Why All The Footnotes?

Many of my blog entries contain footnotes which, if read, change the reading experience for that particular post. This past weekend I found myself pondering why I continue to use this technique in my writing 1.

The Origins

My inspiration for using footnotes the way I do springs from several sources.

Terry Pratchett

As I have mentioned many times on this site, I am a huge fan of Terry Pratchett’s writings. Pratchett was a genius in many ways, but I’d often read one of his books simply to experience the footnotes he’d insert throughout the narrative. These were typically asides, offering informational background or a short quip which change the lighting of the scene in which they appeared 2.

Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde has an interesting use for footnotes in his “Thursday Next” series. In these novels the footnotes serve as a communications system between the characters. When this system is introduced to his world it’s wonderfully disorienting, as one has to read the footnotes to be able to continue with the narrative 3. The first time I encountered the “footnoter phone” I had to read one page of dialog two or three times until my brain was re-mapped enough to follow along.

A Book on Sin 4

In college we were assigned a book by Cornelius Plantigna Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Despite the morbid-sounding name, the book remains one of the best theological treatises on sin I’ve read. In it’s pages Plantinga sometimes uses the footnotes to convey personal sentiments to great effect, something which is typically frowned upon in academic work. There were times where I’d read his footnote commentary and actually found myself laughing 5.

My Practice

The above three springs merged to form my own notions on using footnotes in my writing. Through the use of footnotes I am able to create a back-channel on a post. This back-channel allows me to offer parenthetical comments 6, add some background information not pertinent to the flow of the post 7, or run down a completely unconnected rabbit trail simply because I feel like it 8. My footnotes are mostly nonsense, but they are wonderfully fun nonsense. Why? Just because 9.

  1. I was searching for a better reason than, “Because I’m strange.” 
  2. When I use footnotes in In The Land of the Penny Gnomes, they spring from the road Pratchett blazed. 
  3. This inspired me to allow the Narrator to speak to Will in In The Land of the Penny Gnomes, though the Narrator in that story isn’t a courteous as Fforde’s creations, he simply refuses to use footnotes to speak to in-story characters. 
  4. You saw the note about me being strange, right? 
  5. Keep in mind, this is a book on sin and I was laughing. I am not normal. 
  6. This is because in text parenthetical comments are bad. Like, really bad. They break the flow of a paragraph so, really, no one should use them. Ever. They only serve to take away from a reader’s concentration. Even parenthetical comments in the footnotes can be a terrible practice if they go on for too long. Did you even remember you were in the middle of a list? 
  7. My first encounter with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld was not the books, but the second video game set in that world. After playing this game, I was hooked. How can you not love a world in which Death is both a major character and has repeated existential dilemmas? 
  8. Look, Jim, an Oxford comma! 
  9. I actually have nothing to say here, I just wanted to see if you’d follow the link.