5 Creative Ways To Use Footnotes In Fiction


Ah, the humble footnote. You might think it’s only relevant to nonfiction, academic writing, or content-heavy papers. After all, you’ve seen research papers and essays; you used them in high school when writing a report.

But, if you let go of preconceived notions, you can unlock a world of possibilities in which you can use the footnote. Forget everything you think you know. Break the rules and add another layer to your short story or novel.

Here are five creative ways to use footnotes in fiction:

1.  Tell Another Story

David Mitchell tells six stories in Cloud Atlas. Each story turns out to have parallel connections. The seemingly random tales grabbed the attention of the book’s readers. It is only near the end of the book that you get a clear picture of how the characters connect and how their fates intertwine.

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace uses footnotes to do the exact same thing. Each footnote adds extra information, as you’d expect a footnote to do. However, Wallace adds an interesting fact untold in the narrative. He expands on the otherwise hidden thoughts of characters.

The footnotes slowly take on a life of their own.

Soon, the footnotes are pages long. Next thing you know, you get wrapped up in a parallel tale that builds Wallace’s original fictional universe. And in the end, the footnotes unveil another story altogether.

2.  Reveal a Character’s Personality

Mark Haddon is the author of  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Its star character is a brilliant man named Christopher. He knows every prime number. He’s memorised every country in the world.

Haddon writes the novel from Christopher’s viewpoint. As Christopher tells his tale, he uses footnotes to add extra thoughts. He includes them to share facts related to his story.

It makes the novel more engaging. It also makes the world that Haddon has crafted more realistic. Of course, Christopher, a brilliant and quirky man, would jot additional facts in the book’s margins! It pulls the reader deeper into Christopher’s personality. It makes the whole thing more believable.

As you create characters and build your world, ask yourself how your own characters would use footnotes. Then add them in on their behalf.

3.  Make Fictional Nonfiction More Real

C.S. Lewis once called J.R.R. Tolkien an ‘inspired speaker of footnotes’.

Tolkien was no stranger to footnotes. As he built the world of hobbits and elves, he used footnotes to lend an academic air to his fiction.

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien created a nonfiction encyclopedia from the fictional world of The Lord of the Rings. He added footnotes, through which he shared additional facts and notes on Middle Earth’s world events. It was, in a sense, a fictional work of nonfiction. The footnotes were instrumental. They lent authority to his illusion.

Whether you’re writing historical fiction or mythological nonfiction, creating the fantasy that footnotes are adding true facts can make it feel more authentic.

4.  Enrich the Moment

Susanna Clarke used footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. They add flavour and colour to her story.

The novel invites readers into a world of 19th-century magic. Clarke’s footnotes give readers additional information on a character’s backstory, on secrets behind a particular magic trick.

Readers can skip the footnotes if they choose. But Clarke uses them to add depth and storytelling mojo to her magical escapade.

5.  Change the Reader’s Perspective

Provoke certain emotions in a reader. Get the audience to feel the sensations your characters evoke. When you do this, you create a memorable reading experience where the reader lives and breathes within your novel’s universe.

Take Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, as an example. It’s a story that’s supposed to feel random, disjointed, eerie and upsetting. Danielewski uses footnotes to accomplish just that. They deconstruct the story further, making it even more disjointed. The liberal use of footnotes even disrupts the novel’s flow.

What Can Footnotes Do For You?

As you can see, footnotes aren’t just for research essays or complicated, facts-based nonfiction.

  1. Use them to create alternative dimensions.
  2. Add them to immerse the reader into your short story’s textures.
  3. Weave them in to make your fiction more believable.
  4. Insert them to provoke reactions and emotions.

Dare to break the rules. Use footnotes in new ways that capture your audience’s attention.

 by Amber Massey.

Amber is a wordsmith and communications enthusiast. Editing is her passion. New media is her medium. She is currently the CEO of Mellel, a powerful app redefining word processing for Mac.