Writing Excuses 17.15: Storytelling in the Footnotes
Key points: Footnotes may just add worldbuilding and flavor to the text, or they may add twists or even a whole second story. A version of story within a story, which can talk to the reader and break the fourth wall. Be aware that some readers may not read them! Think about how you want to handle them in audiobooks. Footnotes affect pacing, too. Footnotes work best when they are a story, too. If there’s a reason for the footnotes, then readers are more likely to read them.
[Season 17, Episode 15]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Storytelling in the Footnotes.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Peng] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Peng] I’m Peng.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dan] We’re talking about footnotes today. Footnotes are something that shows up in a lot of different kinds of writing, mostly academic. But there are some really wonderful examples where footnotes are themselves used to tell a story in fiction. That’s what we’re going to talk about today. Peng, once again, I’m going to throw this to you to kick us off. Why did you suggest this one, and what can we learn about storytelling in footnotes?
[Peng] Well, I think footnotes are a really interesting structure because they are… There’s actually two structures for footnotes. One of them has to do more with giving additional worldbuilding and flavor to the text. The other one has to do more with twists. So the first way that you can use… That you can structure your story around footnotes is to use the footnotes kind of like in an academic setting, like you said, where you are adding little tidbits of extra information, whether it is something about the setting or something about the history or the characters. It can be a really neat way for you to get in worldbuilding that you just love, but it doesn’t fit in the main text or maybe there’d be some readers that it might be too much for. Then, on the other hand, you can use footnotes in a way that they form a sort of frame around… Actually, I guess it would be the other way around. You can use footnotes in a way that the main body of the text becomes a frame, and the real story is actually within the footnotes. So that’s where you reveal some kind of information, or, like, a contradiction or a secret. Where… So if you just read the body of the text, that’s one story, and it’s just the surface story, or if you read the footnotes, get this whole other layer of what the real story really is.
[Howard] My high bar for this is Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens where… There’s an opening scene where babies are being swapped around so that we can have the antichrist be raised by American politicians. But there are three babies there. At one point in the narrative, it says, “You’d like to… We’d… You’d probably like to think that baby C is adopted out to a nice house, this surplus baby, and grows up to be a chubby child who wins prizes for tropical fish or something. Yes. That is a much nicer story than what probably happens baby C.” All right. 70 or 80 pages later, we’re introduced to a chubby kid who wins prizes for his popular… For his tropical fish, and there’s a footnote that says, “We liked your version better.”
[Howard] I love it so much because they put paid on a joke in the footnote and had me spinning a story, and then they completed the story and told me that mine was better. Even though… No, I didn’t actually tell that story. They did. But they convinced me that I had told it. It was… It was wonderful.
[Dan] Uh-huh. Yeah. In a lot of ways, this… Telling stories in the footnotes is a very specific version of the story within a story that we already talked about. Where the story within is… Takes place in footnotes rather than some other thing. What does the footnote specifically do to change that story within a story?
[Peng] Well, the footnote… So if you have story within a story, it’s just existing within the world of the frame. But with a footnote, depending on who’s the writer of the footnotes, you have an opportunity, which is really fun, I think, to talk directly to the reader and kind of break that narrative fourth wall. That can be really exciting for readers to read, and it also… It can make them feel more involved and make them more likely to investigate and keep reading your footnotes.
[Mary Robinette] It can function as an aside, which is the way actors would handle it on stage, where they just stepped to the side and say something directly to the audience. There is a caveat though that I have with footnotes which is that some readers don’t read them.
[Peng] Yeah. Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] So when you’re structuring it, I think that you have to think about whether or not the story will survive without the footnote. In part, I think about this… Or if you want to treat them as an aside. One of the reasons that I think about this is because when I’m doing audiobook narration, and run into a story with footnotes, we have to have a long conversation about how those footnotes are handled. Some of the footnotes, some books, the footnotes provide some interesting supporting detail, but are not central. These, we often just don’t record them. Some of them, we treat as an aside, where we just briefly break in and say, “Oh, and by the way. Narrator. They were not happy.”
[Mary Robinette] Some of them… I haven’t done one of these myself, but a colleague of mine did this, they recorded all of the footnotes and put them at the end.
[Peng] Oh, no. But that’s…
[Dan] That is fascinating.
[Peng] Then you wouldn’t get them at the right moment, though, right?
[Mary Robinette] Yeah yeah.
[Peng] Because you wouldn’t know where to jump in… Or could you skip forward in an audiobook and then skip back?
[Mary Robinette] I have no idea how they did that in the end, if it was… Like, if they were tagged so that you could jump back and forth. But, yeah, it is… It’s a… They made them all end notes instead of footnotes.
[Dan] That’s… I’m glad you brought this up, because I was going to mention the difficulty that it brings. Because with a footnote, what you’re doing is very specifically playing with the physical form of the novel, in a way that doesn’t necessarily work in audio. The Squirrel Girl books by Shannon Hale, I adore. I find them delightful and hilarious. They’re filled with footnotes. They are mostly just an opportunity for extra jokes. But, now that I am reading one of these to my kids, I find that the footnotes… Excuse me. The footnotes, which were so delightful when I was just reading to myself, have suddenly presented me with this challenge that I have to break and I have to find some way of calling out while reading aloud, oh, and there’s a footnote that says this. Given now that so many books… I mean, a traditionally published novel, more than 40% of its sales today is probably audio. So that is something to think about if you’re going to play with something like this that is so intrinsic to the physical book itself. You need to think about is it worth this… Creating this problem for 40+ percent of my readers.
[Howard] Yeah. We have to… We have to address this problem pretty soon with the Xtreme Dungeon Mastery version 2 book. Because Tracy Hickman is getting ready to record the audiobook, and there are footnotes throughout. I think what I need to do is frontload the decision for Tracy and say when you come across a footnote in the text, don’t read the footnote number, you just pause, take a breath, and say, “Note 7. Robert Kobayu published an essay about random numbers are much too important to be left to chance. It’s a serious article, but the title is ironic.” Then take another breath and go back in. Like the aside. But I don’t know what Tracy is going to be comfortable with because Tracy’s the one who has to do the reading.
[Peng] I just had this really… As we were all talking about audiobooks. What if, depending on who was the writer of the footnotes, you got a different narrator for that? Then they could break in with a really intimate kind of, like, here’s my aside, here’s what I have to tell you about this moment in the story, and then it goes back to the other narrator for the body of the text. I could see something like that maybe being a possible way forward.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think some people might… Like, that would be an interesting thing to try. The way you structure the narrative breath, when you’re going to pause for something, is different than if you’re reading straight through. So if I were told that I was going to be reading it straight through without doing the footnotes, and someone else would be doing the footnotes, I wouldn’t build those pauses in.
[Peng] I see.
[Mary Robinette] Which is, also, I think, a thing to think about as you’re writing them, that any time you do the footnotes, you are… It’s a way of affecting pacing as well. Because your causing the reader to jump to the bottom of the page and then jump back up, find a place, and continue. So you are breaking that flow. So, making sure that you place the number that causes them to jump in a spot where you want that pause is… The number of times where I’ve, like, hit a footnote… Like, I’ve read to the bottom of the page, and then seen that there was a footnote that I missed and had to go back up and figure out where it was…
[Mary Robinette] I think that those happen because the writer has put it at a spot where there was not a kind of rhythmic pause on the page.
[Dan] Let’s take a break from talking about footnotes and go into something that is completely unrelated, but wonderful and delightful.
[Dan] Mary Robinette, tell us about our book of the week.
[Mary Robinette] Footnote. The reason we’re doing this is because I have a new book out. So, Molly on the Moon is my first picture book. It is the story of a little girl and her family who move to the moon. She has some conflicts with her little brother. They’ve moved to the moon and they can only take one toy each with them. So when there is conflicts over the toy, as childhood rivalry happens, it also happens in a place with very low gravity. Interestingly, although when I said, “Let’s talk about my book because it’s out now,” one of the decisions we had to make was about how to handle discussions about gravity. I attempted to get it into the text itself, to explain to 3 to 6-year-olds how lunar gravity works. Instead, we just did an author note at the end. Which is basically a one long giant end note. But I am certain that there are going to be parents who are reading it who are still just going to have to create a footnote. Now I’m sitting here going, “Oh, I should have put a footnote in…”
[Mary Robinette] “For the parents.” The parents could just be like, “Oh, here’s the information I need to give my child right now.” Now I’m wondering if there are picture books with footnotes, that someone in comments is going to be telling us all about that and speedily typing right now.
[Dan] All about… Well. So everybody go out and buy Molly on the Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal.
[Mary Robinette] Illustrated by Diana Maya, and the illustrations are gorgeous.
[Peng] That sounds…
[Dan] Okay. We’ve talked about some of the difficulties that footnotes can present, especially with audio and with reading aloud. Let’s set that aside, call that discussion for another time, and talk about all the good things that footnotes can do. Why would we want to include footnotes? What can they add?
[Howard] It was so much fun when we did the Planet Mercenary role-playing game book. The whole book is an in-world artifact, in which the printer accidentally left document comments on when exporting to print. There is a 1200 word short story about a bunch of writers in a horrible situation trying to get a book out the door. It has corporate politics and murder and kitten and all kinds of things in it. Yes, it is entirely possible that I was channeling my own experience at trying to get this book out the door when I wrote this. But it’s one of my favorite things I’ve done. It’s just a white room story told in document comments as you turn pages in the book.
[Peng] I think that might really be the key to making footnotes a structure that can work for you rather than an element of structure that readers might skip over. You risk them not really giving them the attention they deserve is when the footnotes are, like in Howard’s story, they are the story. So it’s not the main body of the text. That’s almost the footnote, in a way. So what you’re really reading for is the information that’s in the footnotes or the little comment bubbles off to the side. So, I think if your story can work in that way, footnotes are definitely a benefit for you there.
[Mary Robinette] I think they can also, in addition to that, that they can also really enrich, make the world feel larger. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has wonderful copious footnotes that really expand on the sense of this being an actual magic system that is well rooted, and it gives all of this additional information that I found deeply enriching. My understanding is they totally skipped them in the audiobook. Which is a tragedy. Since, for me, much of the joy of that novel was the footnotes. The other example that I can think of in terms of giving a sense of no, no, no, but this is real, is the Jane Austen mysteries by Stephanie Baron. The frame… So, these books incorporate two things. One, they have a frame story, which is that they have found Jane Austen’s missing diaries and, in the real world, her sister Cassandra excised portions of her letters and burned some of them. It turns out, when you read these mysteries, her supposed diaries, that it is because she was doing spy work for the Crown and also solving murders. The author, the actual author of the book, is pretending to be the editor of the book, and so has put in footnotes. It’ll be things like, “You can see in this scene where Jane took elements of it and later incorporated it into Pride and Prejudice.” You’re like, “Yeah. Absolutely. I totally… Wait. No, no. That is the opposite order.”
[Dan] I love that conceit. I’ve seen it in some other stuff, though nothing comes to mind. The idea that what you’re reading is actually an annotated book…
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Dan] I suppose that’s how Princess Bride is written.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Dan] It’s filled with annotations. I am adapting a pre-existing work, and we’re all going to play along and pretend that this is not my original product, but that I am commenting on it.
[Mary Robinette] I desperately… When I read that, I desperately tried to find the original Princess Bride.
[Dan] Oh, yeah. Same. Did you mail in to get the real kissing scene?
[Mary Robinette] No. I didn’t know you could do that.
[Dan] Yeah. There was a thing that’s like, “We’ve cut out the kissing scene… Or Morgenstern cut it out, but I have written one and you can mail in to get it.” I mailed in, and they’re like, “Actually, because of copyright reasons, we’re not allowed to give you our version of the kissing scene.”
[Mary Robinette] Oh!
[Dan] Which was just a delightful real world thing. I actually… My girlfriend in the freshman year of college, we met because we had both mailed in to try to get the real kissing scene…
[Dan] Which is delightful. Let me ask one more question. How important is it, and I can think of examples that go in either direction, so maybe the answer is it’s not. How important is it to have a reason for the footnotes? In the case where we’re pretending that these are editor annotations, then clearly there is a reason for the footnotes to exist. But something like Squirrel Girl, it’s… The narration is all from Doreen and the footnotes are also from Doreen, just making extra jokes. Is there some way to help… That an author can look at their work and decide which direction they want to go with their footnotes?
[Peng] I would say that the more important to the story your footnotes are, it’s probably better, or more important to have a reason, so that your readers are more likely to be like, “Okay, that’s a legitimate reason for having footnotes. I guess I’ll read them.” Because if you just have the footnotes there, you just run the risk of readers reading them or not. So if they’re not integral to the story and they’re just funny jokes or they add flavor, maybe you could risk not having a reason. But I think a frame, especially if your footnotes are really important to the story, that will help make them feel like they belong.
[Howard] Yeah. In putting together XDM version 2, second edition, we… Most of the footnotes are just a little bit of enrichment, a little bit of humor, whatever. But some of the footnotes are really important stuff. We talk about the kishotenketsu story form, and the footnote says, “All the people working on this book are Westerners. We had to decide whether it was cultural appropriation to include kishotenketsu or cultural erasure to not talk about it. We decided to err on the side of appropriation because we feel like it’s better for you to have this information. Go to the appendix where we link you to better sources.” That footnote doesn’t tell a joke. But that footnote is very important because it expresses something that we all felt while we were writing about that story form.
[Dan] Excellent. Well, we have gone over time because this has been such a fascinating topic. But, Peng, you’ve got the homework for us.
[Peng] I do. Your homework is to go find and read the short story Stet by Sarah Gailey which… It is available online at Fireside magazine. We’ll put the URL in the show notes. So read Sarah Gailey’s story Stet. Then, take a short story that you like or that you wrote yourself and try adding footnotes to it in a similar way. By which I mean try to add footnotes that either expand the story text that is being told or reveal some kind of a twist or new information or a contradiction by burying the real actual story within your footnotes.
[Mary Robinette] Footnote. Stet is a Latin word meaning let it stand used in proofreading to indicate that a previously marked change is to be ignored.
[Peng] Love it.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.