17.15: Storytelling in the Footnotes

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Peng Shepherd, and Howard Tayler

You probably already know what footnotes are¹, but have you ever seen a story told through the footnotes²?  It’s similar to the story-within-a-story structure, but there’s more to it than that. In this episode our guest host Peng Shepherd explores footnote storytelling³ with us.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson


¹ This is an example of a footnote.
² This is not an example of footnote storytelling.
³ With the addition of a third footnote, maaaybe there’s a beginning, middle, and end, and therefore a story?


Read the short story “STET” by Sarah Gailey, then take a short story you like (or one which you wrote yourself) and try to add footnotes to it in a similar way; either to expand upon the story, or to deliver a twist or contradiction to the story told in the body of the text.

Molly on the Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal, illustrated by Diana Maya

8 thoughts on “17.15: Storytelling in the Footnotes”

  1. As I am sure many will tell you, Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell absolutely maintains the footnotes in audio. The narrator, who is superb, merely reads them inline. It is seamless and wonderful and demonstrates precisely how to work with footnotes in audio.

  2. There are actually some books that use different narrators for the footnotes. For example the Ciaphas Cain books and the Natural History of Dragons books.

  3. The podcast The Tobolowsky Files is a wonderful listen. In the stories told by Stephen Tobolowsky, he has tangents. He simply says, “sidebar” and tells his antecdote or whatever he had on his mind, then resumes the main story.

  4. Jay Kristoff was the first author that I had seen this in (his ‘Nevernight’ series).
    It was useful for understanding his built world, especially the mythology and world building.

  5. This week, in the main text, our fearless foursome, Dan, Mary Robinette, Peng, and Howard, turned the spotlight on footnotes, those odd little comments sometimes found hanging around at the bottom of pages. Extra worldbuilding or flavor, or perhaps twists and even a second story? The chubby kid who wins prizes for tropical fish? Kishotenketsu or not? All these, and many other examples, can be read in the transcript available now in the archives. (1)

    (1) No footnotes were harmed in producing this transcript.

  6. Then you have the Thursday Next books, where characters have managed to escape the people chasing them by literally hiding *inside* the footnotes.

  7. The Discworld series mainly uses Footnotes for added info or extra jokes, but it’s still worth checking out for a number of reasons. Same goes for Digger by Ursula Vernon.

    Brandon Sanderson’s “Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania” from the Alloy of Law supplement for the Mistborn RPG is written like a piece of Victorian serialized adventure fiction…but it includes rather exasperated annotations from one of the “author’s” traveling companions. They’re also hilarious and add to the context of the story.

    Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy also has some fun annotations. The main character is a summoned demon and uses footnotes to add extra observations and context into the story…but it’s explained later on that he does this because he can process a lot more at once than a human can and the best he can manage for us is footnotes.

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