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Using footnotes

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Androxine Vortex, Feb 1, 2015.

  1. Androxine Vortex

    Androxine Vortex Archmage

    There's a lot of words in my stories that range from places to kings to deities to weapons and i feel like having to try and explain everything through the story will detract from moving the plot forward. But what if i were to just add a footnote on a word that a character might casually use, the reader could just glance down at the bottom of the page and then get right back into the story.
  2. Velka

    Velka Sage

    I generally dislike footnotes in fiction, I find it pulls me out of the flow, especially if they're in the middle of a fast-paced or high-tension scene. That being said, I have encountered two authors who used them marvellously, but neither of them utilized them as a way to define things in an academic sense.

    Terry Pratchett's is a genius when it comes to using them. Take for instance one of my favourite from Interesting Times:

    "This at least was true. Rincewind could scream for mercy in nineteen languages, and just scream* in another forty-four."

    *This is important. Inexperienced travellers might think that 'Aargh!' is universal, but in Betrobi it means 'highly enjoyable' and in Howondaland it means, variously' I would like to eat your foot', Your wife is a big hippo' and 'Hello, Thinks Mr Purple Cat.' One particular tribe has a fearsome reputation for cruelty merely because prisoners appear, to them, to be shouting 'Quick! Extra boiling oil!'

    You don't have to read the footnote immediately to still keep up with the story, but you're sure glad you did once you got to the bottom of the page.

    The other book I love the use of footnotes in is Ship of Theseus by V.M Straka (J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst). It's a story within a book within another story. I can't explain it in any way that will do it justice, so just read it and thank me later.

    So, I got sidetracked. Footnotes are generally a pace-killer and I really don't like them. Unless you're Terry Pratchett.
    CupofJoe likes this.
  3. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

    If readers can't understand what they need to about your terms from context after a few mentions, you're doing something wrong. You may be throwing too many/unnecessary terms out there, or you could use a little more hinting with your name-drops. Instead of "Ravar", call him "the God-King Ravar". Instead of sitting down and saying "a cataphract is the equivalent of a medieval european knight", show cataphracts fighting for their liege. Also, don't think that you need to explain the entire history or cultural relevance of a foreign country, or the major deeds of a king, in order to mention the name. Does it have any bearing on the plot? Is it very important to the background of a character's world? Is it foreshadowing? If the answer to all of those is no, then you probably don't need to have an explanation for it.

    I feel like I've only seen footnotes work well in humorous or historically-inspired fiction, like with Velka's mentions. If you really, really need to get world info in there and can't find a way to do it from the mouths of the characters, an alternate metatextual route is adding quotes from "historical documents" at the beginning of chapters. That's done fairly commonly in fantasy.
    Feo Takahari likes this.
  4. FarmerBrown

    FarmerBrown Troubadour

    I used footnotes for a side project (published under a pseudonym) and haven't had complaints, but it's rather short at around 40,000 words, and the footnotes are somewhat optional. The story is a journal written in our time but recovered 200 years in the future, so the footnotes explain the narrator's "slang" and references for a fake futuristic audience.

    For straight-up fiction, I'd vote "no" unless you use them purposefully as a literary device rather than relying on them to provide context. In addition to Pratchett, I think Jonathan Stroud does a nice job with hilarious footnotes in his Amulet of Samarkand series.
  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Generally, I'd say you shouldn't need footnotes. Though, I also say never say never, too.

    Look at GRRM and Game of Thrones. With the hundreds of characters and dozens of places and events, not once in the five books that are out did I think I needed footnotes to explain to me what or who something was.
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    OTOH, footnotes have been used by everyone from Tolkien to Asimov to good effect.

    Also, there were literally hundreds of times when I wished GRRM had used footnotes!

    OTOOH, I made it through War and Peace without feeling the need, though I've heard others say they had trouble keeping track of characters. YMMV, as ever.
  7. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    If you've got a large number of these kinds of terms, then why not have a glossary instead?
  8. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Tolkien did not use footnotes, but made extensive use of appendices, which is different. Appendices included in the end matter of the book do not interrupt the reading experience of the story. (The History of Middle-earth books use footnotes, but that's because they aren't novels, but more akin to scholarly works.)

    Terry Pratchett does use footnotes to good effect, but that's because the footnotes are really just asides that are a part of the narration of the story. While I've always enjoyed reading Discworld's footnotes in print format (because they're right there at the bottom of the page), I've noticed lately that when I'm reading a Discworld ebook it's more of a pain to tap on the link to the footnote, so I skip them a lot more often.

    I would recommend going with the glossary at the end of the book approach. Just make sure the glossary is listed in the table of contents and let readers decide for themselves if they want to look up words or just glean the meaning from context. And make sure that it is possible to at least get a general sense of the word's meaning from context.
  9. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Footnotes aren't just a pace-killer, most readers consider them the calling card of a stuffy academic piece that's the opposite of fun, or a worldbuilding-heavy story that has some of the same problem. Tolkien got away with it because he was Tolkien (and writing in the 1940s), and Pratchett seems to be parodying footnotes like he spoofs everything else. But most of us don't want to go near making that kind of impression.

    Besides, Nimue's right. Footnotes are a lazy fix to what's really a great opportunity to make your details flow instead of distract.

    Edit: Tolkien used something like five footnotes in the whole LOTR 3-book set, and maybe a few more in the appendices.
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2015
  10. Ky2015

    Ky2015 Acolyte

    Really, footnotes are not the right feel unless your story is being written as an 'academic' treatise on a society. Might be a bit boring, though.

    I say, stick with appendices. Don't feel like you have to be too specific in the story itself. Part of the fun of a world-building fiction is that it can be far more detailed than we ever need to know. Tolkien's world has families we never hear about who may have been important! Maybe not to the story, but definitely to the world.

    I hope to have an entire history on my world before I ever set pen to paper. With so much detail, all I have to do is kind of... fill in the blank and tell the story. You don't need to put all that in the story itself. It just kind of "exists" and provides order.

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