line stands out to me in every book, published or not, first draft or elevendyhundreth draft; in every movie, in conversation now. This one:


It’s a natural answer, everyone on earth says it, but when writing you need everything your character says to show something about them. Consider these questions I just made up:

What are you going to do now that the aliens have breached the mother ship?

(I don’t know.)

Are you ever going to be normal again?

(I don’t know.)

Have you ever been so tired of being bland that you decided to make changes whether people liked them or not?

(I don’t know.)


“I don’t know” tells me zero about the character. But then there’s this:

Are you ever going to be normal again?

“Yes. I’ll be normal again because I choose to be, and not knowing how to do it won’t stop me from trying.”

We’re unaware of any of the background to this question, or the character answering it, but from his answer, we know something about him.

If you insist on I don’t know, do it with flourish.

“I don’t know!” or “How am I supposed to know?” or “Do you know?!” 

Give us a hotheaded, whiny, thoughtful, sobbing I don’t know so we can see the way the character reacts rather than just answering a question lazily.

Right now I’m reading Catherynne M. Valente’s THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH FAIRYLAND AND LED THE REVELS THERE. (That’s a helluva title.) The main character, a thirteen year old girl named September, is one of my favorite characters of all time. Let me show you an instance where she could have said, “I don’t know,” but she just plain didn’t:

“Are you afraid of going below? I am always curious.”

September considered this. “No,” she said finally. “I shall not be afraid of anything I haven’t even seen yet.”

SEE??? This kid has cojones. She could have said she doesn’t know, she’s never been there before and knows nothing about the place. She could have said merely, “I don’t know.” But she thought about it first, and she gave an answer that tells us she’s a thinker like hell, she’s open-minded, has more courage than you could shake an I don’t know at, and she’s adventurous to a fault.

I hate to say it, but there’s one place in particular that the words “I don’t know” seem to smack me upside the head, and that’s with Harry Potter. I AM NOT SAYING THAT I COULD HAVE WRITTEN POTTER BETTER, SHUT UP. I love Harry Potter. But if one of the times someone asked Harry what something elusive means, he didn’t say “I don’t know,” but instead said, “I don’t know but I’m going to find out,” that is the Potter boy I know. The one who stops at nothing to get the answers and solve the riddles. See what I mean?

Now, I challenge you to never write those three little words unless they mean something. This is the way we learn about the character that lives and breathes in your head–with every single word they do or do not say. Maybe they think that they don’t know, but lie and come up with some insane plan.

Kristen and I made sure in high school that we missed all 18 days we were allowed to miss. Our philosophy was, if someone is giving you 18 bucks for fun, do you only take 10 of it? No. You take all 18.

Your book is giving you 70,000 words to show us this awesome character you know. Don’t only take 50,000 of them. Make every word something that matters, because you don’t get the opportunity to use the 18th day when school is over.





Single Post Navigation

3 thoughts on “The Worst 3 Little Words: I DON’T KNOW.

  1. We also benefited from when someone messed up and forgot to record an absence…you know we took another day off. That was free money.


  2. With my own writing, having a character say “I don’t know,” has always been the sign of internal defeat. It’s significant when they say it because the rest of their decisions/responses ARE motivated by a need for action and character development. Having Mr/Miss Know It All admit they don’t know is a huge stepping stone to their eventual change.

    But then again, that could just be me. 😉

  3. Oh, I’m not denying that there are good ways to say it. If they don’t know, they don’t know. In my experience, chances are if the character doesn’t know, we the readers already have realized that, so the whole thing is sort of superfluous.

So what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: